ZURICH -- How convoluted are the politics surrounding this Thursday's FIFA vote to award the hosts for World Cups 2018 and '22? Well, the first person I saw upon leaving airport customs here was Bora Milutinovic, the peripatetic Serbian-born, Mexican-based coach who managed the U.S. at World Cup '94.
"My friend! My friend!" Bora squawked, and it's true. Bora is everybody's friend. He remains tight with the U.S. Soccer Federation, which is bidding to host World Cup '22 (to be awarded with World Cup '18 on Thursday). But Bora is publicly supporting the competing bid of Qatar -- for a nice fee -- joining other celebrity endorsers for the wealthy Arab emirate that include Zinédine Zidane, Sir Alex Ferguson and Pep Guardiola.
For a few days, then, Bora is not America's friend. And yet the U.S. will have plenty of important supporters in the final push to land the World Cup, including former President Bill Clinton, star player Landon Donovan and the actor Morgan Freeman, all of whom will be part of the U.S. delegation's official presentation to FIFA on Wednesday.
How big is this week for U.S. Soccer? "It presents us a unique opportunity," said Sunil Gulati, the U.S. Soccer president who also chairs the bid committee. "Hosting the World Cup brings attention to the sport in a way that nothing else can. We saw glimpses of that this past summer with the U.S. team's participation in the World Cup, so it's an extraordinary opportunity."
For MLS commissioner Don Garber, who's here as part of the bid, having a 12-year run-up to hosting the biggest event in sports would provide MLS the kind of springboard that President Kennedy built in 1962 by announcing his intentions of putting a man on the moon.
"There are very few things that any business could ever do where you can plan 12 years in advance for a life-changing moment," Garber said. "If we win, we'll have over 10 years to work with cities, stadiums, sponsors, broadcasters and the entire soccer community to harness the whole power of the world's most popular sporting event."
The heads of the U.S. contingent here feel like they have the best bid for 2022 on paper when they go head-to-head against competitors Qatar, Australia, South Korea and Japan. The U.S. has a ready-made infrastructure of NFL stadiums, highways and hotels that's without peer worldwide. The 1994 event in the U.S. still holds the record for the highest attendance of any World Cup. And the sport could still take a quantum leap in America by hosting another World Cup.
But there is that matter of hosting in '94, which could work against the U.S. in comparison to Australia and Qatar, which have never hosted the tournament.
Keep in mind, too, that this is a huge week for FIFA. "It's completely unique," said Chuck Blazer, the lone American on the FIFA Executive Committee, which will vote for the hosts on Thursday. Never before has FIFA awarded two World Cups on the same day, a move that was originally designed to bundle sponsorships and TV rights fees but which has caused everyone to think vote-trading is taking place. These are momentous decisions for FIFA, which gets all of its income from the World Cup and uses it to fund all the other projects and events that it oversees. "We're setting the course for FIFA for the next 12 years," says Blazer.
This year's secret-ballot votes haven't come without questions of corruption, though. FIFA suspended two Executive Committee members for offering to sell their votes, and the BBC program Panorama reported this week that three other ExCo members took bribes connected to a decade-old case involving FIFA.
"We've obviously been paying attention because it affects who's voting," said the U.S.' Gulati. "We've played by the rules 100 percent of the time. We've been very careful. We're not doing things and then finding out after the fact if they're OK or not. We're not in gray zones here."
And is it possible for the U.S. to win the '22 bid while playing by the rules? "Yes," Gulati maintains. "I certainly hope so, or we wouldn't have gotten into the game. We also made clear we had every intention of winning and clearly thought we could play by the rules and win."
One other thing's clear: Anyone who tells you he knows with certainty who will get these bids is lying. Any number of possibilities could play out on Thursday, but here's my best guess at handicapping the fields for World Cups '18 and '22: