Football: The high stakes of political football

Winning friends and influencing people often takes priority over events on the pitch.
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The Independent Online
ANYONE WHO doubts the lengths to which English football officials will go to secure the 2006 World Cup finals should turn to page 33 of Glenn Hoddle's World Cup diary.

"[The Football Association] have to think commercially and politically when deciding on `friendly' fixtures," wrote Hoddle, referring to arrangements that were made to play Saudi Arabia at Wembley on 23 May this year. England's 2006 campaign director, Alec McGivan, was "keen on the Saudis as opponents", according to Hoddle, because he wanted to guarantee their support for England's bid to stage the 2006 tournament. When Hoddle later asked for the date to be brought forward for footballing reasons his request, he said, "almost caused a full-scale row between our two countries".

After protracted high-level meetings between British and Saudi diplomats in Saudi Arabia, the fixture was left to stand and McGivan could relax, knowing he had placated Prince Sultan Bin-Fahd, the son of the Saudi ruler King Fahd and - as the deputy president of the Saudi Football Federation - an influential man.

If this seems an extreme way to go about securing major football tournaments, it at least puts into some kind of context the resignation on Tuesday of Graham Kelly as the FA's chief executive and the unanimous vote of no confidence in its chairman, Keith Wiseman.

Whether or not their promised gift of pounds 3.2m to the Football Association of Wales was made on the condition that the FAW supported Wiseman's attempt to become a Fifa vice-chairman - and we will not know until the FA publishes a full account of its investigation into the matter - there can be no doubt how high the stakes are perceived to be to gain influence in world football.

Hoddle's book was co-written, incidentally, by David Davies, who has taken over the day-to- day running of the FA and knows a thing or two about the machinations of the game's politics.

The Saudi incident was not the only alleged piece of bargaining by English 2006 campaigners in the past year. According to a book co-written by the Wimbledon and Jamaica striker, Robbie Earle, the Jamaican football federation was promised a Wembley friendly against England for its side if it would lobby regionally for England's 2006 bid.

The deal had been agreed, according to Earle's book, One Love, "in a typical piece of bargaining at a meeting of Fifa representatives in Trinidad. Jamaica's vote was in return for a match that was sure to "big up" the Reggae Boyz' profile". The Jamaicans, said Earle, were not best pleased when the Wembley game failed to materialise.

Deals done unofficially, of course, always have the potential to backfire, as the FA is all too likely to become aware between now and March 2000, when Fifa's 24-strong executive committee will decide who will stage the 2006 World Cup.

It is well accepted in international footballing circles (England excepted) that England's bid to host Euro 96 was supported by several countries, notably Germany, on the tacit understanding that a German bid for the 2006 World Cup would be supported - and certainly not challenged by a rival bid - by the English. Fifa would not comment on this arrangement yesterday, although one source within world football's governing body confirmed it was generally accepted.

Officially Uefa, European football's governing body, does not have a favoured candidate for 2006. "We will support all the bids from Europe," a spokeswoman said. Privately it is known that Lennart Johansson, Uefa's president, supports the German bid and will lobby relentlessly to secure for it the eight Fifa executive votes in Europe.

England's bid to secure the World Cup will not only have that hurdle to clear. Sepp Blatter, tactically backed by the English FA to become the new Fifa president this year, is committed to giving the 2006 World Cup not to England or Germany, but South Africa.