ZURICH -- The tiny desert nation of Qatar beat out the United States as the 2022 World Cup host, with FIFA brushing aside doubts about blistering heat to bring soccer’s showcase event for the first time to the Middle East.
The 22 voters on FIFA’s executive committee, some accused of corruption in the weeks leading up to their meeting, picked Russia to stage the 2018 tournament, another first-time host. Both votes were taken Thursday and the results announced minutes apart.
Qatar, an oil-rich nation that has been independent since 1971, has a population of about 1.7 million -- 500,000 less than Houston. At 4,416 square miles, it is smaller than Connecticut.
“We go to new lands,” FIFA president Sepp Blatter said.
Qatar, which has promised to overcome heat of up to 130 degrees with air conditioned outdoor stadiums, led on every round of balloting that initially included Australia, Japan and South Korea. The lowest vote-getter was eliminated after each round until only the U.S. and Qatar remained. Qatar won the final vote 14-8.
“Basically, oil and natural gas won today. This was not about merit, this was about money,” former U.S. national team star Eric Wynalda said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. Qatar “is a country that is really going to struggle to host this event. A successful World Cup would mean the attendance would be twice the population.”
The U.S. Soccer Federation, which spent millions of dollars on its bid and brought over former President Bill Clinton for its closing presentation, was hoping to bring the World Cup back to America for the first time since 1994 and boost the steady but slow growth of the sport in the U.S.
Russia was chosen over England and joint bids by Spain-Portugal and Netherlands-Belgium. “We cannot really express how happy we are,” said Alexey Sorokin, CEO of Russia’s bid. “It’s a great victory.”
Following corruption allegations that led to two executive committee members being excluded from the final votes, the decisions were bound to be controversial even before they were made. And American sports executives will now be left to wonder what they have do to host another major international event.
“Soccer is a world game and you’ve got to spread the wealth and you’ve got to spread the enthusiasm,” former American defender Marcelo Balboa said. “By going to Qatar, it’s showing that FIFA is willing to go anywhere.”
Qatar, which has never even qualified for a World Cup, used its 30-minute presentation to underline how the tournament could unify a region ravaged by conflict. Presenters also promised to dismantle the stadiums built for the tournament and give them to needy nations.
The nation promised to spend $50 billion on infrastructure upgrades and $4 billion to build nine stadiums and renovate three others. One advantage of the having the tournament in a small country: The stadiums will all be within an hour of each other.
Qataris and others—including workers from south Asia—immediately started dancing in the streets along Doha’s Gulf waterfront. Some blew the vuvuzelas that became synonymous with the World Cup in South Africa.
FIFA’s inspection report highlighted a danger posted by heat—the average high in late June is 106 degrees. Qatar said the World Cup thrived despite heat during tournaments in Mexico in 1970 and 1986, and the U.S. in 1994.
“On behalf of millions of people living in the Middle East, thank you,” Qatar bid chair Sheikh Mohammad bin Hamad Al-Thani said. “Thank you for believing in us, thank you for having such bold vision. ... Thank you also for acknowledging this is the right time for the Middle East. We have a date with history which is summer 2022.”
Bid chief executive Hassan al-Thawadi promised Israel would be allowed to participate if it qualifies.
“We are a very, very hospitable place that welcomes people from all parts of the world,” he said. “Bringing the World Cup to the Middle East now ... will showcase to the world that the Middle East is home to a lot of people, it’s opening its arms to the rest of the world. In doing so, such misconceptions will be dissolved.”
Al-Thani also said groundwork was being laid for women’s league.
“This is another perception, another perception that women are oppressed in the Middle East and this is a wrong, wrong perception,” he said. “We hope with the World Cup being awarded to Qatar, we can change that.”
It was the second straight international loss for the U.S., which was led by former President Bill Clinton during its final presentation Wednesday. Last year, the International Olympic Committee chose Rio de Janeiro over Chicago and others for the 2016 Olympics despite a personal lobbying effort by President Barack Obama.
Brazil was selected as the 2014 host in October 2007, and FIFA began accepting bids for the following two tournaments in early 2009.
The World Cup was played in the United States for the first time in 1994, setting a record with 3.58 million tickets sold, and the U.S. Soccer Federation had hoped a second World Cup in America would boost soccer’s slow but steady growth and give a big lift to Major League Soccer.
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.
By selecting Qatar, FIFA precluded a 2026 bid from China, since the same continent cannot host consecutive World Cups.
The 2018 vote was especially crushing for England, the motherland of soccer, which has not hosted the World Cup since winning it for the only time in 1966. England’s final presentation Thursday included Prince William, Prime Minister David Cameron and Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder David Beckham, a former captain of England’s soccer team.
England received just two votes and was eliminated first, with Russia getting nine, Spain-Portugal seven and Belgium-Netherlands four. Russia received 13 in the second round, winning the vote because it had a majority.
“You will never regret” the decision, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov said. “Let us make history together.”