Commentary

My World Cup runneth over

Our Ugly American sporting press on the selections of Qatar and Russia isn't flattering

Originally Published: December 6, 2010
By Jeff MacGregor | ESPN.com

I wonder about us sometimes.

Take our heartbroken national reaction to that World Cup news late last week. FIFA, the governing body of the planet's most popular sport, announced that Russia will host the World Cup in 2018, and that Qatar will do so in 2022. Our American bid failed.

To read the zombie legions of our undead U.S. sporting press, you'd have thought someone stole the Super Bowl.

And Christmas.

And annexed Candyland.

[+] EnlargeQatar
AP PhotoLet's see Texas (or anyplace else in the U.S.) top the world's largest soccer shirt a petrochemical company created to support Qatar's World Cup bid.

I suppose it's a step ahead for soccer in America that anyone anywhere reacted to the news at all. That the same mainstream columnists who ignore soccer when they aren't busy mocking it howled like cartoon characters makes sense, because the only thing American sports writing hates more than losing is soccer. So losing soccer to loser countries like Russia and Qatar was a double blow to our national ego.

The tenor of which critical commentary, so uniform it might have been cut from a single template, sounded a great deal like this:

America will continue to ignore soccer in its own way and in its own time, thank you very much, and we don't need a cabal of Swiss pickpockets and Lichtensteiner cardsharps to remind us why that is. Now fetch me a bourbon and Coke, a raw porterhouse and a '68 GTO with the 455 and a 4-speed. Chop chop!

The criticisms, as is always the case with games and play beyond our own border, ran the usual line from the harmless to the silly to the xenophobic, and from the arrogant to the merely ignorant.

A quick survey of the Twitter feeds coming out of our star-spangled press boxes revealed the recurrent themes of Uncle Sam's hurt:

"Choosing Qatar and Russia is the biggest indictment possible that FIFA is not a clean organization. Petrodollars talk."

"Any time you can hold a World Cup in a hot Middle East country that's smaller than Connecticut [and] has no soccer tradition, you have to do it."

"Ahh, Qatar in midsummer. I hope the reporters covering it aren't required to wear suits on camera."

"Qatar 2022: Because Somalia, Lichtenstein and West Virginia had prior commitments."

"Qatar soccer officials release map of proposed venues for 2022 World Cup."

[+] EnlargeMoscow (Night Scene)
Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty ImagesThink we'd handle the pomp and pageantry any better than Russia? This is what Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow looked like when Russia got the 2018 bid.

I guess I'm not sure why square miles matter, but that Qatar/Connecticut comparison is now afloat everywhere. Is either place too small to build a dozen soccer fields? Do they not still play soccer in Westport and Old Lyme? Is there no room left to park the Volvo? Tuffy, who's bringing the orange wedges?

England is only the size of Louisiana, after all. And without all the great food! And Texas is bigger than France! But has better beef ribs! Bulgaria and Virginia are exactly the same size! And plenty of parking!

For all the shrill jugheadedness issuing ad nauseum on the maximum summer temperatures in Doha, two thoughts: First, move the World Cup several months ahead or several months back to play in cooler seasons. We've all got 12 years to mark and amend our calendars accordingly.

Or simply play the games at night, when the average temperature in Doha is no worse than the unsung summer heat of Miami. And Arabian nights by the way, Eastern Time plus eight hours, are when you're going to want the games played for live airing on North America television anyway. (South Africa, everyone's example of how well America and teevee soccer can get along, was Eastern Time plus seven.)

It's almost endearing to see American sports writers so hurt at being spurned.

[+] EnlargeQatar
AP PhotoTake it from someone who's seen it: the Corniche by the sea in Doha is beautiful.

And it's at least a little charming to realize how na´ve they all remain. How gullible and quaint. (Or how willfully blind.) That we somehow believe our Wall Street dollars or our electronics dollars or our Hollywood dollars or our Co'Cola dollars to be a more moral kind of graft than their "petrodollars."

