FIFA 2018 and 2022 World Cup Bids: The Transparency Vacuum

The announcement is in. The 2018 and 2022 World Cups will be held in Russia and Qatar, respectively. The response in England and the United States has been heated, with most of the heat rightly focusing on FIFA and FIFA president Sepp Blatter.

Some of the concerns about the results are legitimate, others less so and misdirected. There’s talk of freedom of press issues, human rights and democracy, although few of these concerns have been put into context yet.

One of the big stories leading up to yesterday’s announcement surrounded the Panorama expose targeting corruption in FIFA. Blatter reportedly reminded Executive Committee (ExCo) members, before they voted on who will win the right to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, of the “evils of media,” clearly a disparaging reference to the English media having the audacity to suggest that FIFA is a corrupt organization.

The thought of FIFA penalizing a bid for the actions of a free press is troubling to say the least.  It suggests what most people should already know: the strength of a nation’s bid, alone, will not determine whether that nation will win the right to host the World Cup. It also suggests a more troubling proposition: the factors that ExCo members consider have as much to do with ego and reputation as they do with the capabilities of a host nation. It’s a sad reality, although one that isn’t monopolized by FIFA. In many ways, it’s how much of business is done.

(For an interesting read on the bids and press freedom, read Richard Whittall’s commentary.)

Reasons for selection

People wish they knew the criteria used to select a World Cup host. But, unfortunately, FIFA’s selection process is a huge backroom deal.

We know, for instance, that FIFA executives take site visits to bidding nations to learn about infrastructure and other logistical and marketing matters. What we don’t know, however, is how much any of these technical trips matter when it comes to voting.

In theory, one would believe that the best bid wins. But that depends on how you define “best.” Clearly, FIFA’s definition of “best” is a complex algorithm. Quite simply, the best technical bid doesn’t win. While having the facilities, infrastructure, ability to support armies of tourists, and media capabilities all matter, clearly other factors are at play when you consider that England and the United States lost to Russia and Qatar.

Now, it’s easy, at this point, to zero in on money and corruption as the cause of such curious decisions, but the reality is that there are non-infrastructure-related reasons why a nation might be selected to host a World Cup that have nothing to do with payoffs.

There is something democratic (I know, an ironic word selection) about ensuring that a World Cup can be hosted by a range of countries, rather than perpetually housing the tournament in traditional, developed nations. Although there are legitimate concerns, for instance, about whether it was wise for South Africa to use public funds to host a World Cup, there were global, cultural-awareness benefits to sending the tournament to a part of the world that many people only consider for discussions about war, famine and poverty.

In many ways, one can see similarities between South Africa’s successful bid and Qatar’s bid. It’s not difficult to see the allure of a Middle Eastern World Cup, especially in an era of conflicted understanding about that part of the world. From a legacy-generating perspective, it’s easy to comprehend how this vision of bringing the game to new frontiers might appeal to Sepp Blatter’s ego. Blatter wants to diversify the hosts as if they are part of a stock portfolio.

The argument for diversifying World Cup host nations is further supported by the fact that more countries are now capable of hosting a World Cup. And, if this is a World Cup, more of the world should be considered as potential hosts.

Through 1990, the World Cup was hosted in nations that hardly raise an eyebrow today. Out of fourteen pre-1994 World Cups, eight tournaments were held in Western Europe, four in South America, and the remaining two in Mexico.

Since then, the World Cups have gone to the United States (1994), France (1998), South Korea/Japan (2002), Germany (2006), South Africa (2010), Brazil (2014), Russia (2018), and Qatar (2022). The pool of hosts that FIFA is willing to consider is becoming broader; a reality that reflects a changing world and evolving markets. And, as markets continue to evolve, the road map between 1994 and 2022 suggests that FIFA will continue expanding its base by reaching out to new, untapped markets (think China 2026).

