Football: World Cup - Political playmaker takes on world

Andrew Longmore finds that the 2006 campaign has fallen into imaginativ e hands
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The Independent Online
Alec McGiven has been through the emotional foothills before, up one day, down the next, buffeted by the whims of tabloid headlines. He is a veteran campaigner, the SDP's first member of staff, architect of dramatic by-election victories in Warrington and Crosby and an innovative canvasser. But even his considerable spin doctoring skills could not entirely mask the blow delivered to England's embryonic World Cup bid by Joao Havelange, the outgoing president of Fifa, who in Marseilles last week seemed publicly to advance the cause of South Africa as hosts for the 2006 World Cup.

"There are always going to be pitfalls and blips," McGivan said. "Havelange is retiring next summer and the decision is over two years away, so the views of his successor will be far more important. I think this was basically the president of Fifa being very nice about a candidate. I don't think he was saying 'yes, you should definitely get it and not England or Germany or any of the others'."

McGivan's political pedigree will serve him well in his new role as director of the 2006 World Cup campaign. He knew Peter Mandelson at Oxford and was an exact contemporary of Tony Blair's, but his career has taken some unexpected turns on its way to the old wigmaker's shop in a cobbled mews behind Lancaster Gate which will act as headquarters for the pounds 10m campaign. As chief executive of the Shakespeare Globe Trust, McGivan had to interpret the visions of Sam Wanamaker, good training for anticipating the ruminations of the Football Association. And clearly, as a long-time supporter of Bristol City, he is a man who thrives on a challenge. His new office is already bursting with adrenalin, a contrast to the studied grandeur of the FA. Papers pile up, doors burst open. Eight out of a staff of 15 have been recruited, two from the Labour party election campaign. There is no time to lose.

"This is not just a campaign about football," McGivan said. "There's a lot of politics in it and, like an election, I want staff with political minds who are committed to the cause. I don't want people who see this as just a job. They have to be passionate about it."

By June 2000, a majority of the 24 members of the Fifa executive council must be convinced of England's case. From the Gang of Four to the gang of 24, the principles are the same: lobbying, cajoling, persuading. The only difference is the diversity of the electorate. Central to McGivan's policy is the need to visit every delegate in his own country before the first ball is kicked in France next summer.

"I could have stayed in London and waited for them all to pass through, but that would smack of English arrogance. They really appreciate you've gone, you can talk not just about the bid but about their wider concerns because each country has its own agenda. It's a big deal for them and a big deal for us." Only the German delegate will not receive a visit.

What they will hear - from Bobby Charlton and Tony Banks among others - is a powerful argument, neatly balanced between reason and emotion under the soundbite: "Welcoming the world of football to the home of football". For once, too, both Downing Street and British industry are trumpeting the theme. "English football went through a bad time, but Euro 96 was like England coming back on to the world stage and saying: 'Hey, look what we've managed to do here'." And now we have a great opportunity to tell that story. People are fascinated by the success of the Premier League, the foreign players, the money coming into the game here, the television success. They want to know how we manage to run games where there's no crowd trouble anymore. So we've got quite a lot to say for ourselves which means we're not just going out to talk about the bid, we're talking about English football in the wider sense."

Yet, as McGivan has already discovered, even the most professional bids can founder on vested interest. Historically, Europe hosts every other World Cup. Emotionally, South Africa would have an edge on even a united Germany, but South Africa are considering whether to bid for the 2008 Olympics and have yet to put themselves forward. One delegate has already crossed Germany off because he cannot speak German.

"I do lie awake at night sometimes and think about it, but you'd go nuts if you worried about it too much. We've got to do our own job well, promote ourselves professionally and hope for a few twists and turns in our favour. It's the sort of things politicians go through all the time. The frustration is that you can never go home at the end of the day and say everything's in place. There's always another vote to be won." McGivan will hope that, unlike the SDP and Bristol City, this is not just another lost cause.