A couple of years ago, it felt as if. in some ways, there was something inevitable about England winning the race to host the 2018 World Cup finals. Since then, however, the wheels have come off the wagon in every conceivable way. The Triesman sting, the Sunday Times exposé on the subject of FIFA corruption and next week’s BBC “Panorama” have blown a hole in the bid. There is a feeling that the time is right for corruption within FIFA to be exposed, but that whatever allegations turn out to be made, any subsequent investigation will be a mere exercise in brushing things under the carpet. FIFA’s initial reaction to the Sunday Times reports – initial crocodile tears followed by thinly-veiled threats that this sort of thing would damage the bid – has hardly filled those amongst us that want the world game’s governing body to be honest with much confidence.
Moreover, there is a degree of ambivalence within England itself towards the bid that the FA can’t publicly admit to. The decision to allow Milton Keynes into its application and the possibility of white elephants being built in Nottingham and Plymouth have given the bid the wrong pitch at home. On top of this, the vote is coming at a time when the stock of the national football team itself couldn’t be much lower. A farcical World Cup during the summer was followed by a brief renaissance at the start of qualifying for the 2012 European Championships, but a lacklustre draw with Montenegro and a defeat against France which showed just how limited this England team is and have made those indian summer wins against Bulgaria and Switzerland in September seem like a very long time ago indeed. Even those of us that would normally be whole-heartedly behind our home country winning the tournament will probably just shrug if or when the award goes to Spain and Portugal or Russia.
There is so much wrong with the bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups that it is difficult to know where to start. Holding them simultaneously makes collusion and cross-voting seem almost inevitable, and that such a tiny number of unelected officials is making the decision in such a secretive way feels like a model of more or less exactly how such a major sporting event shouldn’t be awarded. FIFA answers to no-one, though, so nothing will change for the forseeable future, even if empty promises about “the good of the game” continue to be thrown around like confetti during press conferences at which all behind the microphones start to to resemble the robot cowboys in Westworld.
It is too late for the FA to withdraw from the race for the 2018 World Cup. Too much time and money have been spent for them to pull out at this stage. They should, however, perhaps take a moment to consider that losing a bid to this soiled process will be far from a disgrace. The press haven’t helped matters, of course, although it is important to distinguish between the Mail’s risible sting on Lord Triesman early this year and the Sunday Times’ seemingly genuine attempt at investigative journalism a couple of months ago. The FA should muster whatever dignity they can and keep hustling until the votes are in, and then they should look Sepp Blatter square in the eye and see if he blinks. It wouldn’t unreasonable to suggest that if they were somehow to win the bid, the England team should immediately hand the award back to FIFA and say “No thanks”, but the chances of that happening are more or less exactly zero.
The comments of the 2018 England bidding team and Jack Warner on the subject of the BBC’s Panorama programme next week – the contents of which will be largely about the likes of Warner rather than uncovering anything new about the process for these two World Cup bids – say more about their priorities than they do about the BBC. When Warner says that, “It is just a rehash of the same old bullshit so I continue to sleep very soundly at nights”, he says so secure in the knowledge that he doesn’t have to vote for England for the 2018 World Cup and that his two lackeys, the American Chuck Blazer and the Guatemalan Rafael Salguero, don’t have to either. When he states that, “I continue to sleep very soundly at nights”, the relex reaction of anyone listening to him has to be to add to the sentence in the style of Ranier Wolfcastle, the action movie star in The Simpsons: “…on a big pile of money, surrounded by many beautiful ladies”.
The bidding team itself has described the timing of the Panorama programme as “unpatriotic”, as if the BBC should just sweep the small matter of pushing FIFA’s seedier side into the public conciousness under the carpet – in other words, show a greater commitment to this World Cup bid than to its own standards of investigative journalism. Also, it will certainly be interesting to see what the reaction of the Mail and News Corporation (owners of the Sunday Times and The Sun, amongst others) should England fail to land the nomination. Will they turn the hypocrisyometer up to eleven and turn on the BBC for being “unpatriotic” if this scenario comes to pass? The BBC has stated that: “Panorama has a reputation for strong, independent and probing investigative journalism”, and that “The findings of the Panorama investigation into FIFA will be in the public interest”. It is impossible to say whether this is true without having seen the actual programme, but the truth of the matter is that if this programme will be as irrelevant as Jack Warner claims it will be, it won’t (or shouldn’t) make any difference anyway.
The question, ultimately, is one of whether the BBC should be cowed into putting off this programme (or cancelling it) because of the effect that it might have on the 2018 World Cup bid. Are we that desperate to stage it? Everywhere we look, the answer remains “no”. There seems to be a deep sense ambivalence towards it in England, brought about by a number of different factors. If the Mail’s sting on Triesman was wretched, it was wretched on account of the way in which it was done and the possible political reasons for which it was done. The Sunday Times undercover reports led to the suspension of the two FIFA members at the centre of it. If the combined results of these allegations – and if there is anything in the forthcoming Panorama programme that pushes this issue to the top of the world football agenda – which actually does clean FIFA up, then they will have been worthwhile. And that is more important than the question of who hosts the 2018 World Cup finals.
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