Tuesday 24 October 2017

Too strong on right wingers to win votes

England can do a lot for football by looking at its own failings first, writes John O'Brien

CHUCK BLAZER is a man with an interesting name and an even more interesting personal website. In it he documents his global travels with the kind of boyish glee that only a well-fed panjandrum of FIFA's executive committee could muster. It seems there's nothing Chuck won't do, no great world leader he won't consort with, no lavish expense-fuelled trip he won't undertake, on behalf of the game he loves and the obscenely wealthy not-for-profit organisation he likes to call his second family.

There he is, in October, with his wife Mary Lynn, posing with Niall Quinn and the Charlton brothers at the Stadium of Light in Sunderland. Some genius from the England bid team has come up with the brainwave of presenting Lynn with a Sunderland jersey with her name printed on the back. How quaint. These little details, you can hear them saying, might be the difference between winning and losing the 2018 World Cup.

Now here he is, a month later, in Vladimir Putin's inner sanctum in Moscow. Laughing and joking and, at one stage even, high-fiving the Russian premier. Chuck looks so much more at home here. Russia, quite frankly, is his kind of place, where the little details tend to get lost in bureaucratic fogs or monumental shrugs of official indifference. The kind of place where Chuck Blazer and his chums can do the kind of business they like.

Chuck has been a FIFA ExCo member for 14 years, half the time already served by his Concacaf boss and ally, Jack Warner of Trinidad. Any time Jack has been in trouble for alleged extra-curricular activities, Chuck has been there for him: friend and chief apologist. When Jack was accused of printing 45,000 tickets for a 28,500-capacity international in 1989, Chuck dismissed his accusers as "having little credibility." And when Jack was censured by FIFA over ticketing improprieties in 2006, Chuck was similarly unmoved. "Looked worse than it was," he shrugged.

None of that really matters, though, as much as the fact that these were the Men Who Felled England's World Cup bid and left their party sitting glum-faced and humiliated in a conference hall in Zurich on Thursday. Suddenly an issue that hadn't seemed to count among the bidding team or their media cheerleaders when football seemed certain to be coming home raised its head with shocking force. FIFA, allegedly, was beset with corruption.

For some it was handy that the BBC and Panorama, who had presented allegations of corruption two days before the announcement, were available as instant scapegoats. As if. The notion that a man with Warner's brass neck would be remotely bothered by another media exposé is highly amusing.

Andrew Jennings, the great reporter, has been hounding Warner for 20 years, ambushing him at airports and outside luxury hotels and, for all that time, Warner has been swatting him away, calling him garbage and threatening to spit in his face. It's all part of the game. For a while England seemed willing to play Warner's game. Two years ago when Lord Triesman still headed England's bid and they had figures like the mysterious football lobbyist Peter Hargitay, a former special adviser to Sepp Blatter, on board, they thought nothing of dragging exhausted Premier League footballers for an end-of-season friendly to Warner's Caribbean playground and having David Beckham suck up to the old codger. "A very fine fellow indeed," was Beckham's summation.

Don't imagine for a second that Warner would arrive in Zurich without his business conducted weeks or months in advance. In all probability it was at the point when England dispensed with Hargitay and Triesman that the likes of Warner and his cronies began to wonder if England were truly serious about their bid. Were they in the game or mere bystanders looking on?

In fact, beyond pandering to spivs like Warner and Blazer, the game England played did them less credit than they might imagine. It was predicated on their self-given status as the keepers of the game's soul which, as Michel Platini pointed out, actually annoys the rest of the football world more than it impresses them. It was built too on the hypocrisies and questionable assumptions, if not outright lies, that underpin most bids for major sporting events.

Where to begin? Well, "brand Beckham" is as good a starting point as any. All the gargantuan spin England's bid team produced in Zurich, the usual nebulous stuff about legacy and grassroots and development, sounded weak and transparent in the face of the wealth of comprehensive academic reports that tell us major events like Olympics and World Cups are actually cash drains that bring little in terms of tangible benefits. Juxtaposed with Beckham's celebrity status, however, it sounded emptier and more duplicitous than normal. We were fed similar guff about Beckham when he moved to America a few years ago. How his celebrity would enhance the game there, kids picking up skills in his coaching clinics, Beckham academies sprouting up across the land. Well, it is a year now since his first and only academy quietly closed its doors in Los Angeles. The one in London went soon afterwards. His website promises "exciting new plans" for the future. Are we supposed to hold our breath in anticipation? It isn't even that losing the World Cup was the most depressing sports story in England last week. That came a few days before when education secretary, Michael Gove, signalled his intention to withdraw the £162m funding from the schools sports partnership (SSP) initiative that had been initiated under his Labour predecessor and reached into 450 schools nationwide, targeting in particular less well-off kids who would otherwise lose out on sport and the benefits it brings.

What was truly depressing about this wasn't just that Gove hadn't the decency to inform those who ran the scheme, but that he hadn't even visited a school to see the scheme in operation and it was assumed his opposition was based on nothing more than "ideological reasons." It was a Labour scheme and had to go. It would save the government £160m this year, roughly the same amount, according to Panorama, the Netherlands and Belgium bid team estimated a holder would lose through staging a World Cup.

By the end of the week, the government realised it had scored an own goal and David Cameron sought to backtrack. "There are clearly very strong feelings about this," a Downing Street source reportedly said. "We are listening to people's concerns."

Yet the damage was done and the frightening thing is that these are the same people now charged with overseeing the 2012 Olympics, an event with an overspend many believe will be measured in billions rather than millions.

On Thursday, one wag remarked that in having Beckham, Cameron and Prince William heading its delegation, England, like its football teams, were relying on too many right-wingers, a joke that was closer to the mark than its creator intended. It is classic right-wing thinking to exaggerate the economic benefits of staging major sporting events on the basis that the wealth will trickle down to the "grass roots", despite no firm evidence this ever happens to any great extent.

Still the lie gets propagated without fail each time. By Thursday, those sections of the English press, still performing their patriotic duty, had ramped up the stakes to ludicrous proportions. The very future of English football, no less, was on the line in Zurich, the development of the game held to ransom by those with too much power in their hands, as if there was nothing to be said for basic things like nurturing the schools and feeding the grassroots from the bottom up.

They hailed Eddie Afefake, a community officer for Manchester City, as their ace. Eddie had emerged from poverty to play a key role in his community. Give us the World Cup, they pleaded, and we will give you more Eddie Afefakes. Yet which is better? Create more stories like Eddie Afefake's or help eradicate such hardship to begin with by not reneging on commitments to education which, in the long term, is a more fruitful way of developing the game than hawking your soul for a World Cup. That point eluded Cameron, of course, when he made what will likely be his most impassioned speech as prime minister. It was hard to blame him.

The pressure he was under to deliver, as his predecessor had done before him, was immense and the truth is too boring and prosaic to be worth popularity or votes. That's what makes it so elusive sometimes.

Sunday Independent

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport