Vincent Hogan: English left looking like plonkers by FIFA 'friends'
ISN'T it odd how the biggest decisions in sport tend to be made by people with so little to say?
The moment they see microphones, they're like waterbuck spotting a leopard. Be it World Cups, Olympics or “corporate friends” for sexually incontinent golfers, communication tends to be strictly by prepared statement. Is it because their only means of expression is a show of hands?
Actually, in FIFA's case, maybe somebody just dips into the ‘Lonely Planet’ guide, then proposes a vote as happy hour looms downstairs in the Baur au Lac cocktail bar. How else could taking athletes to Qatar in 2022 and melting them into blobs of putty be considered sensible? Was Death Valley double-booked?
Quite the most compelling image of England's failed World Cup bid in Zurich last week was that of Jack Warner putting a consoling arm around Prince William. For the poor, traumatised royal, this must have felt like reassurance from Arthur Daley that the spluttering jalopy he's just been sold didn't ordinarily trail such heavy plumes of smoke.
England are, understandably, unhappy that so many of their new friends didn't quite turn out as expected. You step into a room thinking you might even fly a few of them over to Westminster for the big day and leave, well, feeling you'd quite like to take a shower.
And what must David Cameron have been thinking? Probably, ‘Where is the nearest delousing chamber?' Imagining the Prince's face, as CONCACAF's president did his “sorry for your troubles” routine, brought to mind a sketch from ‘Only Fools and Horses'. It's where Rodney is addressing a tenants' meeting in Peckham about an on-going problem of undesirables coming into the area.
“Why don't you tell them what happened to poor old Rita Aldridge then?” says Del Boy. “Yes, good idea,” agrees Rodney. “What happened to Rita Aldridge then?” “Last Friday night, she was indecently assaulted over by the adventure playground.” Rodney: “No. Did she report it?” Del Boy: “Yeah. I saw her this morning, she'd just been down the police station.” Rodney: “Right. There you are, see; that's exactly the sort of thing… hang on a minute, if this happened on Friday night, how come it's taken her till Wednesday to report it?” Del Boy: “Because she didn't know she'd been indecently assaulted until this morning when the bloke's cheque bounced!”
The trouble with all this England consternation now is they've begun to sound like fools. Andy Anson, their bid chief executive, seemed startled that some of the most secretive people on the planet might actually renege on a handshake. Imagine. You're blinded by the illusion of amity when you ought really be counting your fingers.
Hindsight suggests now that the BBC's ‘Panorama’ programme was probably insignificant to the vote. Whilst Russia had FIFA swooning at access to new markets and the promise of vast private funding from the billionaires of the Yeltsin era, England put up David Beckham to talk about his grandfather. Incredibly, they thought this was about football.
That said, the BBC's rejection of Cameron's request to delay the ‘Panorama’ broadcast until after Thursday's vote reflected a breathtaking arrogance. It's not as if the British Prime Minister was proposing a grave impediment to press freedom. He was simply asking for time.
This was hardly unreasonable, given the jobs that would have been created by a successful bid and the areas set to be rehabilitated. Niall Quinn has, since, been pilloried in some quarters for questioning the BBC's stance. But what exactly was he guilty of? Being politically incorrect? If so, big deal. Quinn understood what the World Cup would have brought to Sunderland. England's trouble is that they engaged maybe too openly with what is, effectively, a secret society. They took people at face value. They puffed out their chests at hearing Sepp Blatter praise their “remarkable bid”, then seemed staggered to hear that the same man might warn his ExCo colleagues not to forget the “evils of the media” just before they got to vote.
What was most striking about that naivety was how audibly it echoed of a passage at the beginning of Andrew Jennings's remarkable book ‘FOUL! The Secret World of FIFA: Bribes, Vote Rigging and Ticket Scandals'.
Jennings, last week's ‘Panorama’ reporter, tells of the watershed moment in 1974 when Stanley Rous was ousted as FIFA president by Joao Havelange. Rous had all but considered himself above the greasy, electoral process and was – accordingly – out-smarted.
An American journalist reported “a pungent odour of money and the too-familiar strains of ‘Rule Britannia’ once again sinking beneath the waves”. Thirty-six years on, English comprehension of how FIFA does its business doesn't seem to have advanced very far. It's like the Eurovision – a blizzard of convenient alliances propping up the showbiz. Everyone loving everyone, until the cheque bounces.
Still, if Qatar can host a World Cup, maybe the rest of us should dream? They are, after all, pretty much starting from scratch. Not as much as a Gortakeegan to put an extension on. It's like qualifying to host a Winter Olympics by dint of owning a patio heater. Maybe we owe Gay Mitchell an apology.