Football, politics and failed bids

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The Football Association and the Liberal Democrats: two organisations which excel in making life difficult for their supporters. Two organisations which have recently shown themselves to be none too good at accepting defeat.

The aftermath of their crushing reverse at the AV referendum has seen senior Lib Dems threaten to dissolve in a froth of self-indignation, with Vince Cable branding their coalition partners as “ruthless” and “tribal”. Six months on from England’s equally humiliating failure to land the 2018 World Cup, FIFA has been accused of widespread corruption and the Qataris, awarded the 2022 tournament, of bribery at a Parliamentary Select Committee enquiring into the bid’s failure.

One could reflect on ironies: Cable, now on his third political party, citing the tribalism of others, or Lord Triesman, the Labour Party donor ennobled in 2004, upholding the virtue of the British honours system to the Paraguayan FIFA member whom he alleges requested a knighthood in return for his vote.

But what rings loudest is the discordant whine of the wronged and of losers protesting too loudly. This was the Lib Dems’ big moment: what credit they brought into the coalition negotiations was mostly expended on securing a referendum on voting reform. They blew it spectacularly with an abysmal campaign, which saw AV not just defeated but destroyed. Likewise, 2018 was supposed to be England’s year; as with the junior coalition partners, there could be a long winter ahead before the next rays of opportunity.

The England team complained after the result that the voting did not reflect FIFA’s feedback on the quality of their bid. But it was never a question of one nation being better equipped to host the tournament than another, no more than the referendum was about the relative merits of voting systems.

Bribery is a universal currency, which is interpreted differently across the world. The notion that FIFA, a global organisation, can be covered by a catch-all ethical code is appealing, but useless. The idea that MPs and the FA should set that tone smacks of post-imperial arrogance and misplaced self-importance. England’s bid tanked so spectacularly because they failed to play the system, unattractive as it may be.

Carping about the wrongdoing of others on the back of a heavy loss, having signed up for the process, is not a strategy likely to gain sympathy or traction. Just as self-ordained progressives stamp their feet and bemoan the unwillingness of the electorate to follow their enlightened lead, those disgruntled by England’s failed bid demand that world football be run on their terms. For football administrators and the Liberal political tradition in England, their days of influence long past, the truth they dare not confront is that of their own irrelevance.