Three years ago, when the bidding to host the World Cups of 2018 and 2022 was just getting going, a lobbyist explained to me how the decisions would be made. Over lunch at the International Football Arena in Zurich—a cozy annual gathering of the game's power brokers—he led me on to the terrace for a quiet word. There, he emphasised that what "the world" thought about the various bidding countries wouldn't matter much. Instead, the only voters were "24 old men." He meant the members of Fifa's executive committee (Exco), who will choose the hosts for 2018 and 2022 in Zurich this Thursday. The lobbyist and his partner, he added, "know those 24 men better than anyone. We know their strengths, we know their weaknesses."
That lobbyist has since switched to work for a different bidding country. And the number of old men has dropped to 22, after Fifa, the global football authority, suspended two Exco members. One, Amos Adamu of Nigeria, had allegedly asked undercover newspaper reporters for money in exchange for his vote, and another, Tahiti's Reynald Temarii, was accused of breaching Fifa's rules on loyalty and confidentiality in the same sting. In short, someone found their weaknesses. Both men have said they will appeal.
Yet the lobbyist's point stands. The campaign to host these World Cups is much like a conclave of cardinals choosing a pope. It's a campaign waged mostly behind firmly closed doors, and the very secrecy of the process, and the desperation of the nine bidders to win, invites corruption. Despite the secrecy, we do know many of the considerations that will sway these 22 men. That allows us to guess which two bidders will be dancing on the streets of Zurich come Dec. 2.
Fifa plans to choose a European host for 2018, and a non-European one for 2022. One of Exco's considerations, obviously, is the quality of bids. The 22 men will want to know which hosts can stage a competent World Cup. However, South Africa's World Cup this year put that issue to bed somewhat. The developing country did a fine job: nice stadiums, pretty good infrastructure, and Fifa doesn't care about the white elephants now rotting in the sun. If South Africa could do it, the Exco members will reason, then every bidder this time probably could too. The only bidder that emerged from Fifa's evaluation reports looking bruised was Qatar. The tiny desert state, the report suggested, has neither the climate nor the space for the perfect World Cup. But the American and Dutch-Belgian bids also suffered for not giving Fifa enough government guarantees. Fifa likes to be granted the right to do what it likes in a host country.
However, the quality of bid is just one consideration among many. Fifa also likes using World Cups to open new markets, to fill in the "white spots" on football's map. This is where Russia looks good. It has less infrastructure in place than any other European bidder, but unlike its rivals it is an emerging football market. For 2022, Qatar, Australia and the US can make the same claim. Japan and South Korea might have too, except that they co-hosted a World Cup just eight years ago, and so they hardly look "new." When bidders and lobbyists gossip in hotel bars, they usually dismiss the Japanese and Korean bids (as well as the Dutch-Belgian one for 2018) as near no-hopers.
The great new football market, of course, is China. The country isn't bidding now, but Sepp Blatter, Fifa's president, is keen for it to host a World Cup, and that fact could shape the vote for 2022. Simply put: if an Asian country gets 2022, then China might have to wait until 2034 before the World Cup could return to Asia. That could induce Fifa to give 2022 to the US, so that China could have 2026. In July, Wei Di, head of China's Football Association, duly said: "We are considering 2026." That angered the Asian bidders for 2022, and Chinese officials appear to have reassured them behind closed doors that China didn't really want 2026. Significantly though, China hasn't climbed down in public. Quite likely, Wei Di's remarks were a signal to Fifa to bear China in mind for 2026. If so, and if Exco listens, it's good news for the US.
Only the purest of Exco members—Michel Platini, for instance—will vote strictly on quality of bid and the prospect of new markets. Others will be swayed by more political, but equally legitimate, concerns. Most Exco members want something for their votes: often, a vote for their own country. Mohamed bin Hammam, the Qatari Exco member, put this frankly at last month's Leaders in Football conference in London. "I will be naturally looking to the interests of Qatar," he said. "All the bidders are telling me, 'Okay, if you vote for me I will vote for you.' That must not be surprising to anybody." He admitted he wouldn't necessarily vote for the "best" bid, but one that served Qatar's interests.
The voting process—choosing two hosts on one day—practically invites deal-making between voters. Explicit deals are illegal— "You vote for me for 2018, and I'll vote for you for 2022" —but tacit ones will happen.
That points to another consideration for many Exco members: friendship. Friend is their word for long-standing ally. The three South American voters will surely support their "friend" Spain, for instance. By contrast, the Dutch-Belgians and the English are short of "friends" in football.
Lobbying can win you friends. Russia has the best lobbyist of any bid: Premier Vladimir Putin. He has been buttonholing some very powerful people, inside and beyond Fifa, to talk about 2018. Putin helped clinch the winter Olympics of 2014 for the Russian city Sochi, and will attempt the same in Zurich next week.
All these considerations might sound tacky, but they are reasonably above-board. However, more venal considerations matter too. As the lobbyist told me, many Exco members are old: some won't be alive in 2022, and may not care much whether the tournament is a roaring success or not, while others may see this as their last chance to extract big favors. Now the world is courting them. From Dec. 3 they will be nonentities. They want something out of this vote.
That something might simply be a nice trip. Many countries have offered Exco members very comfortable visits to inspect their facilities. That is quite legitimate, but a five-star trip can be a voting incentive in itself. Other Exco members want something for their football federations. That's why some bidding countries have sent their national teams to play friendlies in improbable places—places that happen to have Exco members. One Exco voter asked a bidding country to pay for a team coach for his national side. Again, a perfectly legal inducement: it's called "promoting football development."