Mihir Bose

England’s botched bid to stage the 2018 World Cup

The murky world of football politics requires special skills which our team seems to lack, says Mihir Bose

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To understand how World Cup bids are won, let me take you to the third-floor suite of Dolder Grand hotel overlooking Lake Zurich. The date is May 2004 and the cast as high-powered as you would expect in any political summit. There was Thabo Mbeki, then president of South Africa, and Nelson Mandela, his predecessor. They had come to meet Jack Warner, the Trinidadian vice-president of FIFA — the organisation which controls world football. Warner had been sympathetic to South Africa’s bid for the 2010 World Cup, but had suddenly turned cold — refusing to return any calls to Cape Town. So the South Africans had come to see him.

Mandela, of course, was South Africa’s trump card. Just what these men discussed has never been revealed, but I caught up with Warner in the corridor immediately after the meeting and he said: ‘Who knows? Anything can happen.’ Then he gave a big smile suggesting he was once again South Africa’s friend.

Until that moment the Moroccans were very sure that they had secured Warner’s votes. They had spent millions on their campaign, employing so many experts from all over the world that theirs was almost an ‘outsourced’ bid. They had expected to beat South Africa by 14 votes to ten. In the event, they were defeated by 14 to ten.

Warner, a former Port of Spain schoolteacher, is a hugely controversial figure who is believed to have accumulated a £30 million fortune through international football. He has even been reprimanded by his fellow FIFA executive members for the way he and his son handled the sale of tickets for the last World Cup. But that the South Africans deployed Mandela, the nearest to a modern-day Gandhi, on a figure like Warner shows how high the stakes were. When your country wants the World Cup, you have to use all the tools at your disposal.

As England must now learn, any successful bid requires a twin strategy. You must pretend you are travelling on a high road — talking openly, and enthusiastically, of all the good the bid will do both for your country, for football and the world. But the real journey is made along the low road, cutting deals with FIFA executives, charming football administrators in remote outposts of the game and playing what few trump cards you can get your hands on. And this, of course, is the trouble with England’s 2018 bid.

Just how much England has to learn was brutally demonstrated last month at an international sports conference in London. Warner’s wife was presented with a Mulberry bag on her birthday by the bid team. The bid team had bought 24 of these bags at around half their original price of £230 and planned to give one to each of the wives of executive members when they came here. Their thinking was that nobody could complain if they all got the same bag and the present would remind them fondly of England. But the English press smelt a rat, and their reports so incensed Warner that he returned the gift — muttering about a ‘deafening’ silence from the England team over the affair.

As if this were not enough, England’s bid is also beset by problems over strategy — and three men from Sheffield pulling in different directions. One is Richard Caborn, the avuncular former sports minister named Gordon Brown’s ‘ambassador’ to the 2018 bid. Next is Geoff Thompson — a short, bulky, bearded magistrate who could be mistaken for a 1960s trade union leader. The third is Sir David Richards, chairman of the Premier League. The last two have never got on (Thompson refers to Richards as the ‘lollipop man’ due to his supposed habit of promising to fulfil every request made to him). Thompson also blamed Caborn for knighting Richards for his role in bringing the Olympics to London.

The network of resentment does not stop there. Caborn hoped to succeed Thompson as chairman of the FA after leaving government. When he was thwarted (by Lord Triesman, Labour’s former general secretary) he started angling for the World Cup job.

Triesman initially kept all three Sheffield men out. Then he reluctantly put Richards on the board. Caborn was made an observer who could attend board meetings. But Thompson was kept out completely. The result was a bid launched against a background of intrigue and unhappiness, mostly emanating from Sheffield.

The bid is being chaired by Lord Triesman. He had hoped he would overcome his lack of political skills and the backing of the Prime Minister would overcome these problems. Mr Brown is proud of his football knowledge, and found much allure in the prospect of a Scottish Prime Minister delivering England its first World Cup since 1966. Yet his government gave nothing like the £5 million grant which Triesman was hoping for. It has instead issued a £2.5 million loan.

Now that the handbag fiasco has landed the 2018 bid in such controversy, the conspiracy theories are starting again. Bid insiders are convinced that some mischief has been orchestrated by those who had been denied a place on their team — including a public relations man who had hoped to act as a consultant. Last week, fevers ran so high that Triesman was forced to hold an emergency board meeting which saw the board halved to six members.

Why the cull? The official reason is that the bid needs to refocus. The hard reality is that Triesman has had to deal with the Sheffield trio. Thompson is now inside the tent (Caborn has been cast aside) and he must be made to work with Richards, whom he so disparages. Triesman also needs to think what his equivalent of Nelson Mandela might be. What England lacks in political superstars it makes up for in having the most successful football league in the world. The promise that one of the Premier League’s high-profile clubs could play a match in the country whose vote Triesman is trying to woo would go down well.

England has got off to a dismal start in its efforts to secure the 2018 World Cup. In Spain and Russia, England has two formidable opponents — especially given that Moscow has the budget to outbid all other competitors. Triesman must now show that he understands the peculiar world of football politics — just as brutal as Westminster, but requiring different skills.

The politics of football are more like golf club elections than Westminster politics. Personal relationships like the one between Warner and Mandela can, in the end, be crucial. With a decision not due until the end of next year, England’s situation may not be terminal. But it is hard, at present, to see how England’s bid might recover.