Saturday 23 September 2017

Euro 2020: Political game vital in bid battle

Delaney's relationship with UEFA to prove more important than stadiums for 2020, writes John O'Brien

Given Platini's gripes with Turkish football officials it seems entirely plausible that some level of official encouragement was forthcoming
Given Platini's gripes with Turkish football officials it seems entirely plausible that some level of official encouragement was forthcoming

IF persistence alone was the defining factor, then the race to host Euro 2020 would be all but run. For the eager and ambitious Turks, it would be a case of fourth time lucky. With three failed European Championship bids behind them since the turn of the century, not to mention four fruitless attempts to land the plum prize of an Olympics, it is hardly stretching it to suggest they want this gig pretty badly.

For a time last week they probably fancied they were within eyeshot of the winning post with only fresh air in their slipstream. Potential bidding rivals had been falling like ninepins while Tuesday's deadline for expressions of interest to UEFA loomed without any worrying shapes darkening the horizon. Then, a couple of curve balls were lobbed in, exposing a deep layer of intrigue -- a bidding process wouldn't seem right without it -- underneath.

The first came in the shape of a mooted tripartite Celtic bid between Scotland, Wales and Ireland that was so unexpected it caught most people unawares. That was followed by news that UEFA would not limit the field to those expressing an interest. All told, it hinted at a waning appetite for a clearcut Turkish victory.

The basis for the Celtic nations' intervention is complicated. Initial reports that it had been prompted by urgings from Michel Platini were denied by Scottish FA chairman, Stewart Regan, and the revelation by John Delaney that they had lobbied "top UEFA people" in recent weeks seemed to suggest that nothing more than the prospect of entering a winnable contest had forced their hand.

Maybe so, but given Platini's much publicised gripes with Turkish football officials in recent months -- some legitimate, others less so -- and the UEFA president's relentlessly political nature, it seems entirely plausible that some level of official encouragement was forthcoming.

It goes without saying, of course, that a Turkish bid would be superior in almost every conceivable way. It has the booming economy and the bracing ambition to do whatever is necessary to stage a show that would enhance its credentials as an emerging world power. It is football-crazy and sunny and, palpably, one of the few remaining European nations who could even consider a sole hosting of a major tournament finals.

As ever with these things, though, superior doesn't necessarily mean most attractive. Turkey's bid doesn't come without caveats. For one, there is the complex issue of Istanbul's bid for the 2020 Olympics and the rigid certainty that the country cannot scoop both prizes. To some, the Turks are following an audaciously risky strategy that could ultimately result in crocodile tears and two more failed bids to their name.

Clearly, Turkish officials know they cannot stage two major events in the one summer but, in pursuing two bids simultaneously, they believe they can enhance their prospects of landing one of them. Thus, should Istanbul fail to snag the Olympics by the September 2013 deadline, they'll still have the Euros to fall back on. This is dangerous thinking because in not committing to one or the other, they risk annoying both UEFA and the IOC.

Platini has already publicly expressed his frustration, but the situation is partially of his own making. Platini didn't have a vote two years ago when France narrowly eclipsed Turkey for the right to host Euro 2016, but the presence of Nicolas Sarkozy in Geneva as the bidding process unfurled was considered a major determining factor and left Turkish officials feeling the dice had been loaded against them. Whatever the wisdom of their current strategy, it is one that has been shaped by bitter experience.

The understanding in Turkey after Geneva was that a fresh bid for 2020 would be looked upon kindly and, as recently as March, the UEFA president went on the record offering his support. "Last time I did not vote," Platini told a UEFA gathering in Istanbul, "but this time I will vote because I believe Turkey should host a Euros."

Things change, however. The Olympic bid has queered the pitch while further differences emerged over the fallout from the match-fixing scandals that rocked Turkish football last year. The extent to which such scandals could undermine Turkey's 2020 bid shouldn't be overplayed. More relevant is the hostile reaction from Turkish football officials to what they regarded as high-handed UEFA interference in their domestic affairs, a flash of anger that may have cooled Platini's enthusiasm for Turkey's bid further.

