Morgan Freeman and Bill Clinton lobby for a US World Cup 2022
Morgan Freeman and former President Bill Clinton lined up as the United States piled on the star appeal to back the promise of a revenue-rich tournament in an ethnically diverse nation.
ZURICH — The final bid presentations to stage the 2022 World Cup left the race wide open heading into Thursday's vote. The no-show of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin might have done the same for the 2018 event.
Qatar made perhaps the strongest impression of all five candidates for 2022, smartly seeking to debunk the notion that their desert would be too hot for a World Cup in June and July.
With former President Bill Clinton lining up alongside Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman, the United States piled on the star appeal to back the promise of a revenue-rich tournament in an ethnically diverse nation.
Australia, whose bid's presentation was highlighted with a cameo by supermodel Elle Macpherson, invited everyone to the "world's greatest playground" and to unlock a continent where the World Cup had never gone before. Asian nations Japan and South Korea are considered the outsiders.
Although the presentations for four 2018 bidders are set for early Thursday, Russia claimed much of the attention when Putin surprisingly decided against coming to the home of FIFA to defend a bid which had been seen by many as a favorite. It put England in prime position, with the joint bid of Spain-Portugal as its biggest challenger. The Belgium-Netherlands bid is considered a rank outsider.
Qatar asked FIFA to take a "bold gamble" by moving to a small a nation jutting into the Persian Gulf, a politically volatile region potentially posing problems well beyond the heat.
"We are offering FIFA a historic opportunity to expand the frontiers of the World Cup," said Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad Al-Thani, chairman of Qatar bid committee. "This involves a new mission, a new adventure."
He said there was political backing across the region beyond the Middle East divisions and said their oil-rich nation was wealthy enough to spend $50 billion on transportation, and more than $4 billion on new and upgraded venues, including air-conditions to cool fans and players in stadiums.
While Qatar would still have to build most of the venues, the United States bid insisted the country was so flush with state-of-the-art stadiums that attendance would average 76,000.
U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati had no qualms about boasting that "from a tournament perspective, it will be a major success, setting new records for ticket sales, selling out every match, promising record profits for FIFA to invest in the game worldwide."
Clinton and Freeman both stressed the diversity of the nation.
"It's important that all the teams who come to any World Cup venue feel that they, too, are playing at home, not just for people watching on television," Clinton said. "Maybe America's best claim to this World Cup is that we have the only nation you can put the World Cup that can guarantee no matter who makes the final, we can fill a stadium with home-nation rooters."
Australia, to little surprise, claimed the same diversity.
"Play the World Cup in one of the worlds most multicultural societies, and in doing so capture the hearts and the minds and the opportunity of the fastest growing region of the world — and that's Asia," Football Federation Australia CEO Ben Buckley said.
Frank Lowy, the billionaire businessman and driving force behind the bid, introduced Macpherson, who greeted the 80-year-old retail tycoon with a kiss and described him as "a hero back home."
"This is my first prize," Lowy joked. "The second prize will be the World Cup in 2022."
It was unlikely the Russian presentation would be as much fun after Putin pulled out of helping the bid.
Putin's withdrawal and allegation that the bidding process had turned into an "unfair competition" following scandals targeting FIFA dented Russia's stature as a favorite to host the event.
The Spain-Portugal bid again kept its lobbying behind closed doors, but heard Wednesday it will not be able to count on the injured Cristiano Ronaldo in its buildup to the vote. Real Madrid said the Portugal winger needs to recover for Saturday's match against Valencia.
The Belgium-Netherlands bid was hoping to be boosted by the arrival of Johan Cruijff.