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Why Russia Could Beat England to Host 2018 World Cup

  Why Russia Could Beat England to Host 2018 World Cup

This week The FIFA inspection committee responsible for producing the report on all the possible host countries for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups visits England.  The committee will be touring London, Manchester, Sunderland and Newcastle, inspecting stadia, looking at infrastructure, and getting charmed by David Beckham, Fabio Capello and Bobby Charlton.

Many English fans consider themselves a lock for hosting 2018 World Cup.  In their view, there is no European nation that can match their stadia, infrastructure, or passion for the game.  England is the birth place for soccer, and has not hosted its greatest tournament, since 1966.  For English fans, it is time for the cup to return home.

However, all history and nostalgia aside, there are some very practical forces that are endangering England’s bid.  England’s main competition for 2018 hosting responsibilities is Russia, and there are several critical reasons for FIFA to find a Russian World Cup more attractive.

England has stadia, but they are old and small

England brags that it already has all the infrastructure it needs and would not have to build a single new stadium for World Cup 2018.  However, what England sees as an asset, FIFA may look at as a detriment.  England does have plenty of venues for the World Cup, but only three of them, Wembley, Old Trafford and Emirates, seat more than 60,000.  In fact, for the top 10 stadia in England, six of them seat fewer than 50,000.  For the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, the host country used 10 stadia that had a total seating capacity of 548,000.  The top 10 stadia in England would have a capacity of 25,000 fewer seats.

Apart from the seating capacity, almost as critical to FIFA is the nature of those stadia.  Included in that list are some grand dames like Anfield, Goodison Park, Villa Park and Stamford Bridge.  While these structures may overflow with memories and lore, what they are not packed with is luxury boxes, corporate entertainment facilities and the amenities that FIFA needs to wine and dine their critical commercial sponsors.  FIFA has three sources of income during a World Cup – ticket sales, corporate sponsorship, and licensing fees (both for merchandise and broadcast rights).  The facilities in England will limit their potential ticket sales and make the care and feeding of their sponsors (who have, after all, forked over billions of dollars for the privilege) far more challenging. 

Russia, on the other hand, would have to build most of its stadia from scratch.  While this may look like a detriment to some, to FIFA that is actually a positive.  Having just come from South Africa, where the majority of its venues were newly constructed and built with all the modern sporting amenities in place, the entire situation was close to ideal.  If lowly South Africa can pull off that trick, there is little doubt that Russia can too.  In the last decade, Russia has been on an airport and hotel building spree, and if there is any skill the Russians have, it is in the building of large (and occasionally ponderous) urban infrastructure.  If Russia can convince FIFA that they have the commitment to build the venues necessary for World Cup 2018, England’s existing stadia could actually hinder their bid.

FIFA prioritizes emerging soccer markets over existing ones

England will undoubtedly tout its unreserved fanaticism for the game while Russia is still a country that cares more about hockey and gymnastics.  However, like the stadia issue, this may be a positive for FIFA.  FIFA has an evangelical streak about them, and likes to proselytize about the beautiful game to the uninitiated.  They like to use every other World Cup to break into new markets, expand the passion for game, and convert more followers into the church of football.  USA 1994, Korea/Japan 2002, and South Africa 2010 represent their latest efforts in this crusade.  With the 2014 Cup being held in Brazil, FIFA may look at 2018 as another missionary opportunity.

And Russia is a real growth opportunity.  This emerging market with millions of potential soccer aficionados is exactly the kind of growth opportunity that makes FIFA salivate.  Russia has money and population, and FIFA feels like they are not getting their fair share of either.  Putting a World Cup in Russia may be exactly battering ram that breaks down the door for a significant new revenue stream for FIFA.

Conversely, from a business perspective, FIFA may look at England as a saturated market place with little opportunity for growth.  For the green eye-shades at FIFA, bringing the World Cup to Newcastle would be like bringing coal to, well, Newcastle.

Those passionate English fans are a tad bit scary

During the 2006 World Cup in Germany, the security precautions put into place to control the English fans were extraordinary.  Many English fans have a very unsavory reputation, and long list were drawn up of supporters who were prohibited from travelling to Germany for the games.   For the first time (at least since 1945 or so), English security forces were allowed into Germany to help maintain order.  And yet, there were plenty of incidents and acts of violence as a few bad apples reflected poorly on a nation of civil football supporters.

For a World Cup stationed in England, no bad apples will be prohibited or controlled.  You cannot keep an Englishman , no matter his reputation, from getting on train to an English stadium or from approaching a pub where a French or Italian or German fans have gathered or from doing anything violent until they have actually done it and broken the law.  While England thug culture has certainly dissipated from its Thatcherite heyday, nobody would argue that it has gone away.  If the authorities had such a difficult time controlling the English fans in Berlin, how are they going to control them in London, Manchester or Liverpool?  This is an issue that weighs heavily on FIFA’s mind.

Comparatively, for better or worse, Russia does have some history and some skill in the arts of maintaining civil order. 

How all of these issues resonate with FIFA will not be known until December 2, when FIFA announces who will host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.  However, shorting England’s overinflated odds of being declared a host might be a good bet. 

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