Robert Jonas: Promises, Promises

Friday, December 03, 2010 | View Comments
by Robert Jonas - Center Line Soccer

So, the rumblings and grumblings surrounding the USA World Cup bid proved to be true Thursday morning, as Qatar completed their dream-building exercise with the FIFA executive committee and took home the prized 2022 hosting rights. I’m not too surprised given the behind the scenes comments being passed around as recently as MLS Cup weekend in Toronto. After a luncheon hosted by the bid committee, in which Sunil Gulati and other US Soccer officials refused to talk directly about their competition in the FIFA vote, the writing on the wall that Qatar was a formidable foe was clear to see. Throw in the nervous looks of some officials to the threat posed by the diminutive Middle Eastern country, plus the subsequent kowtowing of MLS Commissioner Don Garber in donating $2 million to the bid and then suggesting major calendar changes to the league to appease soccer's governing body, and it strongly suggested that the USA's World Cup fait accompli everyone expected on December 2nd was in jeopardy.

Maybe more so than their apparent dislike for the manner in which MLS is structured and run, FIFA frowned on the US government’s unwillingness to financially guarantee the operation of the World Cup, and likely factored that heavily into their decision to go with another bidder. Looking at the breakdown of the voting, the USA was never really in contention, and was nearly bypassed by a less impressive bid from South Korea. Qatar had this competition won before the balloting began, and needed only to wait out the eventual four rounds of voting to be completed before making it official. With the decision, the USA must now patiently wait for the bidding to open up for 2026 to begin the process all over again.

Having the day to digest the news, and do a bit of research on Qatar (fun fact: my hometown of Palo Alto would be the third most populated city in that country!), I find myself very intrigued by the possibilities of their hosting of the World Cup. Yes, their bid presentation to FIFA was quite stirring -- quantum leaps more than the pragmatic approach taken by the USA -- and underscored the opportunity to unite the Arab world around the beautiful game.  However, the promises of state of the art stadiums and a carbon-neutral energy use footprint were more compelling in my view. Looking past the obvious questions of where do you provide individual training facilities for 32 participating teams (maybe even more by 2022?) and whether those fancy water taxis have air conditioning too, the visually stunning stadium porn highlighted the most daring of the Qatari promises in their offering.

Aesthetics do count in these types of competitions, just as they do at the local pub after work on a Friday night. Architecture that features provocative facades and arches and the like, coupled with designs that mimic natural and cultural artifacts go a long way to making for beautiful models and renderings. Given the opportunity to bless Qatar with the World Cup, I am sure there were drool stains on the voting ballots this past morning from FIFA officials looking forward to seeing these proposed marvels take their place among the world's iconic sporting stadiums. Add in the assurances from Qatar that players and fans will enjoy the comfort of climate controlled conditions in and around these stadiums, and the choice to play in the tiny Persian Gulf nation was made that much more palatable.

Now I realize that more than just architectural erotica should be credited for Qatar's successful bid campaign. The premium pricing FIFA can charge to fill those stadiums during the four week tournament certainly will lead to record profits in 2022. (Ed. - Seems sketchy.)  Still, I can't help but think that those presentation videos stirred the imagination of the executive committee, especially given how enamored so many others I have asked have admitted to being. Knowing that Qatar could print unlimited money in the form of natural gas and oil exports, these promised jewels could actually be considered a real possibility. Factor in those government funding guarantees -- I really need to look into what needs to change in this country to have that happen for our next bid -- and FIFA never needed doubt that those designs would eventually become a reality.

Can the US bid committee learn something from all this? Maybe one factor to consider in their next proposal is that of the stadiums proposed for use during the tournament. Perhaps the addition of our own promised "crown jewel palace of soccer" to the slate of ready-to-go NFL stadiums would be enticing to FIFA. What form might this take?  I suggest that US Soccer and MLS join together in an effort to build a National Stadium. We need an American Wembley; our own Azteca; a Stars-and-Stripes version of the Stade de France. Sure, there are other nations that rotate their national team matches through a list of stadiums within (and outside) their borders, something the US seems content to do now and into the future. But wouldn’t it be special to have a single venue that would over the years see history made for our national team on a regular basis? It can be done, and it should be done.

I propose that the location for the US National Soccer Stadium should be close to our nation's capital, maybe even on the site of that raccoon-infested dinosaur RFK Stadium. Having it close to the Eastern Seaboard population metropolis is paramount (sorry fellow west-coasters) to ensuring a strong representation of supporters at every match. Being in the shadows of the District lends an air of credibility to the outside world that our stadium truly represents our country.

And now, my two-stage process that will see this dream become a reality (cue the soaring inspirational music):

First, with the next World Cup hosting opportunity still years away, get US Soccer and MLS working together to design and build a soccer stadium of modest proportions that could serve as the new home for DC United. Something in size smaller than your typical NFL stadium but somewhat greater than Red Bull Arena or PPL Park for the near term usage of Major League Soccer’s most decorated (and currently most underappreciated) franchise. Additionally, use the stadium for international friendly matches, the occasional US Open Cup and MLS Cup Final, and for various US Men’s and Women’s National Team qualifiers. Along with adding to the list of new MLS stadiums, build a following among US supporters that the National Stadium is the epicenter of American soccer.

The second stage occurs in conjunction with the next World Cup bid process. In the initial proposal for the stadium, have architectural plans in place that allow for a dramatic expansion of the stadium to put it on par with the largest national stadiums in the world. With the infrastructure in place to allow for this expansion while not severely affecting the continued use of the stadium, begin the renovations during the bid campaign as a show of good will to FIFA that we are taking the responsibility of hosting the World Cup seriously. Shovels in the ground coupled with a glamorous rendering of the soon to be completed stadium will be a tasty lure for FIFA to swallow while weighing the US bid against the competition. Construction gets done relatively quickly, and now the national team has a home for the subsequent World Cup qualifying cycle and beyond. MLS is still involved, and the ever-growing league has its own location for Cup Finals as well. As the appetite for watching the US National Team play grows among supporters, a true home environment can be achieved even with such a large stadium. That building soccer tradition will lead to a future where the home fans occupy virtually every seat available.

Promises, promises - seemingly what garnered the bid for Qatar - surely US Soccer can make such a dream come true and fulfill such an audacious promise. I challenge the bid committee next time out to step beyond pragmatism and take that leap forward. This is America and we will make it happen.

Robert Jonas is a writer and podcaster at Center Line Soccer and a frequent contributor to CSRN’s Around The League MLS show. He can always be reached on his twitter @robertjonas.
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