Yet, the prospect of a solid Turkish bid falling by the wayside and being left with a wishy-washy Celtic bid and a virtual non-starter like Georgia cannot be palatable to Platini either. The grim reality for UEFA is that hosting ever-expanding tournaments in troubled times is not for the faint-hearted. Growth economies like Turkey's aren't in plentiful supply right now.

Because he has thrown shapes about tackling the power of Europe's biggest clubs, Platini has earned a burgeoning reputation as a reformer, but it would be unwise to take such a notion too far. One of his first major acts as president was to oversee an increase in the number of Euro finalists to 24, a cynical exercise that will boost revenue while further undermining the Euro qualifiers, music to the ears of the club bosses Platini is supposed to be fighting.

There is also the worrying trend of countries losing the interest or the means to consider hosting ever-expanding tournaments. Belgium, Azerbaijan and Bulgaria were among those who pulled back this time around. Holland declined, citing Turkey's superior bid as the critical factor. Germany withdrew, suggesting it was someone else's turn to play host. German shorthand, perhaps, for anyone else but us.

So into the breach step the Celtic nations and you wonder how far they will run. As Delaney pointed out, there's no fee for expressing an interest and it could be significant that the FAI chief executive appeared enthusiastic enough when speaking about it last week given that he had maintained a noticeable distance from the Scottish-Irish bid that failed to land Euro 2008.

On the surface, there seems little enough to recommend it. Three years ago, the Scottish and Welsh FAs considered a joint bid for 2016 but balked at spending the millions it would require to get it off the ground. "It's the big nations that are going to be bidding for these championships in future," said a Scottish FA spokesman as the idea was ditched before even the gestation stage.

So what has changed in the meantime to make it more plausible? Does adding a third basket-case economy to form a three-pronged attack enhance or damage its standing? According to Delaney, no FAI contribution is possible without the co-operation of the GAA and for the association to hand over its showcase stadium for a minimum of two championship months will require a lot of selling and much hard bargaining.

And given its role as the guardian of European football, how comfortable would UEFA be to hand over a sizeable part of its revenue to a non-football organisation? How exactly does that promote the game in Ireland? In truth, nothing about a joint-Celtic bid should make it past the first page of the UEFA guidelines. Having three hosts isn't explicitly ruled out but when it involves three nations that don't even share a border, it becomes a much tougher sell.

Yet we shouldn't get too clouded over by doubts. The potential to guarantee good stadiums and proper infrastructure is important, but it is not everything. If it came to it, it's entirely possible that an adequate Celtic bid could be cobbled together and, with government approval and sufficient public support, ushered towards success given the right political conditions. The obvious benefits, apart from automatic qualification, are another issue entirely.

For all the scorn heaped on the failed Euro 2008 bid, it was never really understood that it actually reached Geneva in 2002 in decent shape and with realistic prospects of success. It failed because the FAI and Scottish FA had joined a move to oust Blatter as FIFA boss earlier that year and Blatter was in favour of Austria and his native Switzerland. Old-fashioned politics ultimately decided it. Not a lack of stadiums.

In politics, though, things can change quickly. Blatter didn't help Ireland again when ensuring France were seeded for the 2010 World Cup play-off draw, and then poked fun at Delaney's request to be invited to South Africa as the 33rd team, yet that didn't stop the FAI supporting him last summer when the English FA had sought to have elections postponed while corruption allegations hovered over FIFA.

Of course, Scotland and Wales both took an admirable moral stand behind England, so the FAI's backing of Blatter and Platini may not count for much when it comes to a possible bid for Euro 2020. For all the anxieties the Scots and Welsh harbour about the Irish leg of any bid, though, it's still likely that the key to victory would lie with Delaney and whatever political clout he could muster among the most powerful UEFA executives.

That is how the game works. It is won or lost in the little conversations snatched in the VIP sections at big games and in the corridors of the places where the 'football family' gathers to discuss the important matters. Stadiums and infrastructure and legacy, all these things matter, but if you have the stomach for a long political battle, you have half a chance at least.

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