Bidding for business

The British press reflect on the controversy surrounding England’s 2018 World Cup bid

Reacting to October’s Sunday Times investigation into the World Cup bidding process several in the press wistfully described a seductive setting: a Switzerland of suave gentlemen, crisp navy suits, lavish hotels, steak suppers and, according to the Telegraph, a lake “so clear that you can see the moorhens diving for fish ten feet under”. The twist, when it came, was the “stench of corruption” – the politics of this world “could not be murkier”.

Against this stereotyped European backdrop, the papers were initially concerned with how the scandal would affect humble England. The Sunday Times fretted that while England 2018 “is widely regarded as one of the best… that is only half the battle” before retreating unashamedly to the moral high ground: “Today we report that honesty could be [the England bid’s] downfall. The FA has taken the decision not to resort to bribery to win the rights to stage the competition.” At least we now know that the recently opened David Beckham Academy in Jack Warner’s Trinidad is at the innocent end of the lobbying wedge.

Some were painfully self-aware, concerned about the whistle-blowing role of the English media. An affronted Paul Kelso in the Telegraph claimed “FIFA’s power-brokers… rank us somewhere between plankton and pond-life in the evolutionary scale” while the Times’ picked-on Ashling O’Connor opined: “What is clear in this latest scandal to afflict FIFA is that the British media will probably get the blame for all the fuss.”

But this comforting view of British superiority in the face of foreign inscrutability swiftly changed to embarrassment following the England bid’s petulant complaint to FIFA after negative comments about London from the Russian campaign. The Times decried “petty politics” and “cynical timing”; Kelso wrote of a “provocative step” that risks “looking insensitive”; while the Daily Mail thought the demand appeared “crass when the governing body’s ethics committee already have their hands full with [a] far weightier inquiry”.

The allegations against the FIFA executive committee members are serious, and it is likely that the vote for the 2018 World Cup will always be associated with corruption. Despite this, England’s bid can’t even rely on support of the usually tub-thumping papers. The votes-for-cash revelations were the perfect opportunity to prepare some early excuses for the possible failure of England 2018, but the press chose not to accept it.

According to the Guardian, the Russian bid is still hoping for a “scene-stealing personal appearance” from Vladimir Putin, of the sort that won the 2014 Winter Olympics. This would put the macho Russian premier into direct head-to-head combat with a representative troupe of Prince William, Gary Lineker and Davids Cameron and Beckham. England’s embarrassment may not be over yet.

From WSC 286 December 2010