“Please accept my resignation. I wouldn’t belong to a club that would accept me as a member”, said the telegram that Groucho Marx in his famous telegram to the Friar’s Club of Beverly Hills, and the Football Association must be inwardly feeling the same as Marx with their admission that recent press revelations into the behaviour of various senior FIFA delegates has had an extremely damaging effect on their bid to host the 2018 World Cup. The FA had apparently at first thought that they had managed to escape the ire of those at the top of the world’s governing body over the revelations made by The Sunday Times, but with an edition of the BBCs Panorama on the subject also due to be shown before the vote next month it is now widely anticipated that the award will go to Russia.
There was a brief period in time that, unbelievably, the English bid was the bookmakers’ favourite, but this was a brief highlight in what has looked from the outset like a dismal campaign. Lord Triesman was was stitched up earlier this year by the Mail with a pincer movement that may or may not have been more about him having the sheer nerve to be a Labour peer in favour of changing the financial structure of football than the World Cup bid. The Mail widely criticised more or less universally for its behaviour (which, even by the low standards of the British press, clearly crossed the line marked “entrapment”), but the damage was already done. By the Mail’s apparent ethical code, the phrases “off the cuff” and “off record” didn’t appear to apply Triesman. The only thing that we can add on that particular subject is that the FA missed a trick by not banning all writers from that hateful rag from all English football grounds indefinitely.
The investigation carried out by The Sunday Times at least had the merit of being about something approaching the subject of corruption surrounding the World Cup bidding process in any meaningful sense. Here, though, we meet an implacable cultural divide. It would appear that Mohamed Bin Hammam, the chairman of the Asian Football Confederation, wasn’t being ironic when he said that, “Forging identity, fabricating evidence and setting traps are unethical behaviour in my point of view. One thing about Middle East media, these are rare happenings there”, as if the lack of an investigative, free press is a good thing – to which the immediate, knee-jerk-esque reaction is to say, “perhaps it’s a good thing for you”. It has increasingly looked over the last few weeks as if FIFA’s initial talk of investigations into the Sunday Times investigation were little more than crocodile tears, and the FA’s comments on the subject could easily be interpreted as exasperation with the prevailing mood within FIFA just as much as with the behaviour of our own press.
FIFA, however, is not a democracy and never has been. And the FA isn’t either. Both organisations are responsible for our game, but we have no recourse to them whatsoever. Ultimately, the fact of the matter is that FIFA can give the World Cup to whomever it damn well pleases and no-one can do anything about it. It doesn’t have to explain its reasons or justify itself and, if they wanted to, its delegates could take bribes in return for votes without breaking the laws of any country. Yet the FA chose to take part in this bidding process. It’s committee must have known that there was a chance that the vote might not be all that it could be and that the British press might act in an entirely selfish way and not in any way support of the English bid as a whole. It would not be remotely surprising if any investigations into corruption within FIFA will come to nothing (consider the ongoing presence of Jack Warner as Vice-President even after his previous dalliances were exposed if you want something approaching proof of the way that FIFA operates), but there is nothing that anyone can do apart from shrug their shoulders and laugh.
There is no disgrace in losing a bidding process that is as tainted as this one may well be, but this shouldn’t be construed as support for the behaviour of the British press. Our enemy’s enemy does not have to be our friend. Sometimes, you have to wonder at the agenda that some of the newspapers in this country follow. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the processes involved in winning the rights to host a World Cup finals, the British press have sold the football supporters of this country down the river. Just as the FA know what FIFA are like, the British press is full of journalists with years of knowledge of the inner workings of these clandestine organisations. The Sunday Times may have exposed a degree of corruption at the heart of FIFA that the governing body didn’t want to be made public. The Mail’s attack on Triesman had all the markings of being nothing of the sort, though.
No-one is going to suggest that the press should gag themselves or that they should be gagged, but anybody suggesting that they are innocent defenders of truth and transparency are simply being naive. They exist to make money through selling stories and to pursue political agendas – perhaps in that order, perhaps not. They cover every single one of their transgressions with a feeble defence of “public interest”, even in cases when the only conclusion that one can reach from reading what they have just described in lurid detail is that they are primarily interested only in “public prurience”. The lines may or may not be more blurred in the case of their behaviour with regard to the 2018 World Cup bidding process, though, but the FA will probably consider that all that matters in terms of winning the tournament hosting rights is the result and that the press at home will have helped if or when England loses again. The journalists themselves will, in such an eventuality, probably turn their ire upon the FA rather than taking a moment to consider their own behaviour, and the predictable, tiring, toxic debate will start all over again.
For the next few weeks, the FA will hunker down, keep on lobbying and take the view that the game isn’t over until the final votes have been cast. They don’t have any choice. The unsavoury fact of the matter, however, is that English football, as an institution, doesn’t really deserve it. The avarice of the Premier League doesn’t deserve it. The FA, with its decision to vindicate the franchising of Milton Keynes by including it in their bid, doesn’t deserve it. Vast swathes of the wretched British press don’t deserve it. The players, the likes of Wayne Rooney, don’t deserve it. And just as unsavoury as that is the fact that FIFA doesn’t deserve to be bestowing it upon anybody. Russia has never hosted the World Cup finals, while Mexico, Germany, Italy and France have all hosted it twice. By 2018, Brazil will have done as well. No matter how much we may have wanted – may even still want – England to host the 2018 World Cup, the question remains… why shouldn’t it be Russia?
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