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Qatar a Questionable World Cup Host

This year’s soccer World Cup in South Africa, in the end, yielded relatively few surprises. Seven of the eight quarterfinalists hailed from either Europe or South America, soccer’s traditional power continents. The tournament was won by Spain, which was ranked as one of the two strongest teams heading into the competition. Sure, the 2006 finalists, Italy and France, performed poorly. But that should not have shocked anyone who watched these countries’ tepid performances in the qualifying stages.

Today’s announcement on the awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, on the other hand, was astonishing.

Russia was granted the 2018 tournament ahead of England, and joint bids by Spain and Portugal, and Belgium and the Netherlands, respectively. This was, at most, a modest upset. Although Russia had failed to qualify for this year’s tournament, it plays fairly strong football — it is currently ranked 13th in the world, according to FIFA’s official rankings — and it is the largest country outside Asia never to have hosted the tournament before.

The decision that is harder to fathom, on the other hand, was the one to award the 2022 tournament to Qatar, which has never qualified for the tournament and which has a population about the size of greater Las Vegas. Qatar was given the 2022 tournament ahead of the United States — which finished with the second-most votes — and also ahead of Australia, South Korea and Japan.

In contrast to the decision to award the 2016 Summer Olympics to Rio de Janeiro ahead of Chicago, Madrid, and Tokyo — the four cities were scored similarly on technical merits, and South America had never hosted either the summer or winter Olympics before — this one is much harder to explain.

Of the countries in the running for the 2018 and 2022 tournaments, Qatar was the only one designated as high-risk by FIFA, which expressed concern about its weather (summer temperatures can reach 110 there, although Qatar says it has developed technology to air-condition its stadiums), and its logistics (all 12 of its stadiums, none of which are fully constructed, are in a 20-mile radius encompassing its capital, Doha).

And if the downside to the Qatari bid was high, its upside is also questionable. The country has only 1.5 million people, according to the World Bank, but most are expatriates or migrant workers: the citizen population is closer to 200,000. Although Qatar might be thought of as staging the tournament on behalf of the Middle East in general, the region itself also has a fairly small population — about 350 million as the area is traditionally defined. And much of the infrastructure that Qatar develops for the tournament will be superfluous: all 12 of the stadiums that it constructs will be partially dismantled after the tournament (their spare parts, Qatar says, will be shipped off to developing countries after the World Cup).

So what explains the decision?

That is hard to say. A number of explanations have been suggested, and none of them seem to be entirely satisfactory.

Regional Politics

Of the 22 men represented on FIFA’s executive committee (the total does not include delegates from two countries, Nigeria and Tahiti, who were banned from participation after vote-selling accusations arose), 4 were from countries that are part of the greater Middle East: Qatar, Turkey, Cyprus, and Egypt. Three others were from Asian countries outside the Middle East — Japan, South Korea, and Thailand — but Japan and South Korea had bid for the tournament themselves, and Thailand would seem inclined to vote for one of those two nations or for Australia, each of which are much closer to it geographically and culturally.

The four delegates from the Middle East might nevertheless have represented something of a head start for Qatar, assuming all of them voted for it. By contrast, there were three North American representatives — those from Guatemala, the United States, and Trinidad and Tobago.

Qatar, however, secured 11 votes in the first round of voting, in contrast to 4 for South Korea, 3 for the United States and Japan, and 1 for Australia. (It eventually finished with 14 votes, to 8 for the United States, as other options were eliminated.) It evidently won a number of “swing votes” from South America, Europe, and Africa, which were not in the running for the 2022 tournament.

Anti-American Sentiment

This explanation is not on firm footing: the group of voters were from a set of countries that are ordinarily relatively friendly to the United States. Of the 22 nations represented, 7 are members of NATO, and 5 others — Argentina, Egypt, Japan, South Korea and Thailand — are designated as major allies by the Department of Defense. This list does not include other countries like Brazil and Switzerland that have also traditionally enjoyed strong relations with the United States.

