England’s hopes of bringing the World Cup to this country in 2018, for the first time since 1966, have suffered a severe setback following the Lord Triesman affair.
The chairman of the Football Association was quickly forced out following his allegations that Russia and Spain, England’s principal European 2018 rivals, were trying to bribe World Cup referees. Since then the bid team has worked hard to present the picture of a campaign back on track.
However, talking to FIFA insiders in Johannesburg, the picture emerging is of England on the back foot.
Although USA and Australia are also competing, 2018 is expected to return to Europe but Russia appears to have the lead, pursued by the joint Spain-Portugal bid. With the FIFA executive meeting in Zurich in December, the position can be retrieved but England’s odds are longer than Fabio Capello’s for this World Cup.
One highly-placed FIFA source told me: “There is no doubt that England’s bid has been damaged. This bid started by avoiding the big mistake of the failed 2006 effort and all that talk of football coming home. That was seen as England claiming a divine right to have the competition. But then the chairman goes and makes these remarks and all the old fears of English arrogance, which is never far below the surface, re-emerge.
“FIFA were forced to hold an inquiry and while that led nowhere, to even hold such an inquiry was the last thing the organisation wanted just as they were coping with all the problems of taking the World Cup to Africa for the first time.
“It has made many people in FIFA think that England may have given the world football but they do not really belong or understand the football
This has been one of the most urgent tasks of Geoff Thompson, the British representative on the FIFA executive, who took over as bid leader following the Triesman fiasco.
Although derided at home as Uncle Albert, after the character in Only Fools And Horses, Thompson can claim to be part of the family.
A member of the FIFA executive told me: “What Geoffrey has done since taking over is tell his fellow executive members that Triesman was a student communist and junior minister, an outsider who was not one of us and we should not pay any attention to him.”
Thompson has also sought to build on the sympathy many in FIFA feel for him over the way he was forced out as FA chairman earlier than scheduled by Triesman and, initially, kept out of the 2018 bid team.
This was emphasised when, in the week after the Triesman affair, Thompson, having taking over as bid chairman, met Angel Maria Villar Lona, the feisty Spanish member of the FIFA executive and leader of Spain’s bid, at the Champions League Final in Madrid.
It was the first meeting of the English and Spanish since the bribery allegations but the moment Villar Lona saw Thompson he grabbed the arm of the bearded Englishman and said: “Geoffrey Thompson numero uno.” It was meant to say that, unlike Triesman, Thompson was part of the family.
Thompson, who met the 2018 bid team led by Andy Anson, is now expected to change the focus of the campaign and there could be changes in the management structure as well.
Earlier this week, the English team made a presentation to the congress of the CONCACAF, the north, central American and Caribbean countries, followed this morning with one to the FIFA congress. David Beckham played a major role in both and the CONCACAF presentation won admiration from their president, Jack Warner, who said afterwards that England could still win the 2018 bid.
Crucially, Chuck Blazer, Warner’s colleague and a fellow FIFA executive member, was not present. He cannot travel because the high altitude in Johannesburg affects his health but he will play a crucial role in deciding how Conacaf vote.
A source close to Thompson told me: “David Beckham will always be well received by FIFA members. But Beckham will not influence the vote.”
The Russians are now front-runners for 2018 and their campaigners are believed to have courted Franz Beckenbauer, who at one stage was leaning towards England.
Speaking today, FIFA president Sepp Blatter again stressed the importance of football breaking “new frontiers”. Russia has never hosted the World Cup; England have, albeit 44 years ago.
As one FIFA executive member said: “Sepp is thinking of legacy. He brought the World Cup to Africa, has taken it back to Brazil in 2014 to rebuild this home of football, and using the game to revive Russia is very appealing. England has the stadia and the crowds but what is this special factor that England brings?”
Thompson has only six months before December’s final vote to unearth that special factor if England are to catch Russia.