Intrigue to the end in 2018-2022 World Cup votes

Published Nov. 26, 2010 8:33 a.m. ET

High drama, intrigue and a whiff of corruption with billions of investment dollars at stake.

FIFA's contest to choose 2018 and 2022 World Cup hosts at the same time always shaped up as the biggest and most-scrutinized campaign in modern sports history - even before the blockbuster process was rocked by allegations of bribe-taking and vote-rigging.

Business as usual for the governing body of the world's most popular sport, and guardians of its biggest event, according to some veteran FIFA-watchers.

''When one talks of FIFA there is generally a negative attitude out there. There is talk of corruption,'' FIFA ethics committee chairman Claudio Sulser conceded wearily after completing a monthlong investigation of voters and bidders implicated by a British newspaper sting.

Repairing FIFA's damaged credibility can wait.

Right now, President Sepp Blatter's organization has what some of the biggest, wealthiest and most ambitious countries in the world desperately want: the right to stage 64 football matches featuring 32 national teams over 31 days.

So Bill Clinton, Vladimir Putin and Britain's Prince William are among those expected in Zurich to ask nicely for it.


They are the stars of 30-minute presentations each of the nine bidders must make to FIFA's executive committee - stripped of two suspended colleagues - next Wednesday and Thursday before secret ballots will decide the two winners.

In 2018, it will be either England, Russia, Belgium-Netherlands or Spain-Portugal. For 2022, the United States, Australia, Japan, South Korea and Qatar are in the running. Mexico and Indonesia entered but soon dropped out.

It is a suitably theatrical climax for bidders who have jostled for attention over three years in sprawling, globe-trotting campaigns that revealed concerns.

From the grandiose goals of peace on the Korean peninsula, and oil-rich Qatar promising new, carbon-neutral, solar-powered technologies. But also banal spats over alcoholic teenagers in Moscow and London, and hissy fits over gifts of designer handbags and pearl jewelry to FIFA voters' wives.

The soap opera made a star of the studious Sulser, a lawyer and former Switzerland international forward, whom FIFA entrusted to monitor fair play after predecessor Sebastian Coe opted out to help England's faltering efforts.

Sulser's verdicts confirmed dark truths at the heart of FIFA and reshaped calculations with just 14 days left.

Voting power lies with just 22 men from FIFA's high command after Amos Adamu and Reynald Temarii were banished from all football duties, for three years and one year, respectively. Adamu became the most senior football official sanctioned for bribery.

What Sulser's team did not find could prove equally significant. It failed to nail the widespread belief that Spain-Portugal and Qatar - with Latin American help - have breached FIFA rules on collusion to secure at least seven of the 12 votes they need to win.

Even Blatter fueled suspicions by reminding that the probe simply didn't find the evidence, not that it didn't exist.

The FIFA president added that collusion was inevitable when eight of the electorate directly represented bidding nations, but said all will go well because his voters understood ''the entire world'' is watching.

If successful, bidders must grant FIFA the perks - tax exemptions, new laws to protect official sponsors and ticket agents - it demands to help maximize profits.

Those profits would likely be biggest in fully developed countries like the United States, which promises record total attendances of 5 million, and England.

For Russia and Qatar, the price of enhanced pride and prestige on the world stage is spending tens of billions of dollars of government investment in stadiums, airports, transport, health and telecommunications infrastructure.

Staging a first World Cup in post-communist Eastern Europe or the Islamic Middle East would certainly spread football's legacy, and the 74-year-old Blatter is believed to covet a Nobel Peace Prize for FIFA if elected to a fourth four-year presidential term next year.

''You cannot deny Russia if they bid for something,'' Blatter said this year.

The potential social rewards help explain why Australia's bid was funded by $44 million (?33 million) of taxpayers' money.

Germany in 2006 and South Africa this year enjoyed surges of patriotic fervor and heightened national esteem by hosting football's biggest party.

Actually winning on home soil - like England in 1966, or France in '98 with a glorious, multiethnic team - creates iconic heroes and events that help define national identity.

For FIFA, this global fascination with the World Cup has been both a blessing and a curse.

It helped earn a tax-free $3.5 billion (?2.6 billion) from the 2010 tournament, yet has shone a harsh light on its corporate culture described by corruption watchdog Transparency International as ''giving presents and gifts to everybody, all the time, at any occasion.''

Undercover reporters from The Sunday Times in London tempted and exposed high-ranking members of Blatter's ''football family'' by posing as lobbyists seeking to buy access and votes.

Their secretly filmed investigations brought down Adamu, Temarii and four former executive committee members - voters in previous World Cup bid contests - whom the ethics panel punished with a combined 16 years of exile from their expense-account FIFA lifestyles.

Sulser and influential voters such as Qatar's Mohamed bin Hammam directed stronger condemnation at the supposedly ''unethical'' British media than their FIFA colleagues.

Blatter even suggested the reporters had ulterior motives, though a separate Sunday newspaper sting cost England its own bid chairman in May. David Triesman was forced to resign after being recorded making unproven claims that Spain and Russia set up a bribery scam to influence referees at the World Cup.

Spain's bid leader, Angel Maria Villar, a FIFA voter and referees' committee chairman, was quickly exonerated by the ethics committee, and emerged unpunished from the latest probe.

Should Spain and Qatar triumph, an Oct. 29 incident when Blatter revealed to the executive committee that collusion could not be proved, will enter football legend.

Villar passed a note to Bin Hammam reading: ''Congratulations, vamos a ganar'' - ''Congratulations, we're going to win.''