Evening Standard

Geoff Thompson, the new leader of England’s 2018 World Cup bid following the resignation of Lord Triesman, knows all about having to clean up the mess left behind by politicians.

He had to do it in 2000 after England’s disastrous bid for the 2006 World Cup fell apart and he will have to work even harder if he is to pull off another rescue act this time.

Triesman was forced to stand down yesterday as chairman of both the Football Association and 2018 Bid team after a Sunday newspaper printed transcripts of a taped conversation with his former aide Melissa Jacobs in which the Labour peer made accusations about Spain and Russia planning to bribe World Cup referees in South Africa this summer.

Triesman claimed the conversation was private and that he was the victim of entrapment but he has been replaced by Thompson whose close relationship with FIFA president Sepp Blatter will now be crucial in ensuring that the hard work done so far — including the delivery of a 1700-page bid document by Triesman and David Beckham to FIFA last Friday — is not undone.

A decade ago, it was another Labour politician who had created the mess that Thompson had to clean up. Tony Banks, the former sports minister was appointed as Tony Blair’s special envoy to the 2006 bid.

Just weeks before FIFA were due to meet in Zurich to decide which of the four countries: England, Germany, South Africa or Morocco should host the 2006 tournament, UEFA held their own Congress in Luxembourg.

Seven of UEFA’s eight votes on the 24-man FIFA committee were pledged to Germany with president Lennart Johansson claiming there had been a gentleman’s agreement by England to support the Germans.

The English bid team vehemently denied any such agreement and Banks was determined to put the UEFA delegates right and claimed Germany did not command worldwide support and that only England could defeat South Africa.

Banks’ speech went down badly and Thompson was convinced Banks had torpedoed his chances of election to the UEFA committee.

Using his political know-how Thompson managed to rescue the situation and was elected the next day but he could not salvage England’s disastrous 2006 bid.

He did repair relations with UEFA and since then has worked the corridors of power so well that he is the first Englishman to hold the British seat on the FIFA executive for almost 50 years.

At home he may be mocked, yet abroad he is respected, always referred to as “Geoffrey” and given tough tasks to sort out including ensuring that Ukraine and Poland are able to co-host Euro 2012.

The 64-year-old took over as FA chairman in 1999 following the cash for votes scandal that had forced the resignation of Keith Wiseman. He was expected to last months with many in the FA convinced the job would go to David Sheepshanks but Thompson beat him and lasted a decade.

It is ironic that, Sheepshanks has now, in partnership with Roger Burden, been drafted in as acting joint-chairmen of the FA until a new man can be found.

Thompson drove many of the FA executives to despair for what they saw as his dithering and vacillation and his refusal to accept that the FA needed to have corporate governance but his influence on world football was always on the rise.

He did not know how to use the media to his advantage though and the former Sheffield magistrate was always indelibly linked to the county associations from where he first rose.

David Davies, a former FA official, likened Thompson to Uncle Albert — the “boat sinking character from Only Fools and Horses”.

FIFA president Sepp Blatter does not see it this way, though, and his friendship with Thompson, who will vote in December as part of the 24-man FIFA committee on who will host the 2018 finals, will now be crucial.

Thompson never had any time for Triesman feeling the Labour Lord had treated him badly by leaving him out of the original bid team. Only after the intervention of Lord Seb Coe and Sir Keith Mills, who are both part of the bid team and also have crucial roles to play, was Thompson brought on board last autumn.

On Saturday, when the crisis broke in the middle of the FA Cup Final, Thompson was not present at Wembley still feeling hurt at being marginalised by Triesman.

Coe spoke to Jerome Valcke FIFA general secretary yesterday and will speak to Blatter today in an effort to reassure the powerbrokers that the bid to bring the tournament to these shores has not been derailed. Thompson is respected and will work closely on the bid with international president of the bid David Dein, chief executive Andy Anson and chief of staff Simon Greenberg.

David Beckham will continue to be involved but that is more for UK media exposure. As one insider put it to me: “David Beckham will win no votes. But we need him to engage the UK media. Our job is to win over the 23 in the executive and Geoff as the 24th has to work that room and make them realise Triesman was an outsider and not representing England.”

Thompson may look like Uncle Albert but he is not quite the fool many in this country take him for.


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