By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 3, 2010; D01
On the surface, the decision by soccer's international governing body Thursday to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar - a desert nation smaller than Connecticut with shallow soccer roots and oppressive summer heat - instead of the United States or three other event-tested countries made little sense.
But to those close to the process who understand FIFA's complexities and recent mission to forge history, the results of the voting were not unforeseen.
Qatar received the most votes from the executive committee by a wide margin in each of the first three rounds, and when Australia, Japan and South Korea were eliminated, it defeated the United States, 14 to 8, for the right to host the planet's most popular sporting event.
"It's an election, and there are lots of things that go into that," U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati said from Zurich, where, in another surprise, FIFA chose Russia over England and two other European bids to host the 2018 tournament. "It's politics, it's friendships and relationships, it's alliances, it's tactics."
FIFA seemed to regard the United States as the safe choice - the country had set attendance records when it hosted the 1994 World Cup and offered the stadiums, infrastructure and commercial rewards to pull off another successful tournament in 12 years.
But FIFA was also charmed by Qatar's innovative stadium plans, massive financial resources and the promise of promoting harmony in a region fractured by conflict.
"There's no way around it: I am disappointed. To come up short is very difficult to take," said Gulati, who led a three-year campaign that attracted more than 1.2 million supporters in an online petition - Qatar's population is between 840,000 and 1.7 million, depending on the source - and enlisted heavyweight help from, among others, former president Bill Clinton, actor Morgan Freeman and director Spike Lee.
In the wake of Chicago's failure last year to land the 2016 Summer Olympics, the FIFA vote was another jolt to U.S. efforts to host a major international sporting event. Gulati said it was too early to say whether the United States would bid on the 2026 World Cup. The next World Cup, in 2014, will take place in Brazil.
In the buildup to this vote, FIFA's inspection team and outside consultants gave favorable reviews to the U.S. proposal. Conversely, Qatar was deemed a risk because of the amount of construction necessary (it currently has only one world-class stadium), extreme heat and the compact area in which the tournament would be staged.
To counter average summer temperatures of 115 degrees, Qatar has proposed air-conditioning outdoor stadiums and other public areas. The oil-rich nation would also spend more than $50 billion on infrastructure projects and new stadiums. When the tournament ends, it plans to donate stadium segments to developing nations.
Although he didn't endorse Qatar's bid, FIFA President Sepp Blatter has, for years, urged the sport's leaders to continue broadening soccer's appeal by taking its premier event to new frontiers.
In addition to the U.S. experience in 1994, FIFA ventured to Asia (Japan/South Korea) and Africa (South Africa) for the first time in 2002 and 2010, respectively. Neither Russia, nor any country in Eastern Europe, has hosted the tournament either.
"We go to new lands," Blatter said.
Having staged the World Cup recently, Japan and South Korea carried little hope of winning the 2022 campaign. Like Qatar, Australia has never hosted, but its bid never seemed to build momentum.
"FIFA has taken this bold decision," Qatar bid chairman Mohammad bin Hamad Al-Thani said. "We acknowledge that there is a lot of work ahead, but we promise that we will deliver. We will deliver with a lot of passion and make sure that this is a milestone in the history of Middle East and the history of FIFA."
England, the birthplace of soccer's modern era, was equally disappointed with FIFA's 2018 decision. Once considered an ironclad favorite with a rich history and iconic stadiums, England began to fall out of favor in recent months.
Observers believe that the FIFA executive committee soured on the bid after the Sunday Times of London exposed two members asking for payments in exchange for their votes. Both were subsequently suspended. Other members denied allegations of unethical behavior.
England was eliminated in the first round after receiving just two votes. Russia secured victory in the second round with 13 votes. A joint bid by Spain and Portugal received seven and Netherlands-Belgium two.
Despite the U.S. setback, Gulati said soccer would continue to grow in the United States.
"The trend lines are positive for the sport," he said. "Getting the right to host this event in 12 years' time with that sort of build-up was the equivalent of putting your foot on the accelerator and taking a big jump. From that perspective, it's certainly an opportunity lost.
"But are we going to get to where we want to get? The answer is yes. It's going to take a little longer and it's going to take more work. That part is disappointing. The World Cup is a big event and today is a big disappointment."