Mihir Bose reports first hand on Dave Richards’ embarrassment in Qatar

The Independent

It takes a special kind of talent to whip up a desert storm and then turn it into Whitehall Farce, but veteran Premier League administrator Sir Dave Richards managed that unlikely double in Qatar this week.

By the end of an extraordinary day, which saw him deliver a series of crass remarks before falling into a fountain, his name was pinging round the news wires while grainy footage of his tumble lit up YouTube.

I was there to witness first hand his bizarre afternoon and question him about his controversial views on Fifa and the place of alcohol in British culture. Although a hasty apology was scripted the following day, he expounded on his views to me and did not backtrack on the controversial remarks which have drawn such heavy criticism.

The irony is that he could not have been given a better stage to talk up British sporting achievements. Since Qatar unexpectedly won the right to host the 2022 World Cup the desert Emirate has tried hard to convince the world that it takes international sport seriously.

It was in that context that Richards was invited by The Qatari International Centre for Sport Security to a two-day conference on such subjects as security at London 2012. Richards was on a panel called “Rewards and Challenges to Growing a Sporting Brand in New Markets”.

His fellow panellists, Bernard Lapasset, the French chief of international rugby, and Haroon Lorgat, the South African head of cricket, knew the drill – utter a few well-meaning phrases and hope a sound bite makes the news somewhere.

But Richards decided he would deliver a history lesson on his chosen topic: football.

He claimed the game was invented in Sheffield and then “stolen by gangs” – Fifa and Uefa. Richards followed up by urging his hosts to respect other cultures when they staged the 2018 World Cup. This, he specified, meant ensuring that the British and Germans could sup a pint of bitter after the games.

After he finished, Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, a Fifa vice president and a fellow panellist, interjected that China claimed to have invented football. Richards retorted: “It started in Sheffield 150 years ago. We started the game and wrote the rules and took it to the world. The Chinese may say they own it but the British own it and we gave it to the rest of the world.”

What made Richards’ history discourse so odd was that many in the audience were from Britain, including two of his chairmen, Tottenham’s Daniel Levy and Bolton’s Phil Gartside and former Manchester City chief executive Garry Cook.

Richards is no stranger to foreign lands, having travelled often in his capacity as chairman of the Premier League. But, on this occasion, he reverted to a cartoon cutout of the stereotypical Yorkshireman. One observer, who knows Richards well, told me in horror: “Dave has flipped, I have never seen him behave like this.”

Both the Premier League and the FA were quick to emphasise that Richards was in the Gulf on a private mission. But Richards had been heavily billed as the chairman the “Football Association Premier League”.

When I spoke to him later that day it was clear his views were not off the cuff jokey remarks. “It is an actual fact that England created the game and Fifa and Uefa robbed it. We invented the game in a place called Sheffield, invented the rules and the company called the FA was formed. Then 50 years down the road Fifa came along and took some of the game and said we will have this round the world. What the FA allowed them to do is become the governing body of football. It was a mistake.”

Richards, however clumsily, was making the valid historical point that when the Europeans approached the FA in 1902 to help set up an international body they were rebuffed, thus allowing the French to take the initiative in setting up Fifa. Years later, Britain was again marginalised when the Football League refused to allow Chelsea to play in the inaugural European Cup under Uefa, another arriviste umbrella organisation.

Richards is not a fan of either governing body. “Is the game better or is it worse for having all these regulatory bodies? One might say it is not correct. We all know it isn’t right.”

And as for a pint after the match, he insisted on getting his message across to me. “As much as we must respect their culture, within the Qatari bid document it says they will provide alcohol to people that want it. They must live up to that.”

Even then, the storm might have passed had it not been for what happened at the Museum of Islamic Art at an evening clearly planned with great care. Each of the guests was given postcards containing paintings by children on various sports. All around were the strains of oud, an Arab musical instrument that some say was the precursor to the guitar.

But nobody paid the slightest attention to all this once Richards walked in past a fountain, slipped and fell into the water. Richards later told me he felt a push, although it is unclear who administered it. There is no suggestion this was drink-induced as the strongest refreshment on offer was orange juice. Fortunately for Richards, Gartside was alongside him and helped him out of the water. But his foot having ballooned, Richards spent the next two hours in a Doha hospital and had a limp the next day.

By then, his fall from grace had made it on to Twitter and a picture of him sprawling in the water on to YouTube. Richards sought damage limitation via the veteran football spin doctor Mike Lee. An apology was scripted and put out on Al Jazeera.

But it was clearly too little, too late. The astonishing sequence of events had turned him into a laughing stock and forced the FA and Premier League into an embarrassing round of diplomacy to try to limit the damage.

At the end of it, there remained many questions, not least around his lecture on alcohol. Although Qatar is largely a dry state, the authorities have pledged to make alcohol available in the fan parks.

Even as Richards made his apologies, the British in Doha were cringing. One delegate, Baroness Angela Harris, told me: “It was disgraceful and embarrassing. He is a dinosaur. He represents Great Britain in a very poor light. These are unacceptable views at an international conference.”

And the contrast with the French was telling. Just after Richards’ rant, the Qataris signed an agreement to fund an investigation by the Sorbonne University into match-fixing at a stylish ceremony.

It showed how a century after Fifa stole the game from Sheffield, the French continue to steal the sporting advantage from England.


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