THE FINAL PITCH
Wednesday, December 1, 2010
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.