Certainly, the 22 individuals representing these countries may not have held the United States in the same high regard as their governments officially do. But they were not from countries, by and large, that would seem to hold a grudge against the country.

Development and Expansion of the Sport

As we mentioned, the Middle East as a whole is not particularly large — it has about 350 million people. That is still slightly larger, however, than the population of the United States — and certainly larger than that of Australia — and the World Cup has never been staged in the Middle East before. Thus, on developmental grounds, there may have been some argument for holding the tournament there.

There is a counter-argument to this, however: China, whose population of 1.3 billion is roughly four times that of the Middle East, which has also never hosted the tournament, and which received high marks for its handling of the 2008 Summer Olympics. No, China was not in the running for 2022. But it was considered among the favorites to host the 2026 tournament.

Now, however — with the awarding of the 2022 tournament to another Asian country — China will be precluded from hosting the World Cup until at least 2034, as FIFA’s rules require a 12-year waiting period before the same continent can stage the tournament. (Although FIFA could change the rules, as it has done in the past.)

Development of the Middle East

Many of the arguments made by Qatar’s representatives centered around the potential for the 2022 World Cup to rehabilitate the Middle East’s troubled and turbulent image before a world stage. There is ample room to question, however, whether Qatar represents a way forward for the region.

The country’s economy is imbalanced, highly dependent on harvesting oil and natural gas, which accounts for more than half of its G.D.P. It ranks 121st out of 178 countries in the Press Freedom Index, and 144th out of 167 countries in the Democracy Index developed by The Economist magazine, which classifies it as an authoritarian regime. Homosexual activity is illegal there and punishable by five years imprisonment. Protections for its substantial migrant worker population are limited, and it is one of 16 countries given the lowest ratings by the State Department for its propensity to engage in human trafficking.

Qatar fares better on a couple of indices: the Heritage Foundation gives it reasonably strong marks for economic freedom, and its government is considered relatively stable. Nevertheless, it is far from immune from the problems inherent in the region and far from exemplary in many ways.


Another theory — popular in the blogosphere — is that Qatar bought itself the World Cup through bribery or other means.

There is, simply put, absolutely no hard evidence of this.

That does not mean, however, that the possibility can be dismissed out of hand. There was motive, means, and opportunity for such untoward activity to have taken place.

Motive: Qatari officials believed its selection to host the World Cup would be worth billions of dollars. Some reports claim the effect of its potential selection was significant enough to have boosted the Doha stock exchange, which gained 0.68 percent advance of the bidding today on speculation that Qatar would be chosen.

Means: Qatar is a very wealthy nation — it ran a surplus of 46.3 billion Qatari riyals last year — equal to about $12 billion U.S. dollars, and in excess of 10 percent of its G.D.P.

Opportunity: We know that FIFA suspended 2 of its 24 delegates for vote-selling allegations. In addition to this, we know that three other delegates were accused by the B.B.C. of having accepted bribes in connection with past World Cups. We know that bribery has also occurred in the process of awarding past global sporting competitions, including the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

Let me be very clear here: Qatar is hardly alone in having strong incentives to commit bribery in order to win the World Cup. The United States, for instance, is a very rich nation as well — and unlike Qatar, it has been shown to engage in such bribery in connection with global sporting events in the past (such as in 2002). Japan, South Korea and Australia are all quite wealthy also.

What differentiates Qatar, however, is that its case to win the World Cup by legitimate means — for all the reasons I have outlined above — would seem to be relatively weak. Several months ago, oddsmakers had put its chances at about 6-1 against, versus 5-2 against for the United States — and that was before FIFA designated it as high-risk. From the point of view of Bayesian statistics, that makes the probability of bribery greater.

If anything untoward occurred, it will probably be discovered, eventually. But whatever the reasons for it, FIFA’s decision is hard to understand.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.


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