- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 29, 2002

The World Cup starts in two days, and the global anticipation for the most expensive and likely most widely watched soccer event ever is at a fever pitch.
A global TV audience, counting viewership for each of the 64 scheduled games, is expected to surpass 40 billion. At least 2 billion people more than 15 times the U.S. audience for the Super Bowl each year will watch the World Cup final June 30. Seventeen new stadiums have been built in the host countries of South Korea and Japan at a cost of nearly $7 billion. Nearly 3 million tickets have been sold. Economic estimates of lost productivity because of workers watching games number in billions of dollars.
But underneath the worldwide frenzy and outpouring of dollars, the organization staging the World Cup is beset with nasty political infighting, deep economic problems and an uncertain future.
FIFA, soccer's global governing body, has lost more than $82 million since 1999 and is at risk of bankruptcy, say several of its leaders. President Sepp Blatter has been accused by five of seven vice presidents of mismanaging FIFA finances and faces criminal charges of corruption in his native Switzerland. Issa Hayatou of Cameroon is challenging his seat in an election today in Seoul.
Regardless of who wins the election, the 98-year-old FIFA is facing great difficulty streamlining its complex finances and governing structure to meet modern challenges.
"Everyone should be proud of being in FIFA as we were in the past," Mr. Hayatou said. "[But] we have to get back to basics and look at the way FIFA functions, and the budget."
In the United States, the World Cup means another pivotal moment to turn Americans on to a sport unsuccessfully billed for three decades as the next big game. Major League Soccer, the domestic pro league, purchased the English-language broadcast rights to the events for an estimated $40 million this year. Instead of reselling those broadcast rights to a TV network for a standard fee, MLS retained them and formed its own media company to market the games and sell advertising. The league is paying fees to ABC, ESPN and ESPN2 to air the games.
Most games will be broadcast live between 1:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. in the United States because of the 13-hour time difference between the Far East and the American East Coast. Others will air tape-delayed during midmorning hours. MLS officials, however, are undeterred about their prospects of drawing viewers and staking part of the league's future on the troubled FIFA.
"This is all very important. Not only are we trying to build our own media business, we're trying to grow the entire game of soccer," MLS Commissioner Don Garber said. "We're extremely hopeful about this next month."
FIFA's financial troubles stem foremost from heated disagreements over proper accounting procedures. Mr. Blatter, in his representation of FIFA finances, claims reserves of more than $260 million. His opponents say those reserves have been grossly overstated and that much of FIFA's future income has been tied up by borrowing against future earnings. That Blatter-led plan, critics say, is a simple and potent recipe for disaster.
"I want the [FIFA] congress to know that the finances are in a serious situation," said David Will of Scotland, a FIFA vice president and vocal critic of Mr. Blatter. Mr. Will estimates FIFA's losses during the past four years at nearly $300 million. "Nobody seems to take this seriously. If we were a company, we would have to declare insolvency."
Mr. Blatter firmly denies any wrongdoing and brands the charges against him as smear tactics by his political opponents.
"Fear that FIFA will not be able to continue in the future is unfounded," Mr. Blatter said.
Asia policy analysts, even those who don't care about grown men kicking a ball around a field, are comparing the joint South Korea-Japan hosting of the world's biggest sporting event to the pingpong diplomacy credited with opening U.S.-China relations in the 1970s. The two countries have been longtime political and military rivals.
"The so-called soccer diplomacy will have a tremendous effect on Japan-South Korea relations," said Balbina Hwang, an Asia specialist at the Heritage Foundation. "The cooperation that was required of the two countries to host the World Cup will have a positive impact outside the World Cup. It creates important bonds."
Some weary soccer leaders, however, are eager to get to the playing field and away from politics of any sort.
"This is a chance to make the World Cup more exotic, and we obviously have an election happening," said Chuck Blazer, general secretary of the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football, which includes U.S. Soccer. The organization and all its member countries strongly support Mr. Blatter. "But over time I don't think this World Cup will be necessarily remembered because we went to Asia. We'll remember it because of who won and who scored the great goals."
MLS' financial risk for the World Cup is substantial, and disaster could result in its demise. The league already loses more than $50 million a year, and two teams have been shut down this year. MLS' investment base is concentrated in just three investors: Philip Anschutz of Denver, Lamar Hunt of Kansas City, Mo., and Bob Kraft of Massachusetts.
The $40 million for TV rights grants MLS both this World Cup and the 2006 event in Germany. So far, corporate America has responded: 80 percent of available ad time has been sold, Mr. Garber said. Now the investment needs to translate to ratings, even if the U.S. team is bounced from the tournament early.
"We're looking at this venture over a five-year window. This isn't just about this World Cup," Mr. Garber said. "But we know we have to produce [results] and keep working as hard as we can."
Tom Carter contributed to this report, which is based in part on wire service reports.


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