With the World Cup now less than a year away, qualifications are getting serious:
In CONCACAF, (the French acronym for North America,) the U.S. briefly considered boycotting the 2018 World Cup in response to Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. They lost to Costa Rica 2-nil, and looked all-but-eliminated as they trailed Honduras by 1 in their second match on September 5th. However, Bobby Wood scored an equalizer in the 84th minute of play, shortly after it became clear that senior U.S. policy officials don’t really care about soccer. When asked to comment on the decision to attend the games, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson simply said, “I didn’t think they played football in Russia.” He then noted that, since strategic uncertainty is included in the qualification process, the U.S. might decide to go ahead with the boycott at a later time, like maybe when they play Panama again in October.
In CONMEBOL (South America, obviously), Brazil surprised nobody by leading the pack and securing qualification. Uruguay, however, surprised everyone, not by defeating the other, lesser -guay, but by doing so without a single biting incident. The team has had the taste for human flesh ever since their plane crashed in the Andes and they had to eat each other to survive.
Russia raised eyebrows earlier this week when the Russian Football Union released a revised list of host cities and venues for the Cup. The inclusion of Kiev’s Olympic Stadium has drawn criticism and claims that this move goes a step beyond a sporting good time and violates national sovereignty. Russia maintains that the move is necessary to protect the interests of ethnic Russian soccer fans in the eastern Ukraine whose hopes and dreams were crushed back in 2006 in what was widely considered a dick move by the anti-Kremlin Football Federation of Ukraine.
A qualification match between South Africa and Senegal is to be replayed after match referee Joseph Lamptey’s lifetime ban was upheld by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. This is not the first time match-fixing and bribery scandals have plagued the organization. There was nearly a scandal when Qatar was announced as the host for 2022, as it seemed (however briefly) that common sense might overcome the interests of wealthy Arab soccer patrons. A FIFA spokesperson, on condition of anonymity, offered this reassuring statement: “We take bribery very seriously. It is more or less our core business, and if a referee is taking a cut of that, well, then the sanctity of the game itself is compromised.” He was carried away on a palanquin borne by several washed-up soccer stars before any follow-up questions could be asked.
North Korea surprised the world by throwing its hat into the ring for the 2026 World Cup. The reclusive East Asian nation may may seem like an odd choice of venue, but proponents say it makes a fitting thematic follow-up to the first African, Eurasian, and Middle Eastern World Cups we have seen in the past decade. Best Korea sweetened the deal by offering concessions to FIFA that other regimes have thus far failed to match. They have vowed to use 50% less slave labor and to fill stadiums with the most enthusiastic (yet orderly) fans that money can buy– a tempting prospect to an organization familiar with the caliber of its usual fan base. FIFA may not be convinced in the end, however, as there is worry that they be unable to accept licensing payments in whatever North Korea uses as money. Koku, maybe?