Qatar 2022's trademark slogan is 'All Is Now' with the previous buzzphrase 'Like No Other' now rarely cited. Because much of the unprecedented was already happening: Videos of Qatari police asking reporters to delete photos and in one case, threatening to smash news cameras. Apologies were made but the reports of 6500 migrant worker deaths, human rights violations and anti-LGBTQ laws grew louder and louder.
FIFA boss Gianni Infantino sent out a letter asking participating nations to 'focus on football.' Before himself turning up in Bali and making a plea to G20 leaders for a 'temporary ceasefire' in the Ukraine war during the World Cup. On tournament eve, he then delivered a stinging scolding to the Anglosphere and its Euro-centric binoculars.
The football plus all else is now on in Qatar 2022 but this will be like no other FIFA World Cup. In many different contexts - being played in the European winter amidst a jumble of contradictions: the country's fifty-year football history, one stadium, in stadia air conditioning etc. Qatar22 will also be the last of the moderately-sized World Cups.
In 2026, the number of participating nations will rise from 32 (eight groups of four each) to 48, in 16 groups of three each. There is every chance that the World Cups of the future may not be held in a single country. Or even require that a country have a large number of FIFA-approved football stadia. We may be looking at multi-nation, continental and even trans-continental World Cup football whose greatest blessing is that the biggest sporting event on the planet can be a far more sustainable exercise.
Sticking to one country with FIFA's extraordinarily-detailed criteria – and every host nation's infrastructure-cartel deal-making – has only served to inflate budgets and affect national economies. South Africa's spend for 2010 was said to be more than $3b, Brazil 2014 was rated as the most expensive World Cup ever at $11.3b with Russia 2018 then taking top billing with $14.2b. According to Bloomberg, Qatar's budget spend on the World Cup has already hit $300 billion.
Most of the budget tends to be swallowed up with the construction of gigantic white elephant stadia just to meet FIFA's requirement of 40,000-seaters and of course, security costs. Like the 72,000-seater Mane Garrincha in Brasilia or the 42,000 Manaus Arena da Amazonia in the middle of the Amazon, a six-hour flight from Rio. Or nine of Russia's new stadia built for 2018. Already, Qatar's seven new stadia have an average crowd size of over 48,000, the biggest of which is an 80,000-seater.
But hopefully no more. The 2026 FIFA World Cup, with 48 teams, is to be hosted by the United States, Canada and Mexico across 16 cities, (11 in the US, three in Mexico and two in Canada). Every city has existing venues, of which eight require switching from artificial turf to grass, some are multi-function that also stage NFL/ American football as well as soccer. This is not be the first time the World Cup is being held in more than one country, (Japan-South Korea 2002), but 2028 could mark the way ahead for all mega-events.
The early expressions of interest in bidding for the 2030 FIFA World Cup, (48 teams) are still up in the air. But the list of candidates make for tantalising reading: apart from England, there is a joint four-nation South American bid from Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Chile and an Iberian bid from Spain and Portugal. Last month, Ukraine was added into the Iberian bid, endorsed by Ukranian president Voldymyr Zelenskyy. There's word of a north African bid featuring Morocco (which has made five unsuccessful bids earlier), Tunisia and Algeria as well as cross-federation bid featuring Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Greece. There will off course be gazillion practical hurdles, but the idea itself is wonderful.
FIFA's push towards affordable mega-events is a step behind what the other big Daddy of mega-events - the International Olympic Committee (IOC) – is already onto. Paris 2024 has promised to be the "most sustainable Games ever" by halving and offsetting its carbon emissions.
Two years ago, football itself undertook an unusual experiment. The UEFA European Championships 2020 was held in 11 cities in 11 European countries to mark UEFA's 60th anniversary, with UEFA chief Michel Platini calling it a "romantic one-off." There is every possibility the "one-offs" could take on other forms.
Euro 2024 will be staged by Germany alone but the bid for 2028 is a contest between Turkey and the joint bid from England, Scotland, Wales and both the Irelands. A year ago Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett released a statement saying that he had been in a conversation with Infantino who had "raised the idea that Israel would host the World Cup in 2030, together with other countries in the region, led by the United Arab Emriates."
If Qatar 2022 is the last of the single-nation 'presenting itself to the world'-grandstanding through football world cups, then all the better. Because while the use of the word 'sportswashing' is currently in vogue, every mega event has been through its own individual sportswash, starting way back from the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Also evident is that FIFA itself is trying to repair and burnish its own image post the 2015 corruption scandal. By pitching football as the bridge between nations through its back-channel interventions and Signor Infantino as unofficial global goodwill ambassador for the globe's biggest sport and maybe a high-profile candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. 'Focus on football' is great advice but Infantino's personal definition of what football stands for is definitely different from everyone else's. The sport will surely take over but, it will always be wheels within wheels.
The just-released Netflix documentary FIFA Uncovered was to expose the ghastly dealings around the award of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. The documentary was also a reminder that England and USA had lost out on their bids, after being supported by Presidents and PMs and their global celebrities. One final thought: had England and/ or the United States won hosting rights for 2018 / 2022, would the FBI have turned up en masse at Zurich's Hotel Bar au Lac on May 27, 2015?
Wouldn't bet on it.