Sport Soccer

Saturday 16 December 2017

Contagion effect gives English bid more prime-time exposure

Dion Fanning

The most commendable thing about England's World Cup bid has been their media. And they'd rather the media didn't exist.

This week FIFA will make its decision on the hosts for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. It will be reported as if it's a competition and some in England are already anticipating their shame if they are knocked out in the first round.

There will always be somebody somewhere in England anticipating shame from some place. When it comes to catching the eye of FIFA's executive committee, they can feel about as much shame as somebody who fails to be picked out of a police line-up.

No matter what happens, and nobody knows what will happen, the process has become clearer this year and, as an unavoidable consequence, more discredited.

If England's bid is victorious, the wise men of FIFA will have been praised for distinguishing between the bid and the media who have done much to investigate what, at best, can be called sharp practice.

Essentially, the English bid will be praised for having nothing to do with an investigative press and they will accept this praise.

When the Sunday Times story first broke, there was the occasional murmur that this ultimately would do damage to England rather than FIFA. Some wondered if FIFA could be so stupid as to see the investigations of an independent press as something that would harm the bid, but stupidity has nothing to do with it.

If the investigations were into the corrupt practices of the English bid, then it would have made sense if the English bid had been harmed. But the English bid has been harmed and now the English talk about the "unpatriotic" decision of the BBC to allow Panorama to broadcast its investigation into UEFA tomorrow night. Panorama was, according to Andy Anson, the chief executive of the English 2018 bid, "sensationalist" or "sensational", as John Delaney recently described reports that were critical of the FAI.

Panorama might be both. The bid doesn't deserve to succeed because their response is counter to the football culture in the country, a culture of diversity, dissent and humour.

Of course, there have been times when it has been a culture of intolerance and humourlessness but there is a way to appeal to the best traditions without going down the road that rages against questioning journalism.

Last week, Niall Quinn spoke enthusiastically about England's bid, pausing to reflect that everybody knows the British media is, well, the British media. Quinn is one of the most agreeable personalities in football and has always been among the most accommodating towards the media, but he managed to make this sound like a bad thing in this instance, as if it had the same degree of public interest as the story of John Terry's alleged relationship with the former girlfriend of an ex-team-mate.

The reality is that the World Cup bidders find these programme-makers as unbearable as FIFA do.

If England win, their approach to the World Cup is unlikely to be much different to London's approach to the Olympics which has seen the pledge to make half the tickets available for under £20 quietly shelved.

Obviously, there will be a zero tolerance to crime, especially any crime against the sponsors. There will be no ambush marketing and obviously they will do what they can to avoid ambush questioning.

There are other options. Russia is the obvious one because, like South Africa, it seems to present insurmountable obstacles and Sepp Blatter likes insurmountable obstacles.

For a man who sees himself as an equal to Nelson Mandela, standing firm against goal-line technology as Mandela stood firm against apartheid, Blatter will find the big gesture hard to resist.

Yet Russia no longer has the field to itself. Coming with a late run is the Spain-Portugal bid which may ultimately be affected by the possibility that by Thursday Portugal may no longer exist.

The danger of contagion obviously has no fears for FIFA, which runs its business like a small, tax-free country but one dependent on reliable inward investment from corporations like adidas.

Nobody seems to be concerned that the reality of Portugal and Spain becoming wards of the IMF might affect the bid or even the organisation of the World Cup.

For Ireland, there may be an opportunity. Obviously FIFA is one of the few world organisations not prepared to give us money at the moment, but the suggestion that Portugal and Spain, soon to pick up our contagion, will be allowed to host the World Cup, suggests that in a post-IMF world there might be something in it for us too.

Nobody knows how "the markets" will react to Spain and Portugal's bid. For a group that doesn't like uncertainty, "the markets" are very good at causing it. Nobody knows how they will react to anything. Everybody has had a version of "the markets" in their life. They are the neighbours whose garden you would do anything to stop a ball going into when you played football on the street.

Extreme measures were always taken to ensure the ball didn't take that fateful bounce. Accidents would happen and occasionally the ball would fly into the garden, narrowly avoiding some prize flowers. Of course, sometimes the neighbour would be quite relaxed, handing the ball back with a smile as he ignored the screams of the boy who had impaled himself on a railing trying to stop it.

So anything could happen if Spain and Portugal win. It may lead to the destruction of Spain and Portugal themselves if "the markets" decide that this is bad news. FIFA will absorb the blow, finding another host to pay the rent while they take the profit. They may even turn to England and lessen their shame.

They may get a second chance, despite the best efforts of the BBC. Some, remembering his decision to quit the Mail on Sunday after the paper's attempts to discredit Lord Triesman, have called on Gary Lineker to consider his position with the BBC. It is a campaign everyone can support. We need a futile gesture at this stage. And if Gary Lineker was to disappear from the screens, some good would have come from this sorry mess.

Sunday Independent

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