This doctrine, which I will forever refer to as the Blatter Doctrine, paints FIFA as some sort of noble entity, preeminently concerned with forging more meaningful and compassionate relationships between nations. Whether FIFA has any business trying to act like a United Nations peacekeeping force is a fair question. But it is difficult to criticize a desire to use a game that is played and viewed by billions as a dual-purpose tool; one that simultaneously entertains and brings people closer together. But when we return to Earth, it’s obvious that few are that naive or easily persuaded by the Blatter Doctrine, which leads me to the cynical view.

The cynical view, and the one that many people take, is that FIFA doesn’t care about any of this; that the Blatter Doctrine is a red-herring and that FIFA’s decisions boil down to one thing: money. But, ultimately, the fact that the cynical view exists only serves to highlight one over-arching theme that I raised at the beginning of this section: no one knows why or how FIFA makes its decisions.

Relationships matter

A bid selection process is much like selecting a pick-up side in a park. Certain selectors might focus on the technical ability of the players, while others may prefer to select friends with whom they have a history, people with mustaches, or people with blond hair and blue eyes. Selection can be personal, impersonal, and everything in between, and, unfortunately, if you’re the one standing for selection, you may never know why you were picked or ignored.  — Me

While much of the focus in the aftermath of the announcement has been on bid presentations, people seem to be forgetting that lobbying has been going on for several years. The lobbying hasn’t just been a matter of countries convincing ExCo members of technical capabilities; it has also been focused on developing relationships to win votes. Some of these relationships may be clean, and others not so clean, but the science behind relationship development is a complicated matter that has many degrees between clean and corrupt.

Since the Panorama expose, people have focused on money exchanging hands, as if money is the only currency of value in relationships and negotiations. Favors are also exchanged as highly valued assets in negotiations. While money exchanging hands is the hardest evidence of illegal activity, other intangible or non-immediate promises can also compromise a bidding process. An intangible or non-immediate promise can be as innocuous-seeming as, “You vote for me and we’ll support you in the next election,” or, “Vote for me and we’ll give your national federation technical and financial support to leave you with a lasting legacy in your home country.” Both of these scenarios plausibly leave a voting member in a position to reap a spectrum of benefits, yet, on paper, have nothing to do with the technical merits of a bid.

With few tangibles to hold on to, we’re left with a bunch of scandalous-sounding allegations and random anecdotes that end in damning conclusions. We, the public, don’t have conclusive evidence that money exchanging hands affected the result of the 2018 and 2022 selection process. But we don’t need that evidence to know that something is rotten. That’s because we know that FIFA lacks transparency. We know that we are mostly ignorant of the precise reasons why FIFA ExCo members voted the way they did, and we may never know the real reasons. But we do know from most bidding processes lacking transparency, that relationships, whether open and clear or under the table, matter as much as technical reports when it comes to persuading an individual to vote for you. The fact that we know nothing about these relationships is the root cause of yesterday’s outburst from many on the losing sides.

This brings us to the players. We should remember that ExCo members are people with needs and interests before they are FIFA members. By that I mean that you would be wrong to think X and O and a tight plan are all that matter to them. Professional negotiators know better than that. You can bet that bid committees were expertly compiling dossiers on the ExCo members, examining their strengths, weaknesses, general interests, pet projects, and any other type of information that would provide insight into a path to persuasion. And if they weren’t, then you know where to start pointing fingers.

The result of this intelligence is a pool of data on 22 exco members and the various individuals who influence them. Some members may be swayed by numbers, while the avenue to other members’ ballots may be through their hearts or pockets. Some may be open to giving everyone a fair chance, while others may hold grudges, whether personal or professional, against members of a particular bid committee, or even more generally, against the way a nation has conducted itself in the global arena. All of this makes the bidding process, in the absence of transparency, susceptible to pettiness and seemingly irrational behavior. The end game can be a bastardized result that appears to defy logic to outsiders.

Presentations Don’t Matter

There are two aspects of a presentation. There’s the technical component, and the more abstract vision. You will never really know which component will successfully persuade an audience, which suggests that both aspects need to be as strong as possible before presenting. But even then, the perfect presentation may not matter to a voter who has already made up his mind.

