There’s little new in discussions of a UK-Irish bid for the centenary finals
Out of nowhere, Boris Johnson and Micheál Martin have suddenly become the faces of the long-standing idea that Ireland might join with the four UK nations to host the 2030 World Cup.
There’s a whiff of the need for a good news distraction about the way in which the concept has suddenly become a major talking point and captured the imagination of people who may not be aware the wheels were set in motion well before either man became leader of their respective countries.
It’s worth noting that when John Delaney made his high-profile sidestep from FAI CEO to Executive Vice President, one of the tasks on his brief was the 2030 venture.
This hasn’t just cropped up overnight but the renewed commitment from the British government has led to a fresh wave of questions about what the bidding process might entail and what the logistics of a bid will be.
What are the proposal’s origins?
In September 2018, a brief FAI statement confirmed they had been asked to ‘join a feasibility review’ into a 2030 bid after positive talks with their counterparts in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This has been a rolling news story since then with Delaney initially the face of the FAI involvement but other administrators have taken on the baton.
What happened this week?
Even though Theresa May backed the bid in September 2018, Boris Johnson has stepped things up by committing extra funds to the feasibility study – which is distinct from launching an actual bid. This filtered back into the Irish political sphere and was sold as major news but the only real development is that current governments have followed on from actions of their predecessors.
What have the FAI said?
There was a brief message on Tuesday night but it paled in comparison to strong words from their new CEO Jonathan Hill who spoke at length last Friday about why he believed the bid was credible, adding that the Irish angle could help where other English bids have failed.
“I do genuinely believe that if we have some strong and inspirational Irish voices within that process, particularly within the UEFA element of the process, I think that that will be extremely beneficial and powerful to the overall bid,” he said.
“It might sound ironic me making that point with an English accent. Whilst we know that a lot of the process will be driven out of the English FA, I think it’s really important that there is a mix of individuals and a mix of accents that are part of that story moving forward. Do I believe we can win it? Yes, I do.”
These are the strongest words from an Irish protagonist so far.
What stadiums would be used?
This base has already been covered in early talks. With a minimum 40,000-capacity (all-seater) stadium required for regular group games and 60,000 needed for anything after the quarter-final stage, the only viable options on the island as it stands are the Aviva Stadium and Croke Park with the latter required if Ireland are to host the latter stages. Even those modern stadiums would require adjustments so it would be hard to get another Irish base up to that spec.
What about Northern Ireland?
One of the quirky aspects of the bid is that the new Windsor Park doesn’t meet the tournament criteria and a renovated Casement Park would fall short too. It’s worth pointing out that there are serious issues in the proposal that need to be thrashed out and this is one of them; the opportunity to host competing teams in training camps doesn’t necessarily read like proper hosting – and asking FIFA to bend the rules will not strengthen the UK/Ireland bid’s hopes relative to ready-made options.
Would Ireland automatically qualify if the bid won?
This is another misconception that’s out there with commentators making the dangerous assumption that Ireland would be granted an automatic ticket. We have no such certainty. While the expansion of the World Cup to 48 teams opens things up a bit, FIFA have yet to confirm that USA, Canada and Mexico will all be sure of a spot in 2026. This was one of the issues with moving to a three-host model; it reduces the opportunities for teams from other confederations.
Taking five qualification spots out of the mix narrows the field and isn’t exactly a great pitch if you’re up against one- or two-country bids. The percentage call is that a successful 2030 bid would still result in host teams having to earn their right to play; this dents the attractiveness with the Euros a topical reference point.
Who are the rival bids?
There’s a two-step process towards a final decision in 2024. Firstly, if the bid proceeded, it would need to get the UEFA nod and there are strong soundings that figures within European football’s governing body like the proposed Spain/Portugal partnership. If that is overcome – and that’s a big if seeing as a British-led bid will take a bit of selling in European circles – then there’s the prospect of China having a pop.
Their time will come eventually but the feeling is that 2034 might be their window. In reality, the front runner is the Argentina-Uruguay-Paraguay-Chile axis which has strong symbolism seeing as it’s the 100-year anniversary of the maiden tournament in 1930. Uruguay’s appropriately named Estadio Centenario hosted the first final and there’s a convincing argument for bringing the showpiece back to that region.
What are the chances then?
The hurdles are substantial and, while England’s status as founders of the game gives them weight in the clamour for a historical renewal, they haven’t exactly proved themselves skilled operators when it comes to managing FIFA’s idiosyncratic channels. But even if we are told that side of things has been cleaned up, the people behind the concept will need more than Boris bluster to deliver. Don’t bet on it.
Irish sport and previous bids that flopped
There was a mixture of puzzlement and laughter when Gay Mitchell (right), then Lord Mayor of Dublin, floated the idea way back in 1992, that the city could host the Olympics.
He pitched the idea of having the city ready to host in 2016, despite the lack of sporting or other facilities – many sporting facilities were not far above third-world level – in a city that had no rail link to the airport.
A PwC report suggested a bid was feasible but it never had credibility. Even in 2005, as Mitchell re-floated the idea, and supporter Jonathan Irwin said a run at the 2024 games could happen, OCI president Pat Hickey said the lack of facilities would make any Irish bid “a laughing stock”.
But a bid was never submitted. And Dublin still has no rail link to its airport.
With the economy in boom mode, and a team under Mick McCarthy on the up, Irish football started to get notions in 2000 and a pan-Celtic bid to host Euro 2008 led to a two-nation bid from the Republic of Ireland and Scotland.
The Scots were able to offer stadia already in place with plans (and funding) to build more but the FAI’s cupboard was embarrassingly empty. A visiting delegation from UEFA were shown, as potential venues, one stadium that was hopelessly out of date (the old Lansdowne Road), one that was unavailable to soccer (Croke Park) and a boggy green field (the planned Stadium Ireland).
Bullishly billed by some as a favourite to win the vote, the Scottish-Irish bid flopped for many reasons. One major issue was that one potential host city had too many stadiums (three in Glasgow) while another host city (Dublin) essentially had none and decision-makers simply did not believe that Ireland could deliver the required stadia. Subsequent political wrangling over Stadium Ireland/Bertie Bowl backed that up.
2023 RUGBY WORLD CUP
There was a strong feeling in rugby circles that an all-island bid to host the 2023 World Cup would do well. On paper, the bid had more to offer: unlike the Dublin-centric aspect of other bids, this was a national project, with potential venues in all four provinces, and had involvement of the GAA.
Including three venues in the North (two in Belfast and one in Derry) opened a door to funding from the UK government, a route to an upgrade for one of the mooted venues, Casement Park.
Italy, the USA and Argentina made noises about a bid but in the end it was left to three formal bids: Ireland, France and South Africa. But the Irish bid fell at the first hurdle, just eight of the 39 votes in the first round and the Irish horse was a non-runner.
The French guarantee of a financial boon to World Rugby was more than Ireland could offer but the lack of support from Wales and Scotland, which could have swung it for Ireland, didn’t happen. The IRFU recently played down talk of a new bid for the 2031 tournament.