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U.S. out of FIFA World

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Taking two uncommonly large risks, FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, Thursday awarded the World Cup to two countries that as of now are particularly ill-prepared to stage the sport’s showpiece event.

Russia, a massive country with a limited infrastructure, most notably in terms of suitable stadiums and reliable transportation, was given the 2018 World Cup.

Qatar, a tiny country with apparently unlimited financial resources but a searing summer climate and a rather strict set of Islamic laws, was handed the 2022 World Cup.

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The questions that arise from these decisions are almost unending, but two come to mind right away:

Will Russia allow the unfettered movement of tens of thousands of foreign fans across its vast landscape? How will Qatar react to the thirsty fans seeking an alcoholic drink or to scantily clad fans seeking a sunbath on the Persian Gulf enclave, where tournament-time temperatures will soar well above 100 degrees?

Those questions are only the tip of the iceberg.

In deciding to carry the FIFA flag into these new territories, the Swiss-based organization’s 22-man executive committee simultaneously rejected the safer route to award the tournaments to England and the U.S., respectively.

But England was unceremoniously bounced out in the first round of voting in Zurich and, in a humiliating rebuke, received only two votes. Russia won it in the second round by securing 13 votes, well ahead of a joint Spain/Portugal bid with seven and a joint Netherlands/Belgium bid with two.

The U.S., seeking the 2022 tournament, also was never really in the hunt. After Australia was eliminated in the first round, Japan in the second round and South Korea in the third, Qatar trounced the Americans, 14-8, in the final round of voting.

The next chance the U.S. would have to stage soccer’s flagship tournament would be in 2026. Four years later, the 2030 tournament is virtually certain to go to Uruguay on the 100th anniversary of the inaugural World Cup played there in 1930.

But U.S. bidders were not looking that far ahead Thursday.

“There’s no way around it: I am disappointed,” Sunil Gulati, the president of U.S. Soccer, said on the federation’s website.

Later, in a conference call from Switzerland, Gulati said FIFA politics had come into play.

“It’s politics, it’s friendships and relationships, it’s alliances, it’s tactics,” he said. “There are far too many permutations, especially with two World Cups being decided on the same day, and I’m not smart enough to figure out how all those played out in these two elections.”

David Cameron, England’s prime minister, who had shuttled back and forth between London and Zurich for several days while trying to help England’s cause, was similarly shattered by the outcome.

“It is desperately sad,” he said. “There hasn’t been a World Cup in England in my lifetime. I was hoping we could change that, but not this time.”

The U.S., too, was rated as the best prospect, checking all the boxes for 2022 with regard to sponsorship, ticketing, hospitality, licensing and media rights in a confidential report prepared for FIFA.

With that in mind, Hugh Robertson, England’s minister for sport, could just as easily have been speaking for the U.S. as for England when he tried to fathom FIFA’s choices. “The only possible explanation is the one given by Sepp Blatter when he announced the decision, which was wanting to take football to new frontiers,” Robertson said.

“We are going to new lands,” Blatter, FIFA’s 74-year-old president, gushed when announcing the outcome to a largely somber audience (Russians and Qataris excepted).

Of course, Blatter, and many others on the executive committee, will long have left the stage by the time the difficulties of 2018 and 2022 have to be faced.

Meanwhile, the elation in Moscow and Doha was unrestrained.

“We have everything in Russia to host the World Cup on a worthy level,” Vladimir Putin, Russia’s prime minister, said in a flag-waving Moscow before flying to Zurich to thank FIFA.

“Of course, we need to accomplish a lot -- stadiums, hotels, roads -- but that is where the challenge is, that is where the advantage of our bid was because that means developing world soccer.”

Russia is expected to spend several billion dollars preparing for a tournament to be played in 13 cities.

Qatari reaction was also joyous. “Thank you for believing in change,” Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, Qatar’s ruler, said in Zurich.

grahame.jones@latimes.com

Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko contributed to this report from Moscow.


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