US Soccer president Sunil Gulati knew that in the end, the battle to host the 2022 World Cup was between the United States and upstart eventual winner Qatar.
"For the last six months or so, we thought this would come down to us and Qatar," Gulati said in a teleconference call hours after the tiny nation defeated the US 14-8 votes to win the FIFA election.
READ: Complete voting results
And make no mistake, this was an election, one in which the US was badly outplayed and out-messaged.
The Qatar effort perhaps – or, if you believe the rhetoric from the media and the Twittersphere, almost certainly – used underhanded tactics to gain votes. They threw massive amounts of cash into the campaign, both above the board and, at least speculatively, under it as well. Because of that, many people around the world feel the voting procedure was tainted.
But don't discount that Qatar also produced an astonishing, inspiring vision of what a tournament in the Middle East would produce. They managed, for the most part, to keep the world – and the executive committee's – focus off the bid's massive problems (excessive heat, country size, infrastructure) and on the unique opportunity their hosting effort presented.
Most vital, they played on FIFA president Sepp Blatter's desire to use soccer as a means to bring the world together. Gulati himself noted the impressive image his adversaries conveyed.
"When I saw [Qatar's] presentation in Angola – I think it was in February – [their bid had] this notion of air-conditioned, outdoor stadiums and an outline and a vision that was very well presented by their CEO, Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad Al-Thani," Gulati explained. "Myself and others said, 'This is not a fantasy, this is a dream. And this can happen.’"
On Thursday, it took four rounds, but the Middle Eastern nation won the right to make that dream a reality.
Qatar nearly finished things off in the first round, falling just one vote short of a majority victory. Their lead didn't waver in the in the ensuing rounds either, and watching from the inside must have felt like witnessing a superior soccer team slowly, confidently, calmly beat their opponent into submission.
Still, the US contingent continued pressing flesh until the last moments, as none other than former US President Bill Clinton conducted a series of one-on-one meetings Wednesday night. The last-minute handshakes, however, didn't alter the outcome.
"I haven't had any different sense in the last two or three days than I have in the last six months," Gulati said. "We believed Qatar would be our strongest competitor. That hasn't changed in the past couple days. I didn't sense a big momentum change."
This admission begs the question as to whether Gulati and the rest of the US group knew it was over before the voting began. It sounds as though they might have. At the very least, the Americans couldn’t have felt confident going into Thursday afternoon's proceedings in Zürich.
They needed a momentum change, one that never came. As a result, the US will watch in 12 years while the world descends upon the Middle East.
It's a big setback for American soccer, but it's not the end of the line. The sport will grow, the national team will get stronger and life will continue.
"We lost," Gulati said. "Congrats to Qatar. And we move on."
Move on to 2026 – someone is going to need to host the World Cup then.
Noah Davis covers the United States national team for MLSsoccer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @noahedavis.
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