Next Monday's big game between Barcelona and Real Madrid has rightly been billed as a clash of soccer heavyweights. But it has nothing on the showdown that will take place in Zurich, Switzerland a few days later.
The latter contest was the subject of a story that ran on the Associated Press wire a few days ago. It flew under the radar because of all the attention we paid to the MLS Expansion Draft, but I didn't want to let it go without discussion here.
FIFA executive Mohamed Bin Hammam has questioned suggestions by American counterpart Chuck Blazer that Qatar is too hot to host the 2022 World Cup.
Blazer said last week that while Bin Hammam's Qatar can air-condition its stadiums, "I don't see how you can air-condition an entire country."
But Bin Hammam of Qatar has pointed out to Blazer that extreme temperatures are also an issue in parts of the United States, which hosted the tournament in 1994.
Bin Hammam claimed that "American fans forgot about the heat, and yet, (organizers) applied for another World Cup posting in less than 16 years from the time they last hosted."
In the world of soccer politics, that is the equivalent of two navy frigates exchanging cannon fire across the high seas. Bin Hammam and Blazer are more than just members of FIFA's executive committee. If you were to rank the sport's elite power-brokers, Bin Hammam and Blazer would probably both be in the top six.
Bin Hammam is the head of the Asian Football Confederation, and is a native of Qatar. Blazer is a top executive at CONCACAF (run by the notoriously corrupt Jack Warner), and is a native of the United States.
You can guess where I'm going with this.
Six days from now, we will find out whether Qatar, the United States or another country will host the World Cup. It is a clash of many things: geography, tradition within the sport, forms of government, sources of revenue.
But above all, at least in my opinion, it will be a clash of will power. On one side stands Bin Hammam, with as many as eight of the 22 executive committee members pledged to vote for him as part of a quid pro quo with the Spain/Portugal 2018 bid. On the other side stand Blazer, Warner and potentially some of FIFA's American-based commercial sponsors.
A great many people in the Western world, fans and media types alike, are of the opinion that it makes the most sense for the 2018 World Cup to go to England and the 2022 edition to go to the United States. But FIFA does not necessarily make decisions on the basis of what makes sense. Indeed, sometimes they don't even make decisions on the basis of what makes money.
This was always going to be one of the biggest dangers of awarding the hosting rights to both tournaments at the same time. Such a system clearly invites collusion and quid-pro-quos. FIFA can say anything it wants about vote-trading being illegal, but they have already demonstrated an unwillingness to enforce the rules.
Despite no small amount of reporting of evidence in the international media, FIFA's ethics committee ruled that there were not "sufficient grounds" to prove guilt in the Spain/Portugal-Qatar vote-trading affair.
And while FIFA did expel the two executive committee members who were caught taking bribes in a sting by undercover reporteres from the Times of London, that story may be about to take a dramatic new twist.
As was noted yesterday by the Canadian Soccer News, the Oceania Football Conference is set to ask one of those two expelled executive committee members, Reynald Temarii of Tahiti, to resign as the chief of the OFC.
If that happens, and if the OFC can appoint a new boss before the World Cup decisoin next place, it will almost certainly go to FIFA and ask for that person to be given a vote.
According to the BBC, FIFA has said that Oceania will not get its vote back as long as Temarii is appealing its suspension. But there has been no clear statement about whether a new OFC representative would allow the vote to be restored.
Granted, if the OFC does get its vote back, it might not necessarily go to Qatar. At least in the first round, it would almost certainly go to Australia. Which means we probably ought to look at that bid. I don't really want to go into the same amount of detail as I did with the U.S. and Qatar, but there a few things worth noting.
The first thing to know is something that did not appear in FIFA's evaluation. As of Wednesday, the famed British bookmaker William Hill has Australia quoted as the second favorite behind Qatar to win the vote. Qatar is a whopping 4-9, Australia is 3-1 and the United States is 7-2.
Obviously, just because the bookmakers say something doesn't mean it's certain. But William Hill is among the most established and reputable oddsmakers in the U.K., so their voice means something.
Now let's turn to FIFA's evaluation. A lot of the information there is what you would expect to see about Australia's infrastructure and ability to host a major tournament. The country has played host to one of the most successful Summer Olympics of all time, as well as many major rugby and cricket events. The annual Australian Open tennis tournament has also given Australia a firmly established place on the international sporting map.
Still, there is work for the country to do. Six of the proposed stadiums will need major renovation: Adelaide, Brisbane, Geelong, Gold Coast, Newcastle and Townsville. Three stadiums will be built from scratch: Canberra, Perth and a new stadium in Sydney.
Only the famed Melbourne Cricket Ground, the current Sydney Football Stadium and Sydney's Stadium Australia, which was the grand stage for the 2000 Olympics, would require "minor renovations."
FIFA's report highlights the stadiums in Canberra and Townsville because they "rely on access by road, which merits special attention in terms of temporary transport operations." We know that some stadiums in the U.S. bid have the same problem, but the language in Australia's evaluation is still notable.
Similar to the United States, Australia's bid relies on air travel. Although there are rail connections between some cities, the country's size makes it a challenge to travel its length and width by ground.
All of these factors matter, but there is one that matters more than all of them. Australia's location would cause some real problems for television broadcasters in Europe and other continents.
Most importantly from FIFA's perspective, European TV networks would have no live games broadcast in their prime time. Games would air during the day, with marquee matches taking place over lunch.
Fans in the Americas would be even worse off. Remember watching the World Cup from Japan and South Korea in the middle of the night? Or the Olympics on tape-delay in 2000? It would be that way again.
Here is the language in the executive summary of the Australia bid evaluation:
Should the FIFA World CupTM be hosted in Australia, there is a risk of a reduction in TV income and, as a result, commercial revenue from Europe and the Americas. The income from Asia/Oceania would need to be increased substantially to offset the likelihood of loss of revenue on Europe.
There are a lot of soccer fans in China, Japan, South Korea and the rest of Asia. Not all of the the continent's nearly four billion people follow the sport, but more than enough do. European clubs make a lot of money from high-profile tours, TV rights and jersey sales in the Far East.
Still, there's a lot more money to be made between the Americas and Europe combined than there is from Asia and Oceania. FIFA knows that, and it will factor into the decision-making process.
It is hard to believe, after everything that has gone on over the last few years, that there are only six days left before the decision is made. On Thursday morning, fans across the United States will gather to watch the announcement live, and there will be similar anticipation all over the world.
(In case you haven't heard yet, Philadelphia's viewing party will take place at Tir Na Nog, 16th and Arch Streets in Center City. Doors open at 9:30 a.m., and players and coaches from the Union will be in attendance.)
Between now and then, a lot of people will be doing a lot of work on and off the record. There will be announcements, presentations, and backroom negotiations that would likely make what goes on in Congress seem small by comparison.
I am sure that many of you will be optimistic and many of you will be pessimistic. This being Philadelphia, I have a hunch that there will be just a few more pessimists among us.
But it is out of our hands now. It may well never really have been in them, the U.S. bid's "petition" notwithstanding. That was just a way to get attention for the process. It succeeded in its mission, but it won't have much of an effect on FIFA.
On Monday, the countdown will begin in earnest. Bid representatives, executive committee members and media from around the world will travel to Zurich to watch the final presentations and negotiations. The United States bid, led by Bill Clinton and Landon Donovan, will take the stage on December 1, and the decision will be made the next day.
As is the case in our other form of football, the final few yards are often the hardest to gain.