We remain, by a factor of magnitude, the richest nation on Earth. And very pragmatic when it comes to big money sports.

"But we earned the money we use to bribe international sports federation delegates," our thinking goes. "They merely found theirs."

This is our long Calvinist heritage at work, our stern belief and solemn birthright.

Our grease is cleaner than their grease; our graft is right graft, honest graft, Real American™ graft, the kind of simple, down home graft that built -- with its kickbacks and cost overruns and no-bid contracts -- that Shining City on a Hill®.

American graft is next to Godliness, and the very sacrament of business.

That Qatar and Russia both rank terribly low on the international ladder of press freedoms and press safety is true enough and serious. That my colleagues only worry out loud about this when there's sports money on the table is moderately hypocritical. That we do so at the same moment some U.S. congressmen are calling for the summary execution of that WikiLeaks guy is in the grand tradition of our national black comedy.

The strength of America has never been the depth of our international understanding. Rather, it's been in our willingness to act.

[+] EnlargeAsian Games
AP Photo/Junji KurokawaQatar did just fine with the 2006 Asian Games, as the Closing Ceremonies lit up the sky.

For example, Russia was the root focus and fixation of our every national energy for nearly half a century. To the exclusion of almost all other enemies and all other friends, we fixated on communism and dominoes, reducing a complex population of 150 million souls to a series of cheap clichés, to vodka and Doctor Zhivago. And to this day, trillions of dollars and unknown lives later, we still know next to nothing about that country and its culture.

We repeat that mistake in the Middle East. We've been very deeply engaged with Qatar for nearly 10 years, since the beginning of the "War on Terror." And to hear the vampire sports media tell it, you'd be hard pressed to find the place on a map.

Having gone to Qatar four years ago to cover the Asian Games, I can tell you that they know how to build for big events; that they can accommodate large numbers of athletes and tourists and media; that there are usually a few Aston Martins and Maseratis parked in front of the Bennigan's and the Fuddruckers; that the Corniche along the seaside is most beautiful at night and that the prisons are mostly hidden from view; that the Doha branch campuses of Texas A&M, Northwestern, Carnegie-Mellon and Georgetown look like they were just pulled from their shipping crates, and that it is altogether a place of baffling contradictions, of modernity and the medieval, of allies and enemies, of fear and hate and want and need and worry and hunger and love -- just like the rest of planet Earth.

And yet no bigger than Connecticut.

For those of you disinclined to explanations rooted in the self-fulfilling fantasies of American Exceptionalism, xenophobia and conspiracy theory, I'll offer this:

The United States hosted the World Cup 16 years ago, in 1994. Of those countries hosting the World Cup twice, the average gap between events was 58 years. 58 years. Italy waited 56 years from Cup to Cup. France 60. (Germany managed two Cups in just 32 years, but that's because 1974's World Cup was held in West Germany, now untergegangen. Kaput. That 2006 date was a belated global holla to reunification.) England, the very home of footie, last hosted in 1966 and hasn't been successfully considered since.

[+] EnlargeNorthwestern University in Qatar
AP Photo/Osama FaisalAmerican academia is alive and well in Qatar. Northwestern University hosted a public lecture by Roxana Saberi, an Iranian-American journalist imprisoned in Iran for more than 100 days, in September.

So the reason we didn't get the World Cup may be no reason at all.

In the meantime, the world flies apart as it quickens on its axis of ignorance and bigotry and self-interest.

Only by engaging one another, only by understanding friends and enemies alike, can we hope to survive.

Thus, by forcing us to embrace Russia and to take up Qatar, by requiring us to learn something about them, to watch them, even if only on the sports page, even if only as an afterthought to a colossal Ponzi Scheme, by challenging us to confront our narrowness and our prejudice and our night terrors, FIFA, in all its louche cupidity and moral squalor, in all its operatic corruption and greed, may have saved us all.

Huh.

I wonder about us sometimes.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com, or follow his Twitter.com feed @MacGregorESPN.

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