Out of their league

John Sugden and Alan Tomlinson trace the toots of England's international impotence and the shambles at the FA

December’s crisis within the FA, when chairman Keith Wiseman and chief executive Graham Kelly faced a vote of no confidence from the FA Council, can only be properly understood in relation to English football’s recent lack of standing in Europe and in FIFA politics. In the run-up to the 1998 World Cup and critical UEFA and FIFA congresses, Kelly was asked whether the British associations lacked inf­luence in UEFA.

Replying from a self-confessedly English stand­point, he conceded: “We see ourselves as one of the major nations, and not to have a seat on the UEFA ex­ecutive committee is unfortunate to say the least. But we are doing everything possible to rectify that, and we are hoping to secure representation in the near fut­ure. We have a very broad strategy to get people out and about, within UEFA and FIFA.”

The unravelling of this strategy throughout 1998 was to lead to Kelly’s resignation, and, initially, to Wise­­man hanging on to his own position in undignified fashion. Highly-placed figures in international foot­ball – in UEFA particularly – were convinced from the start that some of the measures in the FA’s strategy would inevitably rebound on an English football establishment perceived as typically high-minded, arrogant and unaccountable.

The FA never added “English” or “England” to its title. Established in 1863 as the first national football association, it has assumed ever since that it would be self-evident to the rest of the world that “the FA” was the one in England. According to FIFA’s handbook of national associations, the FA shares the distinction of omitting its parent country’s name with only one other member, Afghanistan, which goes by the name of “The Football Federation of National Olympic Comm­ittee”. Afghanistan was the only association absent from FI­FA’s 1998 congress. After its recent bunglings, the FA looks as though it has been scarcely more effective in reaching the heart of FIFA politics.

    Things were not always thus. Though the FA adopted some very snooty attitudes to the French-led formation of FIFA in 1904, as soon as things looked promising the FA was not slow to offer leadership. Two years into FIFA’s life the English joined, and also provided the world body’s president in the person of Daniel Woolfall, a civil servant from Blackburn.

But the four British associations had a temp­estuous relationship with FIFA. There were disputes over contact with Germany after the First World War and further controversies over the nature of amat­eurism and FIFA’s admission of the Football Assoc­iation of the Irish Free State in 1923. The British associations withdrew in 1928, rejoining only in the years after the Second World War.

By then, English insularity had been overcome by the impact of Sir Stanley Rous on the world footballing stage. Rous made his name as an international referee in the 1930s, rewriting the laws of the game and devising innovative refereeing tech­niques. For 27 years from 1934 he was secretary of the FA, until elected president of FIFA in 1961. He was also a founder-member of UEFA in 1954 and, as he put it, was “vice-president responsible for the drafting of the statutes and formulating of the regulations of the highly successful Cup comp­etitions”. Rous had championed the principle of int­ernationalism in football, and arranged the 1947 Great Britain v Rest of the World game at Hampden Park (won 6-1 by Britain), the proceeds of £30,000 being gifted to FIFA to relaunch it. This also secured the British Associations their one-between-four vice-presidential member of FIFA’s executive committee.

Former England coach Sir Walter Winterbottom saw Rous as the key figure who got the English back into world football on the basis of exceptional dip­lomatic, negotiating and interpersonal skills. England were awarded the 1966 World Cup finals the year before Rous was at FIFA, but when he was obviously prominent as FA secretary and UEFA vice-president. Winterbottom said: “But he was in FIFA. Stanley could use his influence… the fellows were buttered up, to put it crudely, in a way that was quite amazing. They idolized him you know.”

From this cosy, post-colonial position of influence, England’s powerbase crumbled once Brazil’s Dr João Havelange outmanoeuvred Rous in FIFA’s 1974 pres­idential election. Rous was beaten by alliances from the second and third world, and English influence on the world game has never recovered.

Havelange placed his allies and cronies in positions of power on FIFA’s main committees. In 1994, an analysis of FIFA’s executive and standing committees broken down according to the nationality of members made sobering reading for the English: Brazil had 11 individuals, holding 13 seats; France, with the 1998 finals boosting its profile, had 11 in 11; Germany had eight in ten, Spain nine in nine, Italy seven in nine, Scotland three in seven (five held by British Associations vice-president David Will). England had two: journalist David Miller on the media committee and then-FA chairman Sir Bert Millichip.

Bert, a stalwart servant of English interests in UEFA and FIFA circles, worked hard for the rehabilitation of English football after its exclusion from European competition after Heysel. UEFA president Lennart Johansson was a key ally, and one of the outcomes was the staging of Euro 96 in England. Recalling how much he had worked with and for the English, Johansson was stunned at England’s desertion of him just days before FIFA’s presidential election in June 1998 – a decision instigated by Keith Wiseman.

But England’s developing profile had been dealt a big blow earlier still, at the beginning of 1997, when a row blew up over whether or not the German support for England’s hosting of Euro 96 had been traded for English support for a German bid for the 2006 World Cup. Tony Blair stepped in to describe UEFA-Ger­many claims as a “cosy stitch-up”. In fact, though Sir Bert said “it is false to say that I had an agreement”, he was clear that “I may well have indicated that we will support you”. There was clearly an understanding, if not a formal agreement.

The lesson, for all sides, was surely to conduct open and accountable negotiations, and document ad­equat­ely the outcomes. The fatally undocumented deal with the Welsh association could not have revealed in a more costly manner that the FA had not absorbed this point.

England’s desperation to get into the decision-making salons of world football, particularly in the con­text of the 2006 bid, has done its chances of winn­ing acceptance little good. Wiseman got nowhere near enough votes to make it on to the UEFA exec­utive committee at the federation’s congress last April. David Will concluded that in working with its Welsh ally to try to depose him, and publicly betraying UEFA by backing Blatter, the English FA had “isolated themselves in Europe”.

If Will is right, it would not be for the first time. And Graham Kelly’s efforts to strengthen our int­ernational position by “being on the inside track, knowing what’s going on” will look like one of the most dramatic own goals in the history of the (English) Football Association.

From WSC 144 February 1999. What was happening this month