Thursday 22 February 2018

Hapless England fall foul of ugly bid game

Handshakes and celebrity count for nothing in FIFA's opaque world, writes Dion Fanning

If England had appointed George Graham as their bid ambassador, the whole thing might have been different. There were many reasons for England's failure in Zurich last week and they weren't all the fault of FIFA.

England's self-regard ensured that the presence of Prince William and Davids Beckham and Cameron allowed them to believe that something magical was going to happen.

England's bid may have had outstanding technical aspects but the corporate class they used to promote their bid are worthless. A Powerpoint presentation was never going to impress FIFA.

If FIFA did one thing that was useful last week, it was to slay the myth of David Beckham. He had been retained by England because England believes the world will be as seduced by celebrity as they are. FIFA's executive committee might queue up to meet Beckham or Prince William but other things matter in their world.

England is a natural home for the World Cup, but they were undermined from within and by a failure to play FIFA's questionable game. Yet, they tried to play it, putting the squeeze on the BBC and then complaining about FIFA's opaque ways.

Giddiness is now a national characteristic. When Vladimir Putin announced on Wednesday that he wouldn't be flying in to take part in the last-minute glad-handling, England started talking to itself and becoming excited. Putin didn't want to be associated with a losing bid, they said. They had the momentum.

So they became more excited, especially after the presentations when Sepp Blatter praised their "remarkable" bid. At that point, they believed him. They won't be fooled again.

This was a familiar pattern for all those who have watched English football teams crash and burn. This was England after they beat Slovenia in the summer but with the added indignity that Cameron and Prince William were shamelessly lobbying. Soon would come the German game and a realisation of where they stand in the world.

Putin had stayed in Moscow for another reason, which should have been obvious, especially after Russia stumbled through their presentation. However they had managed it, Russia knew the guarantees they had for votes were more secure than the firm handshake and the eye contact England were banking on. The corporate class place way too much significance on a firm handshake.

Certain people, including Niall Quinn, made fools of themselves by blaming the English media. Putting to one side their argument that there is an economic benefit to hosting the tournament, when all studies show there is not, Quinn should have known that there was more to the voting than FIFA's reaction to a couple of stories.

FIFA's determination to crush England did not revolve around the timing of a couple of stories. It was a statement that said: never question us. FIFA didn't care about the timing, they cared about the questions.

If England had succeeded in moving the Panorama show then FIFA would have punished them anyway. They want more of everything, including control, and England could never give them enough.

A World Cup in England would have been a marvellous thing but FIFA's procedures ensured it was never going to happen. England couldn't offer the things Russia could and one of the things Russia can't offer is a free press.

As people united in outrage, many forgot that the bid's chief executive Andy Anson had called Panorama "an embarrassment to the BBC". The machinations of FIFA allowed his own failures to go unexamined.

Instead, there was outrage. Led by an equally giddy media, many football fans gathered in town squares for the bid announcement. By the end of Thursday, they would be disappointed and cold. The middle-aged man wrapped in a wool fleece with the flag of St George painted on his face was devastated and wanted retribution.

If you are in your 40s and paint a flag on your face, there is more to worry about than Sepp Blatter. If you take your painted face out into the freezing cold to watch a live feed that is the culmination of a bureaucratic process then you need to conduct some due diligence on yourself before calling for an investigation of FIFA.

England fumed, looking for scapegoats but, if this was a familiar reaction to defeat, for once, they had a point. Perhaps not the point of the woman in Birmingham who wondered why anyone would want to go to Russia to see a tournament. But there was a point.

FIFA's commitment to its own ideals may have set up the process for reform.

What FIFA did last week destroyed the World Cup. High on their invulnerability, they granted it to a country -- Qatar -- that may provide a fantasy location but it will be a soulless and arid tournament. It may be three tournaments away but the indications are that the tournament is in swift decline and will be in a worse state by then.

Australia's bid for 2022 was as impressive as England's and they received only one vote and they hadn't provided any bad press. There are reasons to look forward to a tournament in a country like Russia but not Qatar.

The manner in which Russia achieved the success is questionable and will be questioned but its history and majesty at least promises a tournament with depth. FIFA may think they are exploring new territories by heading to Qatar but they are merely demonstrating their lack of interest in the things that should be central to a World Cup. The players are last on their list.

Last week did more to undermine international football than a decade of meaningless friendlies. FIFA have ceded the traditional football territories to UEFA and the Champions League.

They may be right, there may be more sense in an alignment with Russia and the petro-states than the Eurozone, but they have taken a gamble.

Those who want the old powers to break away from FIFA are asking for too much, but the old powers remain the place where footballers come to play and where people want to watch football.

FIFA have disregarded them now and gambled on breaking through in countries that are unexplored and, coincidentally, seem to share their views on openness and accountability.

The old world, which now includes the USA and Australia, is being left behind. They have a different way of doing things there and FIFA showed last week that it is not their way.

Last Thursday morning, Wikileaks released information that claimed that Russia was a "mafia state". In the afternoon, FIFA saw no problem in awarding this state the World Cup.

England had many grounds for complaint but they had run a campaign that was clueless and doomed to failure. Those like Andrew Jennings, who suggested they would have been better off campaigning for FIFA reform than blowing money and prestige, were right.

If they campaign now, if genuine momentum builds behind the idea of reforming FIFA and their process then they might be able to change. But it will not happen before 2022 and that might be too late for the World Cup.

Nothing that happened last week should have surprised the English team. But this was a bid that had men like Alan Shearer and David Ginola as ambassadors. Their strengths were hidden by naivety. They lacked knowledge of how to get things done.

England took a knife to a gunfight and then seemed surprised when things got bloody.

Sunday Independent

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