Football: Our incompetent influence-peddlers

FA crisis: Successors at game's governing body should refrain from deal-cutting and accept loss of 2006 World Cup
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The Independent Online
IT'S HARD to know which is the more scandalous aspect of the Wiseman/Kelly affair: the fact that senior English football administrators apparently found it necessary to mimic the kind of influence-peddling tactics traditionally associated with spics, dagoes and wops, or the evidence that they turned out to be so humiliatingly bad at it.

At least Keith Wiseman, who continues to deny that he was attempting to buy votes with the offer of "grants'', may have stumbled across one important truth: Northern Ireland is not a Third World country. The Welsh may have responded with gratifying wonderment to the promise of a few beads and mirrors, but the trick doesn't work with everyone.

And the most important lesson is clear. The successors to these men should have no truck with the kind of deal-cutting that leads to the acquisition of prestige tournaments. And if this means no World Cup for the forseeable future, then we can hardly complain.

The idea of England hosting the 2006 World Cup certainly had its appealing side. But it never seemed very realistic in the wake of Euro 96, despite the euphoria created by vested interests. The Lightning Seeds sang one song, but reality danced to a different drummer.

Does no one remember the huge blocks of vacant seats at many of the group matches, a phenomenon which contradicted the new image of the English football fan as a cappuccino-drinking connoisseur of the world game? At best, this suggested some kind of administrative incompetence. At worst it created the impression of rapacity combined with a lack of regard both for the players and for those spectators who would have filled the empty spaces with joy.

More seriously, did no one in a position of authority notice the riot in Trafalgar Square after England had lost to Germany in a wonderful semi- final, and ponder its meaning? Even if we accept that hooliganism is society's problem rather than football's, the awakening of the spectre of English game's murky past should have been enough to curb the football establishment's tendency to immoderate self-congratulation and to make men of sound judgement feel that an immediate World Cup bid might be just a bit premature.

All of which does not even take account of the FA's promise to back Germany's candidacy in return for their support in the Euro 96 campaign. Whatever the facts behind the breaking of that promise, only our essential insularity prevents us from appreciating the disapproval that it engendered elsewhere. English fair play died not with the dirt in Michael Atherton's pocket at Lord's or with Nigel Heslop's unprovoked assault on Serge Blanco at the Parc des Princes, but with the coldblooded reneging on that pledge to the old enemy, an act conducted during an unminuted exchange in some murky committee room.

During yesterday's outpouring of phone-in outrage, the most appropriate comment in fact came from an Englishman, but a disinterested one. Keith Cooper, Fifa's director of communications, suggested that among the bids for 2006 there might still be one from Brazil. If England was the cradle of football, then Brazil has more right than any to be considered the heart of the modern game, yet not since 1950 has it hosted the tournament which has won four times.

What better use could there be for the cash sloshing around Fifa's vaults that the restoration of the infrastructure of Brazilian football, with the aim of creating the conditions necessary for the holding of a World Cup? The Maracana has already been refurbished, but elsewhere there are vast crumbling concrete bowls which, properly rebuilt, would make marvellous arenas for the tournament - and they would still not be half big enough to contain all the Brazilians wanting to demonstrate their fervour.

As a football fan with a proper sense of history and romance, Graham Kelly would probably go along with that. For a man who rose as if through a vacuum, sucked inexorably upwards by the absence of competence at senior levels, he did a pretty good job for English football. He coped, however awkwardly, with the impossible job of officially acknowledging the tragedies of the late Eighties, and he nursed the modernisation of the fabric of the game in the years after the Taylor Report. He helped clear the way for the inauguration of the Premier League, an inevitability which took place remarkable swiftly and efficiently (compare and contrast the wrangling over cricket's attempt to update its first-class structure). Until this week, the worst blot on Kelly's record was created by the FA's inability to confront the various bung scandals with any real clarity of purpose or moral rigour.

It was in this failure that the organisation's internal confusions began to emerge, staining many of its initiatives, such as the unnecessary sponsorship of the FA Cup, or the invention of something called ``Green Flag Team England''. Like Kelly's haircuts, the FA's philosophical stance represented an unconvincing attempt to keep up.

But football will spend the next 10 years dealing with men such as Rupert Murdoch and Mark McCormack, whose only interest in the game's health is financial and whose command of tactics and strategy is beyond that of any politician. For football, those 10 years promise to be a period of unparalleled prosperity. After Wiseman and Kelly, the FA had better get itself some real professionals.