Qatar, the gulf state best known for securing a World Cup bid with over $5 million in bribes to FIFA officials, or using a labor system closely resembling slavery to construct its lavish facilities, or for the mass death of migrant workers laboring under that system, or for its allegedly cozy relationship with al-Qaeda affiliates, might not play host to the World Cup after all. The “political risk” of hosting an international sporting event in a country that’s currently being embargoed by its neighbours and engaged in a proxy war with the United States is apparently almost too much for FIFA.
As a side note, it’s interesting the degree to which Qatar uses soccer as a public-relations instrument. In addition to the 2022 World Cup bid, Qatar is also the owner of continental soccer power Paris Saint-Germain, and funded the record-breaking purchase of Neymar and Kylian Mbappe this summer. They do this explicitly to improve their global image, so I think we can all calm down with the calls to “stick to sports” here in North America. Colin Kaepernick is a lot of things, but he’s not the PR wing of an allegedly rogue petrostate.
Could FIFA actually move the biggest sporting event in the world to a new venue after promising it to Qatar? If so, where will teams that aren’t the USMNT be playing come 2022? Odds below.
Odds the 2022 World Cup moves from Qatar …
… if relations with other Gulf states continue to decline: 1/9
… if relations with other Gulf states improve: 2/3
Moving a World Cup, even this far ahead of schedule, is a massive undertaking. Qatar has already started construction on its many resplendent stadiums, FIFA have already started promoting the event, and FIFA officials have already started buying stuff with the money Qatar gave them. However, holding a World Cup in the midst of a regional conflict in the Middle East is perhaps a more daunting task, and thus there is a reasonable probability that the tournament will be moved.
Specifically, because of a bizarre hostage crisis that Qatar resolved by spending almost $1 billion in ransom money, the country has been accused by its neighbours of funding militant groups, including some that have been the targets of the Saudi-led and US-aided strikes in Yemen. As part of a long and bizarre effort by the Saudis to improve relations with the United States and demonstrate to the president how opposed they are to the financing of fundamentalist groups, Saudi Arabia and a handful of other regional powers (the UAE, Yemen, Egypt, the Maldives, and Bahrain) isolated Qatar and cut off all diplomatic relations with the peninsular state. Qatar maintains its innocence, and the other states maintain their accusations, and it’s resulted in something of a stalemate.
This is, of course, an intra-regional squabble that’s not entirely about what the actors involved say it’s about. Saudi Arabia is trying desperately to cozy up to the United States. The UAE is perennially vying for influence in the region, usually in competition with Qatar. A Dubai head of security stated that the blockade was designed entirely to force Qatar to relinquish the 2022 World Cup. As such, it’s a very difficult thing to set odds on, but we can confidently say that if the blockade continues and the country’s relationships with its neighbours do not improve, it’s very unlikely that the World Cup will take place there.
If not Qatar, the 2022 World Cup will go to …
The USA was second in the voting for 2022 and has no shortage of stadiums large enough to host the World Cup. Eight of the ten largest stadiums in the world are in the United States, and they’re all college football stadiums. They’re not quite as opulent as the planned facilities in Qatar, but far fewer migrant laborers died in their creation, and they don’t have to air condition the playing surfaces to make them usable.
Russia will host the 2018 tournament, and will thus have the most up-to-date facilities. However, Russia’s not without its own corruption scandals, or economic sanctions from its neighbours, or proxy wars with the United States, and it doesn’t exactly do the best job of maintaining its facilities, even in the short term.
Speaking of doing a poor job of maintaining facilities, it doesn’t look like Brazil will be able to use its most iconic stadium any time soon. Of course, things could be spruced up in the next five years, but the country’s hosting of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics are broadly regarded as a disaster by the Brazilian public, and shoehorning its way into another expensive tournament would be a bizarre move by the Brazilian authority.
Odds other major events are relocated
Olympic Games (in the next ten years): 10/1
Final Four (in the next five years): 12/1
Super Bowl (in the next five years): 15/1
The next four Super Bowl’s are in Minneapolis, Atlanta, Miami, and LA. Those games are unlikely to be moved, because there’s no international conflict to underscore a venue change and, apart from LA (which will host in 2021), all of the facilities have already been constructed. The Olympic games, with Pyeongchang, Tokyo, Beijing, Paris and Los Angeles on the docket, should stay where they are; those countries all rank below the median in the Corruption Perceptions Index and have the state capacity and GDP to construct or refurbish suitable accommodations.
With everything that’s going on in college basketball, you’d think the venue for the Final Four (San Antonio, 2018; Minneapolis, 2019; Atlanta, 2020; Indianapolis, 2021) could end up shifting. Those cities, however, are largely harmless, and critically not (yet) embroiled in the far-reaching scandal that threatens to undermine the foundations of college basketball. If Louisville were hosting the 2018 Final Four, it would make sense to be a bit skeptical. San Antonio, though? Indianapolis? Apart from everyone in Dallas and Houston, who has a problem with San Antonio? Did the Taliban open an office in San Antonio?