The Last Word: Multi-cultural minority sinks in a sea of grey

England may be favourites to land 2018 World Cup but political footballs are colouring FA's judgement
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The Independent Online

England have been installed by the bookies as clear favourites to stage football's World Cup in 2018. Which could be bad news. For the track record in the bidding game for global sports events indicates that pole position is always a dangerous place to be. All too frequently the pole proves to be slippery and those perched on the top of it tend to topple when the votes are counted.

Far better to be sitting on the shoulders of the front runner, as London were when they pipped a strongly fancied Paris at the post for the 2012 Olympic Games. England seem set to go to the World Cup poll 18 months from now in the same precarious slot as they were in when bidding for the 2006 World Cup which, forlornly, they believed they were destined to win by right.

Thankfully we are promised none of the arrogance that bedevilled the ill-fated "Football's Coming Home" bid for 2006. But alarmingly there are already indications that England 2018 is falling into the same trap as Paris 2012, with the bid team heavily overpoliticised, stuffed with grey men in grey suits and with only a token representation of the ethnic minorities whose presence now carries so much sway with organisations such as the International Olympic Committee and Fifa, football's world governing body.

Of course the bid is winnable. England have the stadiums, tradition, know-how and resources to stage a magnificent World Cup, as will London with the 2012 Olympics. Putting on a memorable show is our game.

But do the Football Association have the sophistry, and more importantly the global goodwill, to convince a notoriously fickle Fifa? There is a lot of hard work and glad-handing to be done and it won't be easy when you know that among at least seven rivals, the United States will have President Obama, who has already fired the first cannon with a personal missive to Fifa president Sepp Blatter, in their corner.

And the Russians – my tip to be most up for the Cup – will have in their armoury former president Vladimir Putin, whose aura and persuasive powers against all the odds won the 2014 Winter Olympics for Sochi, who came from behind the favourites, Salzburg. You would not bet against both Obama and Putin twisting more than a few impressionable arms into being raised for their respective nations.

Throw the personable sporting monarch King Juan Carlos of Spain into the mix to promote a joint Spanish-Portuguese bid and you can see what England are up against. Even having Prince William on board as a sort of royal talisman is not going to have Fifa falling at England's feet.

This is a competition in which charisma will carry as much clout as capability. There is no doubt that Tony Blair's well-primed networking during those Singaporean soirees helped win the day for London almost as much as Lord Coe's compelling oratory and the diversity of youth and race among those in the platform party. Alas, Gordon Brown and Lord Triesman do not have quite the same cachet.

Triesman articulates England's case well enough but seems to come across as a tad too pushy for some. David Beckham is a bonus, of course, and Wayne Rooney has a certain popular appeal, though his Manchester United team-mate Rio Ferdinand might well have been a better choice to underscore the missing diversity factor in a presentational team which lacked colour in every sense. England's all-white, all-male line-up at Wembley was ominously reminiscent of the squad Paris paraded in Singapore.

Grey men in grey suits – and why so many politicians? Does the bid need both the present sports minister and his predecessor? And whatever possessed the FA to concede an early own goal by inviting a BNP party member to attend the Wembley launch? It smacks of naivety – unless they thought the BNP might be in power in 2018 the way things are going!

What England's bid lacks is a true figurehead, a Sebastian Coe of football. There is no one – unless you hark back to 1966 and call up Sir Bobby Charlton – still sufficiently revered around the world to carry it off. Of course, there is Coe himself, brought in rather belatedly as a non-executive director some months after we asked in these pages: "Why is England's bid a no-Coe area?" One suspected that the FA did not want their own thunder stolen even by someone who has been there, done it and knows as much about the bidding process as the chief auctioneer at Sotheby's.

One hopes Triesman will listen to him and that Coe is not there simply as a gesture. Of course, Coe's priority has to be ensuring 2012 works but he is an industrious chap and he knows how football works too, not only as a lifelong fan but someone considered sufficiently knowledgeable by Fifa to have chaired their ethics committee.

Moreover, Coe has the ear and friendship of the two men who could hold the keys to the 2018 ballot box, Blatter and Uefa overlord Michel Platini, neither of whom are great Anglophiles, as well as several IOC members who also serve on Fifa.

If England are to buck the trend of favourites fluffing it, they must take a closer look at the 2012 game-plan, become less political and more multi-cultural, and devise a strategy that lets Coe play more up front because he knows where, and what, the goal is.

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