Qatar World Cup speculation provides a lot of smoke, but no fire yet
Ever since Qatar was awarded the right to host the 2022 World Cup, hope has remained in some quarters that the tournament would ultimately be taken away from the tiny Middle Eastern country. Allegations of corruption have generated plenty of smoke, as have the appalling working conditions inside the country. Yet there hasn't been any fire, at least by FIFA's narrow definition.
The accumulation of fuel continues, however. The latest addition to the possible pyrotechnics came this week when FIFA Executive Committee member Theo Zwanziger told Sport Bild, "I personally think that in the end the 2022 World Cup will not take place in Qatar."
As ESPNFC.com colleague Raphael Honigstein noted, Zwanziger's influence is limited. Zwanziger is due to step down from the FIFA ExCo in May and doesn't have the backing of the DFB, the German football association. Honigstein tweeted that Zwanziger was a "lone voice in the wilderness."
That may be true in terms of the FIFA ExCo, but the push to strip Qatar of the World Cup has come from multiple directions. Michael Garcia, charged with investigating the bid process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, submitted his ethics report to FIFA last month. Then there are the investigations by the Sunday Times of London, which said that former Asian Football Confederation president Mohammed bin Hammam had funneled cash payments to numerous soccer officials around the globe, and that influence helped him secure the votes needed for Qatar to acquire the rights to host the 2022 World Cup.
Both factors have spurred hope that the U.S. will ultimately be named to host the tournament. Such is the level of infrastructure in the U.S. that it wouldn't take much time to organize a World Cup. One source told ESPNFC.com that the U.S. could have an organizing committee up and running within six months.
Such a scenario remains more fantasy than hope. Geopolitics being what they are - the U.S. has a sizable military installation, the Al Udeid Air Base, in Qatar - you will not see the U.S. Soccer Federation sticking its neck out on this topic, and a USSF spokesman declined to comment on the hosting status of the 2022 World Cup.
There is also no guarantee that the U.S. would be named as hosts if the tournament was taken away from Qatar. The U.S. remains unpopular in many parts of the world, and putting the tournament in Australia would allow FIFA to still take the World Cup to a new frontier. It would also keep the tournament inside the Asia Football Confederation, thus placating its members.
Such a scenario assumes that there is sufficient will within FIFA to take the 2022 World Cup away from Qatar, and there is little evidence to suggest that is the case. Multiple sources have told ESPNFC.com that at present, the odds that Qatar will lose the tournament and see the hosting rights given to another country are incredibly low. Qatar has already invested heavily in building the needed infrastructure. If the tournament was taken away, FIFA would find itself facing a lengthy set of court battles as Qatar and the various companies involved tried to recoup the money spent. And as convincing as the Sunday Times articles were that something nefarious was afoot in terms of Qatar's bid, it lacked a direct link between bin Hammam and the Qatari bid committee. Granted, logic certainly points that the two sides worked together, but in the narrow view of FIFA, that isn't enough.
2022 WORLD CUP OPTIONS
Despite the accusations of corruption and terrible working conditions, all signs point to Qatar still hosting the 2022 World Cup. In the unlikely event the tournament gets pulled, here are some options for FIFA.
U.S. - The infrastructure in terms of transport and stadiums is there, as is the expertise in hosting big soccer events. The U.S. oversaw the wildly successful 1994 World Cup, and will host the 2016 Copa America Centenario. Anti-American sentiment might require finding a compromise candidate, however.
Australia - Another of the failed bidders for the 2022 World Cup, Australia has plenty of stadiums from which to choose, provided it can make peace with the country's rugby and Australian Rules Football officials. Australia would also allow FIFA to take the World Cup to a new frontier while keeping the World Cup within the Asian Football Confederation. Cool winter temperatures would be a plus.
Japan - Like the U.S., Japan has hosted a successful World Cup in the past, and has the required infrastructure to successfully host the event on short notice. And like Australia, picking Japan would allow FIFA to save face within the AFC. The extent to which FIFA wants to explore a new frontier might work against it however.
South Korea - It co-hosted the 2002 World Cup with Japan, so the same pluses and minuses apply.
As for Garcia's report, hope is beginning to fade there as well. Hans-Joachim Eckert, chairman of the FIFA ethics committee's adjudicatory chamber, announced last week that Garcia's report would not be made public. He also told the BBC that his verdicts will be limited to individuals, not football associations or bid committees, and that it wasn't the ethics committee's place to decide who should host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.
One source confirmed that at present, only four people have even seen Garcia's report. On one side there is Garcia and his deputy, Cornel Borbely. Within FIFA there is just Eckert, and his No. 2, Australian Judge Alan Sullivan. Such secrecy does not inspire confidence that the entire truth will come out, especially with Qatar already investing millions.
Are there scenarios by which the tournament could be taken away from Qatar? Without question, but most of these fall under the category of "force majeure." The list of circumstances beyond anyone's control includes war breaking out in the Middle East, or a health crisis, like the outbreak of the SARS virus that saw the 2003 Women's World Cup moved from China to the U.S. The possibility of a smoking gun remains, however faint.
As for whether the tournament will be moved to the winter, those odds are considerably better. But UEFA has already made its feelings known that it will take a dim view on its club season being interrupted. Qatar has been pushing back as well, insisting that the stadiums and training facilities will remain cool enough for the athletes. The spectators are another issue, especially in terms of time spent away from the venues.
"The World Cup not only takes place in the stadiums," Zwanziger said. "Fans from all over the world will be out in the heat. The first life-threatening incident would immediately lead to public prosecution. And no one in the FIFA executive would want to answer for that."