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United States prepares to offer final World Cup pitch to FIFA

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 1, 2010; 12:08 AM

Before the votes are cast Thursday in Zurich to determine the locations of future World Cups, a U.S. bid delegation featuring Bill Clinton, Morgan Freeman and Landon Donovan will have an audience with soccer's international governing body for final arguments in favor of holding the 2022 tournament in the United States.

They will stress the sport's growth, the coast-to-coast buzz generated by the U.S. team in South Africa last summer and the maturation of a professional league. They'll emphasize the success of the 1994 World Cup in the United States, which set attendance records and reaped a financial windfall when soccer was just a curiosity to most Americans.

They will highlight the variety of stadiums available, an infrastructure fit to handle any major sporting event and support expressed by business and government sectors. They will underscore the largely glowing reviews issued by FIFA's own inspection team this fall.

And when the presentations by the U.S. group and its competitors are complete, FIFA's executive committee will culminate years of maneuvering, lobbying and dreaming by awarding the 2022 World Cup to . . . Qatar. Or Australia. Maybe Japan or South Korea.

Logic says that the United States will win out, but FIFA is hardly a logical organization. In a tumultuous climate fueled by allegations of corruption and deal-brokering that made the International Olympic Committee's Salt Lake City scandal a decade ago seem tame, predicting the results of the 2018 and 2022 World Cup votes is hopeless.

For the United States, a victory in Zurich would fuel the continued growth of the sport and draw the eyes of a soccer-mad planet onto American shores for more than a month.

"It is an important date in U.S. soccer history," said U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati, who has overseen the U.S. campaign and traveled the globe almost nonstop for six months in an effort to build support. "It's important to us not just for 31 days in the summer of 2022, but for the next dozen years.

"When you look back at what happened in 1994 and what has happened since, we have come a long way. But the real story is the next 25 years. We view the situation as being at halftime, and if we have another World Cup that could replicate in any way, shape or form what we've done, the growth of the game in North America will be extraordinary."

The United States isn't the only early favorite sweating out the results. England, seeking the tournament for the first time since 1966, was for years the front-runner to host in 2018. But in recent months, the bid has lost ground to Russia and a joint venture by Spain and Portugal. A Netherlands-Belgium option faces the longest odds.

Casting a large shadow over the vote are allegations of improprieties by members of the 24-member FIFA executive committee. In a sting operation conducted by the Sunday Times (London), two members apparently tried to sell their votes. They were subsequently suspended. Others have also been accused of unethical behavior.

The only certainty is the site of the next World Cup, in 2014: Brazil, which was selected by FIFA three years ago.

Unlike an Olympic vote, which impacts a single city and region, FIFA's decisions affect a broad swath of the country. Should the United States win the 2022 hosting rights, Washington and Baltimore would be among 18 finalists to host matches in the 32-nation tournament. The venue list would eventually be trimmed to about 12.

With more than 90,000 seats, FedEx Field would become a finalist to stage a high-profile match, such as the opener and final. In 1994, five games were played at RFK Stadium, one of nine venues for a 24-team tournament.

Stadiums are a big selling point for the U.S. bid, which has also proposed large NFL stadiums in, among others, the Dallas, Houston, Denver, Seattle, Boston and New York areas. Organizers have also left open the possibility of adding facilities that are constructed in future years.

In the inspection report, FIFA expressed concern about the size of the United States, making travel between cities time-consuming and expensive, and government guarantees.

Accentuating the positive, Gulati said: "We have every piece of infrastructure that is potentially needed. We've got a diverse and open country. And the legacy and upside of a market like the United States getting more engaged in the world's game is something that is unique."

Despite its impressive credentials, the United States is facing a stiff challenge from Australia, an untapped region that offers fine weather but a problematic time zone for live TV in Europe; South Korea and Japan, which co-hosted the 2002 World Cup and entered separate bids this time; and, most surprising, Qatar, a nation that is smaller than Connecticut and has fewer people (841,000) than Fiji.

With few cities and searing heat, Qatar wasn't taken seriously in the initial campaign. But FIFA has begun to warm to the idea of introducing a World Cup in the Middle East for the first time. Qatar has won support for its proposed stadium innovations: air-conditioned facilities that, after the tournament, would be disassembled and donated to needy countries.

While Qatar's immense wealth would underwrite infrastructure and stadium requirements, an American-hosted World Cup would have a notable financial impact for FIFA. In a report issued this week, the United States' revenue potential received a perfect grade. None of the other 2022 candidates scored better than 73 percent, according to Reuters.

The United States has another element working to its advantage: the possibility of China, the largest untapped market of all, bidding for the 2026 World Cup. If FIFA maintains the policy of rotating the tournament to different confederations, China would not be eligible in 2026 if Japan, South Korea, Qatar or Australia hosted in 2022. (Australia moved to the Asian confederation from Oceania four years ago.)

"I think we've done well," Gulati said. "I'm optimistic but also realistic. There are some competitive and very good bids. We've made lots of friends. Let's hope they vote for us."

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