In hindsight, it’s possible to view England’s failed World Cup bids with a certain comic detachment. Of course to the English they felt terribly serious at the time: a cruel snub, a bruise to the national ego, a reminder of what the rest of the world thinks of us. The passing of time, however, allows us to reflect on just how doomed the doe-eyed escapades were from the start.
Take the 2006 bid, for example: devoid of European support, utterly oblivious of the prevailing currents of footballing politics, and armed with only the mildest instruments of persuasion. While eventual winners Germany secured the powerful Asian bloc vote and South Africa cut a deal with the South American lobby, England flew the BBC football pundit Garth Crooks out to Bermuda to compère a dinner for the North American federation. Meanwhile, a team of Fifa inspectors visiting England in 1999 was treated to lunch with Prince Charles, a personal meeting with Hugh Grant and a performance by the singer Chris de Burgh, all of which sounds less like a lobbying tactic than an elaborate form of torture.
Twelve years on, few lessons had been learned. England’s 2018 World Cup bid delegation – led by Prince William, David Beckham and David Cameron – descended on Fifa headquarters in Zurich in ingenuously high spirits, only to leave with a humiliating two votes from the 22-man executive committee. “The fish had been bought and sold before we’d even got to the marketplace,” Cameron would later write of Russia’s triumph. Beckham, by all accounts, was even angrier. “I don’t mind people lying to me,” the former England captain lamented. “But not to my prime minister and future king.”
And so, here we are again: Boris Johnson has thrown his fluctuating weight behind a joint British and Irish bid to host the 2030 World Cup. Bidding to host major international sporting events is the sort of wheeze beloved of new governments: an easy source of patriotism and genuine public excitement, a ready-made project, the illusion of long-term vision, an opportunity to promise big investment without committing to it. For a Prime Minister who in his wide-eyed fondness for grand, outlandish construction projects increasingly resembles a child with an unhealthy Minecraft addiction, it’s a no-brainer.
In objective terms, a British/Irish bid would be among the strongest. The stadia, transport links, tourism infrastructure and keen footballing audience are already in place. But none of this has ever been the issue. Fifa has overhauled the largely discredited structure that awarded the 2018 and 2022 tournaments to Russia and Qatar, making it more akin to the Olympic bid process – in which Britain has enjoyed some success. But the fact remains that World Cup bids are a murky business, requiring the ability not simply to press the flesh but to weigh it, to read the room, to know what your enemies as well as your friends are plotting.
There is a curiously persistent myth that England’s previous bid fiascos have resulted from a misplaced sense of probity, a reluctance to indulge in the dirty tricks and naked politicking of other countries. This, alas, is demonstrably untrue. England’s 2018 bid was mired in scandal from the start when it transpired that it had despatched luxury handbags to the wives of Fifa’s executive committee members. The 2006 bid allegedly reneged on an unwritten agreement with Germany to stand aside in return for backing England to host Euro 96. No: England’s failures stem not from refusing to play the game, but from playing it so atrociously.
For all the optimistic talk, the odds remain firmly stacked against the 2030 bid. The sentimental money will go on Uruguay, Argentina, Paraguay and Chile, with 2030 marking the centenary of the first ever World Cup, held in Uruguay. Cold logic would appear to favour China, whom Fifa has been actively courting for years, even amending its rule that no continent can host the tournament more than once every 12 years. Spain and Portugal (possibly in tandem with Morocco) and a joint Serbian-Greek-Romanian-Bulgarian bid will also garner support.
In addition, any British/Irish bid would encounter specific obstacles of its own. Co-ordinating strategy, messaging and logistics across five separate governments and five football associations won’t be straightforward, particularly if the Union becomes more strained in the next decade. Spending billions on a lavish month-long party will hardly feel like the most pressing priority if the economic downturn persists. And then there is the abasement required to win the thing in the first place: the blandishments, the tax breaks demanded by Fifa officials and partners, the complex cultivation of alliances and patronage that requires more than a pithy slogan like “bring football home”. In short: there are no guarantees, but there is a steepling possibility of failure and a significant chance of humiliation. So why bother?
Paradoxically, lowered expectations may well be of benefit this time round. Not to the bid itself, perhaps, but to its optics. Lose, and there will be easy scapegoats for the government: the unruly Scots, the intractable Irish, the invisible hand of global corruption, the chummy Euro-elites, Big Evil China. The political dividends will already have been harvested: the feel-good headlines written, the consultancy contracts dished out, the photo opportunities of Johnson in a hard hat and fluorescent jacket looking solemnly at an architect’s scale model gratefully seized. And in the unlikely event of victory? Well, as a wise political strategist once said, that’s another problem for another day.
This article appears in the 17 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The system cannot hold