Here is the piece I have done for today’s Daily Telegraph on the fallout from the Fifa decision to hand the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar. The Telegraph headline is ‘If Fifa were a country, it would be Russia,’ which is not quite what I say, as you will see. My headline is more accurate, but the great thing about blog headlines as opposed to newspapers, is that they don’t need to fit a certain space! So I will forgive them this once.
The scale of disappointment at England’s failure to land the 2018 World Cup is in part so vast because of our tendency to see the whole world through a narrow, rather nationalist prism. National pride is no bad thing; nor is national confidence; but when it comes to major global sporting events, it is wise to see a much bigger, more opaque and more complicated picture.
David Cameron is not the first Prime Minister to have felt his office slightly demeaned by the lengths elected leaders have to go to in search of the approval of a collection of self-important individuals of sometimes dubious morality who are keenly aware of their power, rooted in their own machinations and in the power of sport to move people and nations alike. Qatar may seem the oddest of choices for the 2022 World Cup, not least when Fifa’s own technical analysis of the Qatari bid was negative, but you would have to be hard-hearted and nationalistic indeed not to feel something for the joy which erupted onto the streets of Doha yesterday. Here was a decision by two dozen secretive bureaucrats moving a country into a wholly different league.
And here is something to cheer up Mr Cameron as the weekend newspapers fill up with tens of thousands of words trying to answer the question ‘what went wrong?’ – an analysis of post Olympics elections shows a political bounce for the party in power in the host country at the time. So a London Olympics delivered in large part by a Labour Prime Minister’s ability to charm and cajole may play a role in helping a Conservative successor’s political fortunes. Probably small comfort this weekend, but another indication of the near mystical power of sport; another reason, too, for him to reflect on the government’s ill-advised decision to axe funding for school sport, which were Fifa a rational organisation would have counted against England, and may have done so anyway. It’s the legacy, stupid.
But there I go again, looking through the narrow prism. Spain/Portugal and Holland/Belgium are feeling similarly cheated at rejection in favour of a very wartish warts and all Russia, and smelling the same suspicions of corruption and sharp practice. Also, spare a thought for poor old Australia. A nation virtually defined by sport got one paltry vote in their bid for 2022, then saw their cricketers torn apart by England.
To understand our failure, we should understand that if Fifa were a country, it would not look like Britain. It does not share our enthusiasm for democracy, openness and transparency. The narrow nationalist prism leads us to tut-tut and feel superior. Yet when it comes to China, soon to be a superpower, or Russia, whose television stations are yet to report any of the more embarrassing details for Vladimir Putin from the WikiLeaks mountain, or non-democratic, non-transparent countries in the Middle East, we are not averse to dealing with those countries as they are, not as we might wish them to be. WikiLeaks have provided ample fresh evidence of leaders saying one thing in public, and something very different in private. The Prime Minister, the future King and the country’s most famous global sporting icon have all experienced a similar phenomenon – of being told something to their face which a subsequent vote exposes as bare-faced lies. Not terribly British, maybe, but it happens, and the world moves on, to Russia, to Qatar, to countries where power is hard and ruthlessly expressed.
We like the idea of freedom of the press, even if we don’t like a lot of what the media delivers up. We would rather live in a country where the media is frank, fearless and free to delve into the secretive workings of powerful organisations. Even if no Fifa voter can be found to say that UK media reporting of its business was a factor, we can be sure it occupied a space in the back of their minds. Of the 11 countries involved in the bidding process yesterday, nine came in the top 42 in the Press Freedom Index. Qatar is placed at 121, Russia at 140. If Fifa were a country, it would be closer to Qatar and Russia than Holland (3) or England (19).
Nor does Fifa share England’s view of itself. We love the Premier League. Many footballing bodies hate it. We go on and on and on about World Cup victory in 1966, decades after most of the rest of the world forgot about it, because countries as varied as Brazil, Argentina, Holland, Spain and Germany produced greater teams and greater football since. As the Prime Minister pointed out yesterday, he was not even alive to see Bobby Moore raised aloft in victory, yet still we cannot let go of ‘’66’ as the greatest moment in sporting history.
‘Football’s coming home’ was one of the best nationalist prism football songs ever written, but the constant reminders that ‘we gave the world the game’ simply grate with Fifa, who are more interested in giving the game to the world, taking it to parts of the planet where it has yet to reach the saturation point it has reached here.
We either have to play the game, or change the rules of the game; and if we can’t change the rules, we may as well accept that England will only host the World Cup in the event of an emergency in Brazil, Russia, Qatar, or those awarded hosting rights theraeafter. Meanwhile, roll on 2012. Britain united, the world invited.