Asia's four musketeers may hardly be fighting "all for one" in the race to host the 2022 World Cup but they all agree as to which nation presents the greatest threat to their ambitions: the United States. "It's CONCAFAF's turn for 2022, it's as simple as that" said USA 2022 Bid Chairman Sunil Gulati at a conference in London in October. "It's Asia's turn," Asian Football Confederation (AFC) president Mohamed Bin Hammam said the day after. "With two-thirds of the world's population, we should host the World Cup more often."
The U.S. hosted the tournament in 1994 while South Korea-Japan did the honors eight years later. The same three are in the running to host 2022 along with Australia (a member of the AFC since 2006) and Qatar. Recent reports of votes being sold for money and other dodgy deals have muddied waters already murky. The one certainty is that there are going to be twists and turns aplenty before the 24 (or 22 due to the suspension of two members following recent bribery allegations) members of FIFA's Executive Committee make the decision in Zurich on December 2.
If it comes down to money, then it will come to Qatar. The tiny West Asian nation has been splashing the cash in copious amounts. Any exhibition or gathering connected to soccer has "Qatar 2022" slapped all over it as do a host of world-famous soccer celebs. In a bidding expo last December in Cape Town, former Dutch international Ronald De Boer could be seen standing in front of the Qatar booth promoting that bid in direct competition with (when European nations were still in the hunt for 2022) Belgium-Netherlands and within sarcastic comment range of bid CEO Harry Been and former teammate Ruud Gullit.
In addition to De Boer, Qatar could simply wheel out bigger names such as Pep Guardiola, Gabriel Batistuta and Zinedine Zidane -- it is an impressive list.
The same can be said of the proposed stadiums, even more so as they are all going to be air-conditioned (and, even cooler, partially dismantled after the tournament and distributed to needy nations overseas). They have to be, as only the foolhardy would play during the daytime in June in Doha -- people try to avoid heading outside for any length of time at all during that period. It is not only the weather. In September, the usually diplomatic FIFA inspection team publicly cast doubt on the logistical ability of a nation not much more than a third the size of Belgium to host the world's biggest sporting event.
In its favor, Qatar, who could have made more of its symbolic middle-eastern legacy credentials by including a neighbor, has a novelty value that that three of the other four do not.
Australia is another eager for its first chance. The 2000 Sydney Olympics impressed and there can be few people that love sports like the Aussies. The World Cup bid started well energetically but Football Federation Australia (FFA) has lost its way a little since. A row over the use of stadiums almost derailed the bid. It now looks almost cute in light of recent events but there was a summer scare over gifts made to wives of FIFA Exco members -- the federation was completely cleared of wrongdoing -- and the FFA has been bitterly criticized for putting all its eggs in the basket labeled "2022" to the detriment of a fledgling domestic league that is seen to be stagnating.
Little stagnates in fast-moving East Asia but the fact that the decision is being made almost 12 years ahead of time counts against the former co-hosts with 2002 fresh in the memory. Japan vows to use the next decade to their advantage however and is committed to developing technology so revolutionary that bid officials only saw it being tested for the first time when the FIFA inspection team came to Tokyo in July. By 2022, Japan wants to project each game 3D hologram style to stadiums around the world so fans everywhere can almost smell the sushi.
Korea is also battling to overcome the barrier that is 2002 and has also been thinking big in order to do so. Its plan to try to involve North Korea in the tournament attracted widespread interest earlier in the year and was enthusiastically supported by DPRK star striker Jung Tae Se. Not all think it is realistic but with bid Chairman Han Sung-joo a former foreign minister and a man who has more experience dealing with leaders Great and Dear (Kim Jong-il) and than most, stranger things have happened.
The bid made waves in October, to the extent that Qatar bid officials now consider their eastern rival to present a serious threat. The announcement in London that Korea would create a global football development fund of $777 million was well-received. Well-reported was Dr. Chung Mong-joon's subsequent speech. In it, the FIFA vice-president and the main man in Korean football, laid out the strengths of his nation's bid and hinted that he or someone else could challenge Sepp Blatter in the elections for the FIFA presidency next May.
That election provides an extra twist, not that one was needed with the complications and deal-making arising from FIFA's decision to announce two World Cups at the same time, to the events that will unfold in Switzerland in December.
There is another. China is the dragon in the room as far as the four Asian candidates are concerned. Reports surfaced in July that the Chinese FA was considering a 2026 bid. Taking the World Cup to the world's most populous country in 2026 is sure to tempt a FIFA always looking for new markets but it can only happen if Asia doesn't win 2022.
Dr. Chung threw the cat among the pigeons to land at the feet of a bird named "USA" earlier this month -- the only rival that could benefit from any Chinese intervention -- for making capital out of the report that he claimed, as did Bin Hammam shortly after, was misquoted and out of context.
"Despite [China's] denial, the atmosphere within the AFC is not free from lingering suspicion that the rival bidding country might have entertained a wishful thinking to sway the bidding competition in its favor... My Asian colleagues believe that, if true, such attempts definitely deserve a yellow card, if not red."
The Americans were not impressed and Wei Di, head of the Chinese FA, made a retreat, though only of the vaguest sort, shortly after, saying that China would not bid for the 2026 World Cup as long no AFC candidate is successful in 2022. It may not happen as Chinese football has once again been engulfed by corruption scandals.
It all sounds wearily familiar and, besides, 2026 is too far away to even contemplate. For now, Dec. 2 can't come soon enough, at least everyone can agree on that.