Seven years after England’s last bid to host a World Cup failed, along comes another one, with the plans so far to go it alone once more. Mark Perryman thinks it’s the wrong bid at the wrong time
Few England fans would pass up the chance of their country hosting the 2018 World Cup. But why is the campaign drum being beaten now, when the 2014 hosts are yet to be selected and doubt is being heaped on South Africa’s abilities to hold the next one?
A Scottish Prime Minister-in-Waiting has a pressing need to boost his popularity in England, where the overwhelming majority of marginal seats are. Flying the flag for England is a political near‑necessity for Gordon Brown’s chances at the next general election.
Any decision on 2018 won’t be made until 2011 and a key factor in that eventual process is one of Sepp Blatter’s better ideas: continental rotation of World Cups. Rotation isn’t actually a formal FIFA commitment, which allows Blatter to make promises and then break them. But since 2002 the pledge has been adhered to: Asian hosts, Japan and South Korea, then Europe’s turn in 2006 and Africa’s for 2010. In December 2006 FIFA’s executive committee confirmed that rotation would continue for 2014, with North or South American hosts. Brazil is the overwhelming favourite, backed by nine of the South American national federations.
The English press are already speculating that the USA could scupper England’s 2018 bid, but it is scarcely conceivable that, following a Brazilian World Cup, the States would follow as hosts four years later. It is more likely that a combination of doubts about Brazil being capable hosts with the temptation to make another serious bid for the North American sports market might lead to FIFA quietly encouraging the USA to put in a bid to host 2014.
Adherence to rotation would put 2022 as Europe’s turn, which might prove to be the biggest obstacle to a successful English bid. The media’s persistent failure to engage with the world of football outside our shores means that amid all the speculation about a 2018 bid this has so far scarcely merited a mention. 2018 is “Asia’s turn”. China will host the Women’s World Cup in September and its capital, Beijing, the Olympics in 2008. In football terms, Australia is now part of Asia, too. Both countries would make hugely attractive hosts and continue the rotation policy. Yes, Europe remains the wealthiest continent in football, but it will find it increasingly difficult to plead that this merits special privileges. Treating each continent equally is a good idea, even if it is founded for some on selling replica shirts and satellite dishes to previously untouched markets.
Despite all this, England will surely host the tournament again in most readers’ lifetimes. On that basis alone this feasibility study deserves a careful reading. What emerges is a singular lack of vision and ambition. England is in a position to make an innovative bid that would help shape future World Cups. With England as a single host, but near neighbours – Scotland, Wales, and possibly Northern Ireland too – staging games. Many smaller countries with a rich footballing tradition and one or two superb stadiums will never get the opportunity to host a World Cup or European Championship. Instead of the messy complications of a joint bid, why not a single host nation sharing the tournament with others? England is in a unique position to pioneer this. Between us and the home nations there are no borders or passport controls and we share a single government. Such a bid isn’t just about being neighbourly. Based on current stadium capacities, a shared hosting would add the 74,500-capacity Millennium Stadium and a choice of three grounds in Glasgow holding 50-60,000. Similar co-operation between sports would envisage Twickenham, with 82,000 seats, as another venue. And by 2011 the new Olympic Stadium, holding 80,000, would be ready.
With these added to Wembley, Old Trafford and others already of 50,000-plus, or likely to be built at around that size or larger, then a bid on this basis would add up to the biggest-ever capacity for a World Cup. Such an advantage should not be lightly dismissed. World Cups are now characterised by the huge numbers of fans, tens of thousands from many countries – hundreds of thousands from some – who travel from every corner of the globe to be there. And just imagine the domestic clamour for tickets.
But there’s another reason. The feasibility document repeats over and over again the claim that the World Cup will leave a lasting legacy. Yet there is precious little verifiable evidence for this, while landmarks to wasteful extravagance abound. Aveiro in Portugal aimed to boost its resort status by hosting Euro 2004 games. The new stadium, with its 30,000 seats, is now the home of Beira Mar, who boast an average attendance of 1,000. The tendency with these mega-events is always to favour building projects that supposedly add to the prestige of being hosts by having a lasting legacy. Empty, disused stadiums now litter Portugal, Japan and South Korea. Even the Germans could not resist the temptation of building a new ground in Leipzig in order to assuage their guilt that all the other host cities and benefits stayed in the old West. The 45,000-capacity stadium is now occupied by FC Sachsen Leipzig, who play in the German fourth tier and struggle to attract more than 2,000 to games.
It could be that this feasibility study isn’t much more than a convenient prop for a Gordon Brown photo-opportunity at Wembley. If that’s the case, it will remain a footnote of any eventual bid in four, or eight, years’ time. But if it is a serious first step towards entering this process then the wilful submission to the creeping conservatism that bedevils the World Cup bidding competition is a worrying early sign. A bid could be founded on co-operation, to accommodate unprecedented numbers of fans and leaving no legacy of unwanted stadiums. Aren’t those the kinds of promises politicians should be making to impress the voters?
From WSC 242 April 2007. What was happening this month