It will be great drama: Soccer supremo Sepp Blatter announcing which countries — by bending over backward, twisting arms and offering who knows what else in promises — have won the right to host the World Cups of 2018 and 2022.
But there won't be peace of mind. Not after the unseemly developments of recent weeks that proved the World Cup bidding process and those who manage it need reforming to be more credible. Not after the allegations of back-room deals, votes for sale and corruption that have tainted Blatter's organization but don't appear to bother the FIFA president as much as they should.
Nor can faith in FIFA be restored without more accountability, more transparency, more honesty. The two winners on Thursday, picked from nine bidders, will cheer, as they invariably do. But soccer shouldn't rejoice about the way its showcase tournament is fought for by governments and awarded by FIFA for reasons that aren't solely about the best bid.
Less than two dozen VIPs, all men, some drenched in controversy but seemingly untouchable, deciding such vital affairs of soccer and state behind closed doors is so old-fashioned. As the world's most democratic sport, because it requires only a ball to play, soccer deserves better and broader representation at the very top.
Sitting this week in FIFA's gleaming Zurich headquarters, Blatter can rightly feel proud of the soccer universe he has ruled over since 1998. Popular from Beijing to Buenos Aires and fabulously wealthy, the world's most widely loved sport is more than simply surviving the global economic crisis. FIFA's coffers are bulging with reserves of more than $1 billion.
Although the game itself was too often dull, this year's World Cup in South Africa was a resounding commercial success for FIFA, which reinvests much of its profits into growing the game. With black and white South Africans rejoicing and blowing their infuriating vuvuzelas together, soccer again showed its power to unite, to foster reconciliation where there was division. Blatter deserves credit for demonstrating that Africa, a continent still not visited by the Olympic Games, and Africans are more than capable.
With such success, FIFA shouldn't have the image problem that it has. As Claudio Sulser, a lawyer and former Swiss player who chairs FIFA's ethics committee, grimly noted: "When one talks of FIFA there is generally a negative attitude out there. There is talk of corruption."
Blatter is at least partly to blame for that. FIFA's president says that he cannot be bought and, as yet, no one has proved him wrong. But he heads an empire where the honesty of some top officials has repeatedly been questioned.
When reporters for London's Sunday Times posed as lobbyists willing to offer financial inducements for World Cup votes, two members of Blatter's executive committee appeared to take the bait. Although no money changed hands, they should have immediately shown the undercover reporters the door.
FIFA quickly suspended the pair, which means there will be just 22 voters Thursday instead of 24 and the possibility that Blatter will cast a deciding ballot if two bidders are tied.
Still, the damage to the integrity of soccer's governing body was considerable. It looked bad, even if the Sunday Times wasn't actually able to prove that executive members are corrupt.
Before Jacques Rogge took over, the International Olympic Committee offered some of the most notorious examples of how administrators sometimes abuse their positions of privilege. So it says something about the state of affairs at FIFA that the IOC is now dishing out advice. Rogge recently urged Blatter to make FIFA more transparent and "clean out as much as possible."
Yet Blatter still gives the impression that he doesn't really want to know. When the BBC this week made further claims of corruption within FIFA, the IOC said its ethics committee would consider the allegations because one of those fingered is also an IOC member.
FIFA's response was to move on, there's nothing to see here. "The investigation and the case are definitely closed," it said.
FIFA demands generous tax breaks and other concessions from governments that want to bathe in the glow of hosting the world's biggest sports event. To placate FIFA, nations promise to spend billions of dollars on new stadiums and other infrastructure, even if they know that they won't get much use when the World Cup is over.
In return, bidding nations should demand that FIFA open the whole process to more scrutiny. Blatter scoffed when it was recently suggested to him that the World Cup balloting should not be done in secret. "No, please, be realistic!" he said.
For the sake of openness and credibility, FIFA would be wise to consider it.
Because it is voting on two editions, FIFA's next balloting for a World Cup, the 2026 one, probably won't come until 2018 at the earliest. That leaves plenty of time to make changes.
The award of a World Cup should be a cause for joy within soccer, but it doesn't feel like that this week.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org
- Sepp Blatter
- South Africa
- Jacques Rogge