"We go to new lands." That was FIFA President Sepp Blatter's entire cryptic rationale for choosing Russia and Qatar to host the next two World Cups. The choice of Qatar is baffling. Where to start? It's area is smaller than Connecticut, and its population of 1.49 million is about the same as Houston's. 3.59 million people attended games at the 1994 World Cup in the U.S. 3.18 million people attended the most recent World Cup in South Africa. Qatar is going to have to host a crowd more than double the size of its own population.
What kind of environment can these visitors expect? Average June and July temperatures in Qatar are 105 degrees. In the middle of the day, when games are sure to be played, temperatures regularly rise to 130 degrees. In the summer, Qataris tend not to leave the confines of air conditioning during the day, preferring to take a stroll at night when temperatures drop. Stay inside during the day, emerge at night. Sounds like quite a party. Speaking of party, Qatar has only two liquor stores in the entire country, and a permit is required to buy from them. Back to temperature: those numbers are historical averages. With global warming, it's impossible to tell how high they could rise twelve years from now. This summer, Moscow was ten degrees hotter than its historical averages. If that happens in Qatar, we can expect daily averages around 115 degrees and highs of 140 degrees. 15,000 people died in Russia because the temperature reached 100 degrees. What could happen in Qatar, with visitors coming to celebrate from around the world, if temperatures are 40 degrees higher? Qatar has promised that the stadiums will be air conditioned and will lower temperatures by as much as 20 degrees. Even assuming they can make good on this promise (they currently have no air conditioned stadiums), a fat lot of good 20 degrees does when the starting temperature is 130. FIFA is courting catastrophe by scheduling the world's biggest sporting event in such an extreme climate.
Qatar is ruled by Amir Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani. He took over from his father in a bloodless coup in 1995. In 2003, a constitution was adopted granting citizens the right to elect a Consultative Council. Elections have yet to happen. The 35-member Consultative Council is appointed entirely by the Amir. Even if elections do happen, they will be a sham. Political parties are banned in Qatar. The constitution grants the right to vote or hold office only to citizens. Somehow, only 200,000 of Qatar's 1.49 million residents qualify as citizens.
Freedom House, an independent organization that ranks levels of freedom around the world, gives Qatar an 11 out of 20 for its levels of political rights and civil liberties. That's lower than Burma, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, and the Congo. Qatar is not democratic. It is not free. Since its independence, power has been held by exactly three men, all of them from the same family.
Two members of the FIFA selection committee were thrown out because of suspicion of bribery. The process was rife with scandal and collusion. After a highly dubious selection process, FIFA chose the second richest country in the world, per capita. It chose a country whose entire economy consists of oil and gas. Sepp Blatter's entire explanation was, "We go to new lands."
Venezuela is also a new land. It's also a tiny, oil rich country ruled by a tyrant. It fits all of Qatar's criteria. Maybe Venezuela is next in line for a World Cup. How about North Korea? It's a tiny, hopelessly undemocratic nation ruled by a familial procession of despots. Is North Korea, as a new land, getting a World Cup?
FIFA has an iron grip on the world's most popular sport. It makes maddening, non-sensical decisions and doesn't explain itself. First a referee disallows a winning goal in a World Cup game for a phantom, unexplained violation and never speaks a word to the media. That referee, Koman Coulibaly, continues to referee, unpunished, his actions unexplained. Now FIFA awards the world's biggest sporting event, its biggest stage to a sweltering, woefully unprepared nation, governed by an unelected monarch with no political opposition.
FIFA rewards incompetence and fosters obfuscation in its referees. It rewards monarchies and punishes democracies (four of which, as finalists, were passed over for Qatar) with its selection process. Its decisions are maddening, opaque, and nonsensical. Soccer is the world's game. The World Cup is soccer's biggest event, the world's biggest celebration. It will never be irrelevant, but in awarding the World Cup to Qatar, FIFA certainly stripped it of some of its luster.