FIFA Missed Opportunities
I go on social media and sports discussions have, rapidly, become about two things: the NFL, and the NFL off season. Occasionally, there will be discussions about March Madness, and the NBA/NHL playoffs, but the NFL is king.
Normally at this time in non-leap year even years, we would be well into the World Cup. This is an event which until a generation ago was an afterthought here in the States, but since the USA hosted the 1994 World Cup, has been gaining traction. And indeed, in 2014 I remember discussions about the World Cup in June/July — a dead time for sports here in the States — were lively. One of my friends was getting married and we were out to dinner and had an animated discussion on whether Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi was the best player in the world (hint: it’s Ronaldo, and it’s not close.). And 2018 built on that.
So here it is, 2022, and we should be talking about the World Cup. Nothing is going on. USC and UCLA will switch conferences, but that won’t take place for another two years. There are basketball moves, but there isn’t a “hot stove” for the Association, really. NHL, even less.
We should be talking about the World Cup, but we’re not. Why?
Because FIFA sold its soul. They took the money from Qatar. Qatar was the highest bidder. Never mind that the whole bidding process was sketchy. Never mind that there have been countless human rights violations building the stadiums. Never mind that Qatar has roughly the land mass of Connecticut and they’re building something like 8–9 stadiums, most of which will become white elephants after the tournament is over. That’s not even the worst of it.
The worst of it is this: Because of the oppressive heat in Qatar, the tournament has been pushed back to November-December. Further, the tournament will be condensed: held over less than a month, from November 21 to December 18th. This in turn throws a wrench into pretty much every club league in the world: they either have to start early, or end late, and will have a break during the World Cup. And yet THAT isn’t even the worst!
No: the worst is that FIFA, by taking the money, all but loses the US audience. Sports in the USA is the NFL and everyone else. November 21-December 18 is a critical portion of the season, with huge matchups that will decide playoffs and seedings. And everyone it seems plays fantasy football, and this will be the end of most season and the beginning of the playoffs. And when teams aren’t playing? There’s the highlights, the recap of the prior week, and the buildup for the current week, starting with the Thursday game on Amazon. Not to mention Thanksgiving!
Oh, and then there’s college football! Rivalry weekend! Ohio State and Michigan on November 26. Do you REALLY think people will be focused on something like France vs. Denmark? Australia vs. Mexico? How the USA did against France the day before? Obviously not. Plus the NBA and NHL will be underway. The World Cup, frankly, just doesn’t have a chance to break through all of that.
“Well we want to grow the game in the Middle East.” OK, fine. But at what cost? Tickets for the game are going to be outrageous — they ARE outrageous! Fans of countries aren’t going to want to travel. This isn’t South Africa in 2010, where basically it was a big Welcome Back to the country, and the games ran well and they did get the country into it. Is soccer a big thing in the Middle East? I know it can grow, but whether or not having the games held in a country like Qatar are going to make much of a difference. Even though the country is incredibly wealthy and even though they can absorb the cost of those stadiums being built, it’s just not a good look.
Soccer is growing in this country. Since 1994, MLS has launched and become, if not on the level of an EPL or La Liga, is still a pretty decent league in its own right. MLS has done an outstanding job building soccer-specific stadiums across the country and building a fan base organically. They signed a unique deal with AppleTV that promises to grow the game even more.
Would the World Cup exceed the NFL on the summer 2022 zeitgeist? I don’t know. But I DO know it would make an impact, that people would care, that people would follow it. I’ve covered before, non-sports sports events, like the NFL draft, the NBA draft, the March Madness draw, hell, even the NFL schedule drop — exceed sporting events now. But with no sports going on (baseball tends to be more local focused, and the WNBA at least that I can see has little traction, as does MLS for that matter) the World Cup would have the attention of an Olympics. I do think people would care, especially if the USA were to make a run. Or if a team like England were to make a run. People would watch. People would be engaged. It would build the game here stateside, just a little bit. It couldn’t hurt. (And speaking of getting hurt, what if a key player on a club side gets hurt during this World Cup, which will be happening in the middle of club season? That’s a lot of important games that would be missed. And someone is going to get hurt, you can almost guarantee it.)
But no. FIFA took the money. There’s nothing wrong with that, per se. Ideally, you’d like to think they’d take that money and put it into growing the game. But I see very little upside with the games going to Qatar — either from a grow the game in the Middle East standpoint, and certainly not from a build interest in the USA standpoint. And again add to that the human rights violations alleged, and it’s just a train wreck. Maybe the worst decision in the history of awarding these games.
Oh, and by the way there’s also the time difference. Some of these games will be held on the East Coast as early as 2:00am, with many at 5:00am and 8:00am. And deduct another three hours for the Pacific Time Zone. At least USA vs England on November 25th will be held at 2:00pm ET (11pm Pacific), which is in line with early NFL games and wisely avoids Thanksgiving and Rivalry Weekend in CFP. But still. It’s a crazy workaround, and one that shouldn’t be necessary.
If there is a silver lining, it is that the World Cup will be held here in North America in 2026. By and large FIFA did a great job picking the stadiums that the games will be held in, and almost nothing will need to be spent for infrastructure or even upgrading stadiums. (Some of the stadiums selected, like Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, MA, are undergoing major upgrades, but these are for the benefit of the primary tenant, and not the World Cup.). Transport may be an issue, but then it is during NFL weekends, and this shouldn’t be any worse. (And, for all the issues people may have getting in and out of Foxboro, if you know how to play it and where to park, it really isn’t bad at all. Hint: take the T if you can; also if you park a mile away from the stadium in and out is MUCH easier.)
And so there you go. Hopefully, the World Cup WILL get some traction this fall, hopefully the USA will make a deep run, and hopefully there will be some stories that emerge (which hasn’t been the case.).
As to soccer in this country. MLS will continue to thrive (there’s already been at least one instance of a team (Columbus) threatening to move (to Austin) if they didn’t get a new stadium) and will continue to grow — there’s also a developmental league that is doing fairly well-and NBC has a multi-billion dollar contract with the Premiere League even though many of the games start at 11am (8am on the West Coast). So it will be fine.
But it could have been so much better.