FIFA Bitterness

Friday, December 03, 2010 | View Comments
What can I say that hasn't been said?  There's only one angle that matters, that FIFA finally crossed whatever lines remained that it hadn't managed to cross already.  As Americans, we're disappointed we won't have the World Cup at home again.  As soccer fans, we're angry that FIFA so baldly flaunted what we knew all along; that they're corrupt, incompetent, or both.

Jolly old Sepp, with an ego the size of an imaginary stadium in the desert (built by whom, exactly?), and a brazenness so stunning it sounds like the stuff of fiction.  If Sepp was a character in a movie, we'd chuckle at just how over-the-top his clownish act is.  Blatter's sanctimony, as he swings the World Cup like a censer across various "new territories", cannot conceal the blatant and transparent (as opposed to the voting system, which is not) money grab of soccer governing body.  Sure, Sepp gets to play football pied piper, and the World Cup going to Russia and Qatar is a fine thing in that way; but when the process is so rife with abuse of power, something should, and must, change.

There are already pieces floating about lauding FIFA's decision as "progressive" and admonishing Americans for (again) assuming we had a birthright to something we don't.  The first is a superficial take that ignores everything but the actual choice, and the second is the most odious example of the school marm attitude held by writers who mistake American disappointment with entitlement.  The people are more aware than you give them credit for, dear writers; despite what some think, had Australia won most American soccer fans would have sulked a bit and moved on.  It's not losing that galls us.  It's losing this way, with everything we've heard about the process including allegations of collusion, and to a tiny country that has little to offer other than barrels of cash and that "new frontier" notion.

A few important things should be said as we lick our wounds and stare menacingly in FIFA and Qatar's direction:  Qatar and its people are not to blame, there are legitimate and understandable reasons to put a World Cup in the Middle East, and if by the close of the tournament in 2022 we're all more aware of our world and the Arab people, some good will have been done.  There are ways to make lemonade out of the lemons the ExCo tossed our way.  Qatar, now that they have the bid secured, should be given every chance to make good on their promises.  Despite his complete disregard for the means, Kevin Blackistone (in the first piece linked above) has a point about the ends; while I have no faith in the altruism of FIFA's motives, a World Cup in Qatar has the potential to be revelatory.  Better it have been the U.A.E., but credit Qatar for having the sense of purpose to make their bid now.  Sepp was an easy mark.

Meanwhile, the myth of American entitlement, that we're a nation of cultural elitists and that every expression of disgust or disappointment when the US is passed over for a World Cup or Olympics is proof of said attitude, annoys me to no end.  Bias is part of human nature, and with the "USA" name tossed into the ring, American soccer fans found ways to justify the inevitability of a win.  Those justifications are wrapped in a red-white-and-blue colored cape, and Americans are notoriously assured of their standing in the world thanks to the events of the last century, but it's unfair to paint all national pride as jingoism.  Sometimes, people are just blind homers and nothing more.  Applying the collective label of impertinent asshole on an entire nation of soccer fans draws too sharp a line.  The word "birthright" is now clichéd in this context, and Americans don't have a monopoly on feeling disproportionately deserving of this or any other sporting event.

Part of the cloud hanging over FIFA's head today involves the relative freedom of the two nations chosen.  Essentially, they're not free by most American and English standards.  Authoritarian governments that hold down rights and restrict the press throw our sense that the World Cup is a prize to be awarded to a "deserving" nation out of whack; there's no fairness to Qatar, a Muslim country under elements of Shari'a law that imposes limits on what women can and cannot do, and Russia, a nominal democracy that still operates in a ways reminiscent of the Soviet era, winning.  FIFA is rewarding countries that should not be rewarded.

This, of course, means that FIFA must not care about such things, or that choosing nations with limited freedom of the press was consciously done.  As James T of Unprofessional Foul said on Dan Levy's podcast,  a restricted press allows FIFA to better control the narrative.  As Sepp forges ahead in his quest for the Nobel Peace Prize, countries with less liberty actually provide him with the chance to make more of a splash. Should Russia, and subsequently Qatar, be in any way "opened up" by the presence of a World Cup, the reflected glory shines directly onto Blatter's legacy.  The lower the bar is set, the more room there is for improvement.  A World Cup in the United States or England would be just that: a World Cup in the United States or England.  A World Cup in Russia, less than 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and a World Cup in Qatar, draped in the suspicion Islam engenders in the post-9/11 world, could be transformative  events.  Blatter's bit of the apple with South Africa just made him hungrier, and more apt to take the standards  for the tournament "lower" in order to maximize the perceived difference made in the end.

We desperately need a palate cleanser.  The wounds won't heal immediately, and there's the ruing of opportunity withheld to be done, but there's no sense belaboring our misfortune.  There won't be twelve years of World Cup buildup to sell to America.  MLS will need to claw and strain for every inch of success without a kindly boost from FIFA.  Kids coming up playing the game will have to dream of themselves winning the World Cup in Doha rather than Los Angeles.  The bid itself was a noble effort, and may have done some in increasing awareness.  But really, nothing has changed.  Maybe it will just make the strides soccer takes in the United States that much sweeter, without the bitter taste of FIFA gift spoiling the recipe.

And when the time comes, maybe we'll go after 2026.

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