Q&A: FIFA’s Chuck Blazer

Chuck Blazer is the general secretary of Concacaf, the regional confederation that includes the United States. He is also the only American on FIFA’s powerful 24-man executive committee (a member since 1996), which recently awarded the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar. He said he cast his vote for Russia (2018) and the United States (2022), which lost out to Qatar in the fourth round of voting. Blazer spoke by telephone on Monday with Jack Bell of The Times from Abu Dhabi, where he is serving of the chairman of the committee that oversees the Club World Cup.

Q: How has the Club World Cup tournament been going?

A: So far so good. We had preliminaries, then the semis. One local team [Al-Whada] did well and created some excitement. Personally, I’m a bit disappointed in Pachuca [which lost in the quarterfinals, its one and only match]. Sometimes teams get here lacking energy, who knows. You don’t get a second chance and have to perform.

Q: Did you go right to the Middle East after the World Cup vote in Zurich?

A: Right after the decision I came back to New York for a day. I arrived here on Sunday. People in this part of the world are pretty happy with the World Cup decision, and frankly the weather is perfect now, it is ideal. I know what it’s like in the summer. I don’t know if in their thinking Qatar figured let’s win it, then deal with issue of the weather — that’s the theory. I didn’t see any way of solving the issue of heat during the summer. I have friends in this part of the world and they head to Southern California in the summer. The reality is that the physical conditions are what they are. In general, there’s a level of happiness among people in the region. I understand that. It’s not the first time there’s been a candidate from the Arab world. We had Morocco and Egypt, who were also unsuccessful for 2010. There’s a general sense of participation and good feelings about it, with no focus on the other issue. In the end someone will find a solution, and I think the heat is more of an issue for Europe than for the U.S.

Chuck Blazer is the only American on FIFA’s powerful 24-man executive committee.Torsten Silz/AFP–Getty Images Blazer is the only American on FIFA’s powerful 24-man executive committee.

Q: Just before the vote, you were quoted in The Wall Street Journal saying something like Qatar might be able to air-condition its stadiums, but it will not be able to air-condition the whole country. When you said that, did you have a sense of which way the vote would go for 2022?

A: No, not really. Early on they made a statement about their plans for the stadiums. But when I asked them to address the rest of the country, I was pretty well ignored. It made good sense. Why would they talk about the negative? At the start, no one took Qatar’s bid seriously and the U.S. was more focused on Australia. As time went on, Qatar’s ascendancy grew.

What prompted that statement to the Journal was the question I asked them early on. It wasn’t caused by a groundswell of support. I was only restating my feeling.

Q: There were some eyebrows raised over your early support for and subsequent vote for Russia. And apparently you were quite impressed during your inspection tour. What tipped the balance for you?

A: First of all, Europe had four pretty good bids, not one was a dog, four very different bids. I felt in the end, the bid from Spain and Portugal in 2018 might still be facing some economic issues given what going on in those two countries. They have facilities that need work. Before Russia, I went to Belgium and Holland for a very nice visit. I was impressed with them and that bid. Any time you can go to two games a day by driving is a good thing, there’s a good economic situation, they’ve been members of FIFA from the beginning and were an interesting candidacy.

Including England, as far as their ability of any of them to hold the World Cup immediately, they were similar to ours in that regard — the infrastructure is there without the need for too much investment.

In Russia, what was intriguing aside from development issues surrounding the stadiums — what became clear is that there is an economy that 20 years ago started to build new structures. I had been in Russia before when I was the chairman of the women’s U20 World Cup, working with the new president of the federation who is now the minister of sport. There was good cooperation with FIFA in getting the job done. I know St. Petersburg and Moscow well, but I really wanted to get a look at some other parts of the country, along the Volga by Sochi, to get a sense of other areas. What I learned during trip is that there is a true commitment to resources. In Sochi for the Olympics, there are projects going on, about $30 billion worth of work. New roads, stadiums, facilities. They are all far enough along so that it’s not just pie in the sky. I saw their plan and have a certainty it will be fulfilled.

Another piece was when I got to Kazan. It’s a city on the Volga that has 30 universities. It’s an area in the new Russia that has become all about development. It will host the World University Games [in 2013]. There’s a tremendous amount of building in connection with the bid, and I think a desire to open up to the West and Western Europe by integration through football.

From my perspective they will get the job done and done well. As the chairman of FIFA’s TV committee and a member of the marketing advisory board, I got a good view of how the sponsors would be impacted. It’s an important emerging market to all sponsors, a secure country that will be building more stadiums that will increase the level of activity inside the football society in Russia.

There’s life in Russia.

Prince William, right, and David Beckham in Zurich on Dec. 2 for the World Cup announcements. England’s bid failed to make it past the first round of voting.Press Association, via Associated Press Prince William, right, and David Beckham in Zurich on Dec. 2 for the World Cup announcements. England’s bid for the 2018 tournament failed to make it past the first round of voting.

Q: And there will always be England. Its bid did not make it past the first round of voting for 2018. There was much attention on the actions of some news media outlets. How much of an impact did that have on the result?

