2018 World Cup: England is best placed to spread the gospel of football
The key proposition of England 2018 is that we will create a festival of football
I was watching my old chum Howard Flight on television as he tried to dodge the media by pretending to be a potted azalea, and I thought, Howard, we have all been there. He was hunched up in his doorway, head down, doing something with his trouser leg. “I have absolutely nothing to say,” he muttered out of the corner of his mouth.
Yup, I thought: that is what it feels like. One moment you are kicking back with some friendly journalist and you let loose some semi-satirical sally that perhaps you don’t even really mean. The next moment – pow. You are the epicentre of the latest hoo-ha, the fox before the hounds, and when you come back home you find you can’t even get in. The pavement is blocked by a spinney of TV crews with their glaring lights and grey candyfloss sound booms.
As they shout their impertinent questions you feel like some mammal that wants to find the small place where the big creature can’t go. That is what Howard was doing with the azalea bush, burying his head – and I don’t blame him. You bury your head until you can no longer hear the roaring of the media beast and you can no longer feel the hot blast of synthetic indignation from its nostrils.
And then you look up, and suddenly you find that the big animal has gone – off to a better story – and you tip-toe out again, shaken and confused by the sudden savagery so magically forgotten. That is exactly the experience that many distinguished non-Britons dread about Britain – the distortions and frenzy of the media. That is why there is such alarm about tonight’s BBC Panorama programme, which is billed as a hatchet job on Fifa, in the very week when the world’s footballing body is due to decide on whether to allow England to host the World Cup in 2018. Will Panorama scupper the bid? I have no idea what is in the programme, but I hope and believe that it won’t.
England has a fantastic case and this week I will be going to Zurich with the rest of the 2018 team to argue – humbly but passionately – that we deserve to be given a chance. It is vital not to sound boastful about our role in the history of the game (and frankly we don’t have that much to boast about lately on the pitch); and the England bid is not so much that we are a nation of football fans with all the facilities already in place – though both points are strong. Our case is that an England World Cup in 2018 would be the best way of spreading the benefits of football training around the world.
This summer I found myself stuck in a vast traffic jam in Dar es Salaam, and as I listened to the Swahili football commentary on the radio I realised that it was live coverage of the Fulham-Man U game. Then I looked around me in the traffic, and was amazed to see how many dalla-dalla minibuses were decked in the livery of Chelsea or Manchester United, and it hit me that there were almost certainly more Chelsea fans in Dar es Salaam than in Chelsea itself.
These brands – English premiership clubs – are simply colossal in the imaginations of young people around the world. London clubs are already engaged in outreach programmes in some of the poorest communities on earth, helping to bring football training, for instance, to townships in South Africa. The key proposition of England 2018 is that we will create a festival of football that would raise the revenues to multiply that effect around the world. As for those cynics who wonder what is in it for us in England, let me point out that the income from tourism and investment has been estimated at £3 billion. There are good reasons why countries vie for these sporting tournaments.
Without the Olympics, the London construction industry would have gone into cryogenic paralysis over the past couple of years. We would have lost jobs and skills, and London would have been less well placed to lead the entire country out of recession. And nobody who went to the World Cup in South Africa could doubt the phenomenal psychological boost, the sense of togetherness that it seemed to give the nation.
The Government is now wisely informing us that the goal of life is not material acquisition but “happiness”, or all-round well-being. Well, you don’t need focus groups or psychometric tests to gauge the eudaimonic benefits of hosting a successful World Cup and of being the proud centre of global acclaim – you just had to look at the faces in those South African crowds.
That is why I am crossing my fingers and hoping that whatever happens on the BBC tonight, the world’s footballing authority will simply ignore what is tendentious, correct what is wrong, and look at our bid fairly.
I hope Sepp Blatter and his colleagues will understand that, yes, the British media can be awful and they can be intrusive and they can sometimes get things back to front. But they also do an amazing job of keeping the feet of the British governing classes firmly on the ground. They ensure that the gap between the rulers and the ruled is as small as anywhere on earth – and that is itself an important contributor to happiness.
One further point, which I hope is not too cynical: the British media can turn on a coin. They used to grouse about the Olympics and the International Olympic Committee. Then they saw how popular the Games have become, with more than 70 per cent in favour, even outside London, and they have become much more supportive. The British media monster us all. It’s the way they are. It’s the way they should be. But they also love football – or at least they know that their readers and viewers love it – and if England were given the chance to host the World Cup the British media would become the most fervent and foaming advocates of Fifa to be found in the firmament.