When you look at the bid presentations, it’s hard to question the English and U.S. bids on the technical side. If you’re feeling argumentative, I suppose you could maybe argue that the U.S. bid presentation was overly technical and that the Russian and Qatari visions presented a more compelling dream. If presentations mattered, this distinction may have been determinative if you believe that many of the FIFA ExCo members were swayed by visions of geographically expanding the footprint of the World Cup rather than technical jargon.

But whatever you think of the actual presentations, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think that ExCo members were largely decided on how they were voting well before the first presentation started. Sure, it’s possible that nations could have picked up a straggling vote here and there, but over a few years, alliances were probably already set.

Ultimately, if a nation is relying on a final presentation to win a bid, they were already rightfully concerned about losing well in advance. The one component to focus on here is that this was a bid process, not a bid presentation.

Reform and Transparency

So we’re back to the black hole that is FIFA. We all know that something needs to change. But the question, as always, is how.

FIFA should start with geography before getting into the actual bidding process. It should develop a transparent methodology that predictably assigns a geographic focus to each bid cycle, explicitly explaining the rationale for each geographic focus. That will alleviate much of the discomfort, distrust and global tension, although regional rivalries may very well heat up. If FIFA suggests that they are looking at the Middle East, Africa, Oceania or Asia to spread the reach of the game, it should simply be up front about its focus, perhaps opening up a secondary, safe pick in the unfortunate event that something goes wrong with the primary pick. At that point, nations and fans alike can adjust their expectations to a point where everyone would realize that a strong technical bid from a region that is not the geographic focus will still be weakened.

The problem with yesterday’s vote was simply that FIFA never offered any helpful guidelines to even give people an opportunity to adjust their expectations. Thus, mayhem.

So what might go into a transparent bidding process?

First, FIFA should set forth the criteria vital for selection for each bidding cycle. The criteria might include, but shouldn’t be limited to, a geographic focus, specifications and plans for sporting facilities, transportation infrastructure and plans, media capability, a plan for how the host plans to use the World Cup as a platform for social development, security initiatives, and accessibility to a diverse group of international travelers.

Second, each criterion would be judged on a weighted point scale (e.g. 25 points for geography, 50 points for sporting facilities, 70 points for transportation, etc., each broken down into sub-categories). After voting is done, the strongest bids would be clear based on the numbers.

Lastly, the key to this process would be revealing the score cards, effectively making the voters accountable for their votes. No longer would bid committees need to blindly determine where they failed.

Would this happen? Probably not. But such a scenario could certainly pave the way for Qatar, for example, to win a geographically-focused bid. It would also minimize the type of selective uproars and rampant allegations we heard yesterday that resulted from FIFA’s invisible voting process. While there are legitimate questions that Qatar should be asked and should have to answer (like any nation hosting such an immense tournament) it is FIFA’s, not Qatar’s, responsibility to build a framework that minimizes the opportunity for conspiracy theorists to question the legitimacy of a decision that, at the end of the day, may very well be legitimate.

Reform is often a deeply depressing process that is easier said than done. In many ways, reforming FIFA is like reforming an inherently corrupt nation. Throughout history, we’ve often seen that replacing a few leaders rarely reforms systemically corrupt systems. Replacing a face is the easy, optical solution, but real results will only come when systems and processes are reformed. How to do that, however, requires a book, not a blog post.

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  • Elliott

    As FIFA pushes forward into “emerging markets”, the claims of corruption will resonate more and more. However, I’m sure the tactics of the bidders compare to Brazil (and their corruption plagued emerging economies), but the biggest difference being Brazil’s long history of footy domination.

  • Miriti Murungi

    Elliott — Completely agree. I wonder, however, if the books were opened on what the process looked like even before this emerging markets push, whether we would see just as many incidents of collusion between bidding nations, and whether many of those incidents of collusion would be equally egregious.

    What’s going on now is problematic, without question. But you get the sense that the emergence of super corruption is being squarely put at the foot of emerging markets. I’m pretty sure that corruption didn’t start last week. The BBC Panorama special suggest that some of this allegedly corrupt activity goes back at least 20 years. That’s well before this emerging markets discussion started.