A: There wasn’t just the issue about the press, it goes back a lot further. I was with Prince William [the royal member of England’s bid committee] in Cape Town. He asked how they were doing. I said other than the press, pretty well. The strangest part is him saying, ‘You’re telling me.’ We understand how vicious at times the British press can be. On the football side, the press in England is a two-edged sword. It also gives tremendous value to Premier League and that much interest is often a positive.

What I did notice toward end was that people who were not the focus of the stories, other good members of Exo [executive committee] getting frustrated by it all. They didn’t like it. Try to view it from the eyes of people who work in the positive aspects of the game’s development, the money distributed to FIFA’s 208 members from the World Cup, the money given to the confederations, for youth, women and men … it all comes from the World Cup. It wasn’t just the targets of the stories, but when you start pointing fingers at everyone, some of the support starts to wane.

Q: What is your take on the differing reactions, specifically the outcry from England compared to what has come out of the United States?

A: There were different reactions and it’s unfortunate that some people tried to lump them into the same campaign. I didn’t see any comments from David Dein [the president of England’s bid]. He felt the same type of hurt we did, I did. Sunil [Gulati, the president of the U.S. Soccer Federation] at the same time avoided making too many statement. Look, there have been a lot of things made up. I read some stuff on a gambling blog about corruption and payoffs, etc. There’s someone sitting in a corner somewhere writing stuff that has no relation to reality. Then the blog gets referenced. I’m really getting to the point that people need to look at being more responsible in certain parts of the press. You just can’t make an attribution to some blogger and walk away.

There are some excellent writers in England who write good and proper articles. Others, however, say whatever they want and make stuff up, especially about my vote for 2018. I never promised them my vote and I have it in writing. I was very clear that I never made any indication of how I would vote. For 2022, I know some friends didn’t vote for us [the United States]. We need to work with them going forward. In the end, people make decisions. You can’t like them all.

The 1994 World Cup in the United States remains the best-attended in tournament history.Gary Hershorn/Reuters The 1994 World Cup in the United States remains the best-attended in the tournament’s history.

Q: Where do we, the U.S., go from here?

A: In ’94, we were a new outpost. To a certain extent it speaks to our success. We’ve had a league now for 15 years, attendance is parallel with what they get in the French league. Some people don’t look at us as novices or in need of help. In the end, I think there are some things to be grateful for. Getting the World Cup would have helped speed up the process and the progress. But in the end, we will make that progress with or without the World Cup.

Part of the problem injected into the bid process were elements that weren’t clear or that had been there before. This talk about legacy. Do you want to go where you can have the best World Cup possible? Then the best answer is England and the U.S. But somewhere along the line, the legacy feature got interjected. To some extent, it’s not fair, just to be looking at opening up new areas. It’s not just about justification of how people voted. If we started out with the philosophy of looking to new areas of growth and development that fine. But it changed during the process.

Going to South Africa, we, meaning FIFA, weren’t sure how it would be. It was a great success, everyone said, ‘Wow.’ In many respects, it just changed everything. We started out with the idea that we wanted safe places. Until South Africa happened, the mode of thinking, still pretty strong, was in favor of guaranteed success. People have the freedom think about legacies in some unknown term. We started out with a much simpler view, the best candidate.

We will face a lot of the same problems in Brazil [for the 2014 World Cup]. It won’t be easy filling stadiums for games that don’t involve Brazil, not too dissimilar from South Africa. The local population wants to see the home team. A lot of work still needs to be done.

Over a period of time, the only practical places to do events like the Olympics and the World Cup have been in Europe and the U.S. Over time, that’s changed in the last decade. It has eroded the natural respect we used to have in the sporting/political circles. It’s evolved somewhat, but I don’t want to make too much of that.

Q: Again, where does this leave the U.S.?

I think there’s a positive perception based on accomplishment. When I talk to people and tell them where we are and how got here, some are realizing how far we have come, as far as building the sport and changing nature of it. We’re not looked on as a backwater, which means we have gained respect and shown that we don’t need to have a World Cup to exist. It’s a good, healthy sport — good attendance, a growing M.L.S., active minor leagues, a structure across the country that we can take some satisfaction from.

Q: There has been so much criticism of the selection process and the perception that it is not totally above board. How do you see it?

A: Some of it may have become influence from a political perspective, Blatter [FIFA president Sepp Blatter], in his role as president, tries to satisfy all the constituencies around the world. As we look forward to the FIFA election in 2015, we have started to see some new alignments, which I feel uncomfortable about.

But I’ve always felt that the decision should be left to the guys running it, as opposed to the Olympic situation where all members get to vote without having any ownership. But now, it’s no longer a matter of picking best place. Maybe we need a different way to evaluate bids. The inspections and documents and other matters were not paid enough attention to. It doesn’t mean these are bad decisions. It does mean the rules had changed. We need to step back. It’s clear the process was democratic.

Q: Was this process, the awarding of two tournaments simultaneously, the best way to do it?

A: I don’t know. We need to look at it and discuss it. In retrospect, awarding two together is not a good idea. When we made decision for South Africa, the economics were uncertain. So the idea to sell two by bundling them seemed like a good idea at the time to lock in things. This became an environment where deal making became prevalent and I think everyone recognizes that this probably was not a good idea.

In the end, it is not a tragedy. It is a shame for those who worked hard on their bids, and I share that feeling. At the same time, it’s a process that goes on.