IN sending the World Cup east yesterday Fifa didn’t just break English hearts, they took a monumental gamble with the future of their competition.
Ignore for a minute the whiff of corruption, collusion and self-interest emanating from the decision to hand Russia and Qatar the World Cups of 2018 and 2022 and concentrate instead on what it means for a tournament already diminished in supporters’ eyes by a disappointing summer.
By turning their back on the traditional Western European heartlands of the game to push forward on new frontiers, Fifa’s 22 wise men run the risk of alienating supporters in football hotbeds like our own, as well as France, Germany, Italy, Holland and Spain.
An idle threat from an embittered Englishman? Not when you consider the huge disparity between travelling support numbers during the World Cups in South Africa and Germany.
Two hundred and twenty thousand travelled from foreign shores to support their team in 2010, compared with over one million in 2006 – a disparity that South African organisers put down simply to geography, and the ease with which supporters could get to a central European venue. Well if they struggled to afford South Africa, how will they ever get their heads around the eye-watering sums that it will cost to scale Russia? Or the trip into the unknown that will be the ultra-expensive Qatar?
Fifa will take a risk on the fact that it won’t matter, and that the enthusiasm of the natives will more than make up for the diminishing visitor numbers from Western Europe. But it is a major gamble that supporters fed on a diet of world-class club football will not simply lose interest in the international game, especially if the football is as dull as it was out in South Africa. No doubt a case could be made that it will invigorate two previously untapped markets – Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Certainly, finance will be no obstacle as the autocratic, oil-rich administrations take unprecedented steps to impress an expectant world.
But Russian human rights records – and the all-too-frequent bouts of racism experienced by English clubs when they travel to certain grounds – does not paint a particularly inviting picture. As for Qatar the fact that homosexuality is illegal in the tiny Emirate illustrates an illiberalism that seems at odds with England 2018’s theme of inclusion.
So what of England, the early favourites who picked up a pathetic two votes in the final reckoning? The finger of blame will be partly pointed at a questioning media and political self-interest within the bidding team from the beginning of the process – and both played a part in their downfall.
Too many mistakes were made in the early days of the campaign and there were countless changes of tack from a bid committee that lacked direction and focus in the early days.
That can not have helped the bid but anyone who watched the late lobbying, the excellent efforts of David Cameron, Prince William and David Beckham and the truly inspirational presentation in Zurich must wonder what the process is really about. If the thinking was to push back football’s boundaries and hand the competition to new worlds then Fifa should have stated that from the off, rather than dangle the carrot in front of established nations like England, Spain, Portugal and Holland. As it is they led the English bid in particular a merry dance before delivering a deliberate and obnoxious snub to a country that would have hosted a magnificent World Cup.
For the volunteers and for the cities that bid to host games, it is a crushing blow. Sunderland and Newcastle were both chosen as host cities and the effort and time put in by staff on both councils and at the two clubs deserves to be recognised.
Chairmen Niall Quinn and Derek Llambias were in sombre mood yesterday and as well that might be.
Both had been incredible supporters of the campaign, Irishman Quinn impressing in particular with his eloquent and passionate appeal for Fifa to bring the World Cup to Wearside.
All those efforts were in vain through absolutely no fault of their own. High politics, the creaking of chairs in backrooms and the murky world of football administration combined to undermine a bid that was technically superior and underpinned by the brightest of credentials. Certainly, the bid leaders could have done more in the early days. But let us not kid ourselves that Fifa – hellbent on putting England in its place and delivering a ‘legacy’ – was really judging the bid on its merits in the final reckoning.
Former Newcastle striker Alan Shearer expressed it best when a microphone was thrust into his face a few minutes after the verdict was announced.
After making all of the right noises about respecting the decision and wishing good luck to Qatar and 2018 victors Russia, the facade cracked slightly.
“It makes you feel that if we haven’t got it this time, when will we ever get it?” he said. “I don’t think we could have done any more. Everyone has worked very, very hard and at the end of the day it hasn’t been enough.
“I was hoping I might see a World Cup hosted in England in my lifetime. I wasn’t born in 1966. It’s unfortunate, it’s sad and it hurts.”
With the rotation policy pushed through by Sepp Blatter, England’s next chance to bid may not come around until 2030. By then many of the elderly ExCo members will not be around and the FA may fancy its chances, but there must be a serious temptation to be done with it and not bother again after this almighty snub.
Yesterday, Fifa delivered its verdict – the international game no longer needs its traditional constituencies to thrive and prosper. The suspicion is that an organisation so patently out of touch with the sport it represents has made a major error of judgement.