US misses out on international sport yet again
First the Olympics, now World Cup. When it comes to landing sports' biggest events, the United States can't win.
Still smarting from Chicago's snub in the 2016 Olympics race last year, the U.S. was passed over for the 2022 World Cup on Thursday.
While the U.S. had the best financial bid, according to FIFA's analysis, and ready-built stadiums to host the tournament, the tiny desert nation of Qatar won 14-8 in the final round of secret voting by the executive committee of soccer's governing body.
"I don't know that the sports community looks at the process for the 2016 Chicago bid as being carefully planned and well executed. I don't believe that anyone would really look back at this process and believe that we did anything wrong," Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press from the FIFA vote in Zurich.
"It could just be there's not enough support for bringing these kinds of events to our shores as there might have been decades ago," he said. "Perhaps our market is developed enough -- it doesn't require these events. But perhaps the reputation of our country is such that we're not able to win the support of many other countries that are making these decisions that don't believe we need or deserve these large international tournaments."
Russia will host the 2018 tournament, beating joint bids by Spain-Portugal and Belgium-Netherlands in a vote also announced Thursday. England, soccer's motherland, received just two votes and was knocked out in the first round.
America fared slightly better, surviving until the final round as Australia, Japan and South Korea were eliminated. But the U.S. received just three votes in the opening round, likely the three from its own North and Central American and Caribbean region.
"I think it's a big setback," said Walter Bahr, a member of the 1950 U.S. World Cup team that upset England. "Financially, I think it's a big blow, and soccer-wise, it's a tremendous blow."
But the defeat doesn't carry quite the personal sting as Chicago's humiliating loss to Rio de Janeiro in the bid for the 2016 Olympics. Or New York's early-round loss in the 2012 Olympic race, ultimately won by London.
While Rio's plea to bring the games to South America for the first time was compelling and may have been insurmountable, Chicago's first-round loss also was a clear repudiation of the U.S. Olympic Committee. However, there was no apparent animosity toward the U.S. and its World Cup bid.
U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati, a key force in the progress American soccer has made over a quarter-century, has known every member of the executive committee for years. Because of the secret vote, he was never able to gauge support.
"There was the possibility of some alliances. The numbers would seem to bare that out," he said. "It's politics. It's friendships and relationships. It's alliances. It's tactics."
Still, the U.S. is now 0-for-3 in recent years when it comes to winning the world's biggest games.
American soccer officials saw a second World Cup as a way to boost the steady but slow growth of a sport struggling to gain attention among fans focused on the NFL, Major League Baseball, the NBA and college football and basketball.
The USSF spent two years and millions of dollars to bring the World Cup back to America for the first time since 1994, when a record 3.59 million fans attended an event that opened soccer to U.S.-style marketing and corporate sales.
"I consider it a disappointment for me personally, for sure, and a setback as we're trying to move this sport forward," Gulati said. "Getting the right to host this event 12 years from now, with that sort of buildup time, was the equivalent of putting your foot on the accelerator and really taking a big jump.
"And so from that perspective, it's certainly an opportunity lost. Do I think we're going to get to where we want to get eventually? The answer is yes."
Now the U.S. will have to wait until at least 2026, when it may have to compete with bids from Europe, soccer's financial base. The 2014 tournament will be held in Brazil.
Former President Bill Clinton lobbied voters in South Africa during this year's World Cup and again this week in Zurich. President Barack Obama didn't make a personal appearance as he did at the 2016 vote but did videotape an appeal that was played Wednesday during the final presentations.
"Wrong decision," Obama said after the vote. "But I continue to be optimistic that our team, wherever we're playing, is going to make it to the finals next time out."
FIFA president Sepp Blatter prizes the role soccer can play in nation building, and that theme was a cornerstone of Qatar's campaign. It used its 30-minute presentation Wednesday to underline how the tournament could unify a region ravaged by conflict, promising FIFA that this was the right time to bring the world's most popular sporting event to the Middle East for the first time.
"FIFA has a lot of different things to consider. They clearly understood the financial advantages of our bid. They also are interested in innovation and blazing new trails and going to new areas. And I think it's clear that those kinds of considerations ruled the day," said John Skipper, ESPN's executive vice president of content and a U.S. bid committee member.
Russia will also be a first-time host.
"Soccer is a world game and you've got to spread the wealth and you've got spread the enthusiasm," said Marcelo Balboa, a defender on the U.S. teams at the 1990 and '94 World Cups. "By going to Qatar, they're showing FIFA is willing to go anywhere."
American soccer star Landon Donovan agreed.
"When you hear President Blatter talk about his goals, he wants to spread soccer around the world. You can't begrudge him that," he said.
Still, there were suspicions about the motivations behind both votes.
With two hosts to be determined, there had been talk for weeks of deals being cut, and eight European members of the 22-man committee clearly cast their ballots elsewhere.
"Basically, oil and natural gas won today. This was not about merit, this was about money," said Eric Wynalda, a member of the U.S. 1990, 1994 and 1998 World Cup teams.
Former U.S. national team star Alexi Lalas said he thinks that however much the U.S. has improved its level of play on the field, it remains outmatched in the board rooms of international sports.
"To a certain extent, it shows our naivete," Lalas said. "This is no different to a certain extent than what goes on in the corridors of power in many countries around the world, including our own. There are deals made. There are promises made. It's part of the intrigue and the drama and the theater of FIFA, and at times it's incredibly interesting and at times it's incredibly frustrating and maddening. But until we recognize that this is the playing field, we're probably going to struggle."
Because of allegations of corruption, two executive committee members were excluded from the final votes. Chuck Blazer, the only American on the executive committee, said in some cases he thought "there is a certain amount of political pressure that is put on members by external forces, by governments."
"You are dealing with international matters of very significant sums of money in respect to the income that is generated by a World Cup to a country," he said.
FIFA's decision brought an angry response from Fox Sports Media Group chairman David Hill, a member of the U.S. bid committee.
"FIFA scored an own goal by not awarding the World Cup to the U.S.," he said. "Soccer's growth over the next decade would have been exponential had the 2022 World Cup been awarded to America."
Armour reported from Chicago, Blum from New York
AP Sports Writers Graham Dunbar and Chris Lehourites in Zurich contributed to this report.