Football : When football takes a back seat to politics

The game's governing bodies are driven by their own agendas, says Glenn Moore
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The Independent Online
There is nothing like the combination of an imminent election and a popular cause to bring the politicians to the microphone. Germany "stitches up" the World Cup and out come John Major and Tony Blair pledging their support for England's claim.

To be fair, both were football fans before it was fashionable. Even so, it would be hard to imagine the same enthusiasm if the affair had occurred a couple of elections ago. The irony is that the decision by Uefa, European football's governing body, to back Germany's bid to host the 2006 World Cup has much to do with another election, that of the Fifa president next year.

The story begins back in 1974 when Joao Havelange, an ambitious Brazilian, outflanked the English patrician Sir Stanley Rous to claim the post. Havelange, an old-style political fixer, has stayed in power at the head of football's world governing body ever since, largely by relying on the support of Asian and African votes in return for offering a steady increase in World Cup places.

However, support for the octogenarian has declined recently and he will not be seeking re-election. His touch has been slipping, notably when he visited Nigeria just as the regime was executing Ken Saro-Wiwa and other human rights activists.

This was followed by the campaign for the 2002 World Cup in which, for the first time, he misjudged the mood of Fifa's rank and file, who had previously enabled him to ride roughshod over the executive. Havelange backed Japan, while South Korea pulled together an Asian-African-European coalition to force co-hosting.

They did so by promising to support "Vision I & II", German-inspired Uefa proposals to reform Fifa, on which Lennart Johansson, the European body's Swedish president and a pretender to Havelange's crown, had staked his reputation.

One of the suggestions in Vision I was to rotate the World Cup between Europe, Africa, the Americas and Asia beginning after 2006 when, Uefa believed, the tournament would be held in Europe, probably Germany.

The rotation principle was popular worldwide, but only if it began immediately, putting the next European contest back to 2014 at the earliest. This raised the stakes and fractured the coalition. Johansson's subsequent racist remarks during a South African trip, which he passed off as an ill-judged joke, have not helped his or Uefa's cause.

The South Africans were especially upset as Johansson had been busy knocking down an offer by Havelange, in a last-ditch attempt at "patronage", unilaterally to "give" them the 2006 finals.

That campaign remains wide open. Sepp Blatter, Fifa's general secretary, recently invited Australia to join a list of potential candidates which includes, he said, "Germany, England, Brazil, Argentina, South Africa, Morocco, Egypt, Peru and Ecuador combined, and, maybe, the United States."

This partly explains Uefa's determination to restrict Europe's challenge, and that of other confederations, to one country. Given the millions spent by Japan and South Korea, who are more bitter historical enemies even than England and Germany, this makes sense. The problem is the way Uefa has conducted itself.

Another element of Vision I called for more democratic and accountable government by Fifa. All very laudable, but then Uefa made one of the biggest decisions in world sport in a manner reminiscent of smoky back rooms, dodgy handshakes and mutual back-scratching. The only funny thing about this is the outrage of the Football Association, that paragon of open government, at such behaviour.

Of course deals are done this way; the FA did one with France to get Euro 96. India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka gazumped Lord's for the last cricket World Cup by offering financial incentives to the smaller nations. Atlanta would never have landed the Olympics were Coca-Cola and CNN not based in the city.

These are trying times for Uefa. On the one hand it is trying to regain control of the world game, on the other trying to keep control of its own.

That television is the sport's modern paymaster, and that the big money is in Europe, helps the first aim. But it hinders the second because it makes the clubs more powerful. Thus Uefa's capitulation over the Champions' League.

Uefa has made enemies internally and externally, something the FA can take advantage of. On England visits to Moldova and Georgia, the FA has shown a sensitivity to other nations not often in evidence.

It may be that Uefa's proposal to restrict bids to one per continent is passed next summer, but it does not mean Germany will be chosen. Not if the FA has realised something Havelange has known for so long - that power lies in the members, not the executive.

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