Shock and awe as Brits see red

TO BORROW a phrase from George W Bush, there was shock and awe in the world of football after FIFA’s astonishing decision yesterday to award the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar.

No matter that a senior FIFA source described it as “the Doomsday Scenario”, because two such controversial choices have shredded what was left of FIFA’S credibility and integrity.

The next three World Cups will be held in countries which, at the moment, cannot muster between them more than half a dozen stadia that are up to scratch.

Brazil, in four years time, and Russia and Qatar will build the required number of grounds, there is no doubt, because they are wealthy enough countries to cope comfortably with the cost, and of course the rewards will be high.

UK government analysts estimated that the English economy would have received a €3.5 billion boost from hosting the tournament, but the opportunity has now gone. It would have been a similar story for Australia, America, Holland, Belgium, Spain, Japan and any other country hoping to stage the greatest show on earth.

Instead the richest prize in sport will be heading into unknown territory in the shape of Russia, whose vast country is effectively a continent, and tiny Qatar, which is half the size of Wales with a population smaller than Dublin.

They both represent a huge risk for FIFA for so many different reasons. Despite the claims made in their slick presentation, Russia’s record on human rights and multi-culturalism is nothing to write home about. Politically, they are embroiled in fresh controversy after the Wikileaks revelation that Spain’s senior prosecutor responsible for organised crime expressed his fears to American diplomats that the Russian government and mafia have unhealthy links.

And, of course, there are always allegations of corruption in many walks of Russian life, and the suspicion that votes were gained from some ExCo members by methods other than simple persuasion.

Qatar presents different challenges, with a tiny, under-developed country that has no discernable football tradition and barely enough people to sell out a World Cup finals. The climate is also a major factor — unbearably hot for most Europeans in mid-summer, even if they have created air-conditioned stadia.

I have been in one of them and can vouch for the fact that it is indeed comfortably cool despite the surrounding desert heat, but you cannot air-condition a whole country. Already there is talk of the tournament being switched to September, when it is cooler, but the obvious problem with that is the huge disruption it would cause to the rest of the world’s football calendar.

Nothing can change these decisions, but the fallout from them will be enormous. It is not just from England, who felt with some justification that they had the best technical bid, the most powerful economic case and pulled out all the stops to deliver the strongest possible presentation, with royalty, football royalty, and the prime minister.

Yet even Prince William, David Beckham and David Cameron could turn the heads of men whose minds may well have been made up many months ago, and who would certainly not have felt more favourable towards the English after the Sunday Times and Panorama effectively called them crooks and cheats. There is no doubt that the British media will now lambast FIFA relentlessly and seek to expose every element of corruption and malpractice they can find.

But there is also huge unhappiness in Australia, the USA, Spain and other countries that had such high hopes and left Zurich empty handed and bitter. There will certainly be calls for reform of the voting process and the constitution of the executive committee.

I have been told from well-connected sources that senior figures in FIFA admit that the system is flawed, and would welcome change, but need the approval of the executive committee to do that, which would be like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas.

It is highly likely that the next bid process will not entwine two successive finals together, as was done for the first time here. That only invites collusion and vote-trading, and cannot be healthy or fair. FIFA’s justification for it was that it enables them to do longer-term sponsorship deals, as has already been done.

The fallout will be felt in England, too, with more ammunition given to those critics of the FA who say English football’s ruling body is a mess, with no real leader, a lack of focus, and in need of complete overhaul. The Premier League is now seen as the most powerful body in English football, having control of the clubs and the world’s most popular league, with all the riches that brings. The Premier League increasingly call the shots when it comes to the biggest issues in the game and now might be the perfect time for them to take advantage of the FA’s weakness.

None of this is of interest to the people of Qatar or Russia, who are celebrating as if they have won the biggest of all lotteries. Vladimir Putin performed a remarkable U-turn when he flew into Zurich last night, hours after the vote which he decided not to attend in protest at a competition he considered besmirched.

Basking in the glow of victory, and with the applause of his compatriots ringing in his ears, he claimed not to have heard any accusations against Russia, and questioned whether English football was ‘pure’, his reasoning being that “nothing can be 100% pure unless it is processed in a laboratory“.

That said it all.

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