Steve Richards: A game that had already been decided

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The Independent Online

At least we are used to losing. In the build-up to the World Cup last summer the hype suggested that England were on course to win the trophy. Sadly, the tournament got in the way. Yesterday morning there was much optimism after England's presentation for its 2018 bid. By mid-afternoon we were out in the first round.

We have won the wrong contest. We stage the Olympics and not the World Cup. Yesterday's artful presentation by England showed definitively how this country fits the bill so neatly for an international football contest: the multi-cultural enthusiasm, beautiful stadiums and an all-star cast of international footballers who are already here.

The emphasis in the presentation on the robust transport infrastructure was pushing it a bit at a time when travellers cannot get from Victoria to Clapham Junction, but the case for England was made effectively and movingly. England cannot run a modern train service, but it is spectacularly good at slick presentation.

If England had won the bid, David Cameron's army of admirers in the media would have hailed his latest triumph in a torrent of flattering words and interpreted the sequence as a near-fatal setback for Ed Miliband.

Now England have failed, it might be tempting for Cameron's critics to compare his defeat with Tony Blair's triumph in securing the Olympics with his failure now. There is a pattern of sorts. Blair won three elections. Cameron failed to win the easiest election campaign for a Leader of the Opposition since 1997, and now his energy in Zurich went nowhere. He is yet to prove he is a winner.

But if England had won the bid, the high would have been fleeting. When London secured the Olympics in the summer of 2005 Blair walked on water briefly. But after the summer holidays he was in trouble again. The summer euphoria seemed like a distant land.

While our leaders are compelled to affect a passion for football (only in Gordon Brown's case was the obsessive interest wholly genuine), there is no connection between sporting prestige and political fortunes. Within weeks of Great Britain's triumph in the Chinese Olympics in the summer of 2008 (the consequence of public spending on sport that is now being cut), Brown was clinging on to power by his much bitten fingernails. Harold Wilson used to joke hopefully: "England only won World Cups under a Labour government." The voters paid little attention.

This time the whole bidding process was a farce, from the extensively chronicled allegations of corruption to the misleading presentations yesterday. I was touched by the England presentation and suddenly really wanted it to succeed. But it did make English football seem the equivalent of Oxfam. An innocent watching might assume that the big premiership clubs spend most of their cash on the poor in Africa rather than on the salaries of Wayne Rooney and co.

The team was doing the hard sell to a pampered electorate that it seems had already decided. There was much speculation as to why Vladimir Putin had not turned up in Zurich. Presumably he had calculated that his presence was unnecessary.

Was David Cameron politically wise to adopt such a high profile at the last moment compared with the absent victor? I do not see why he should not have given it his all for a couple of days in a Blair-like manner, or perhaps a Blair-lite manner.

It is all a bit odd. In eighteen months' time the world's athletes will descend on London. Perhaps we will discover a passion for the 800 metres that matches the existing enthusiasm for football, but I doubt it. Let us hope BBC's Panorama does a follow-up.

s.richards@independent.co.uk; twitter.com/steverichards14

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