James Lawton: A defeat, but one we can take pride in

Friday 03 December 2010 01:00

Damn the World Cup, in Russia in 2018 and the one in the sand and cranked-up air-conditioning to follow four years later in Qatar.

There, in the desert by a boiling sea, they will now build a batch of stadiums that will be dismantled the moment the tournament is concluded in suffocating heat and Fifa president Sepp Blatter and his men head back to their counting house in Switzerland.

Damn it, because in Zurich the World Cup acquired a new official status, one that supplanted the old, romantic notion that it should be played in places that know and love the world's most popular game.

Damn it, because no sliver of doubt now attaches itself to the conclusion that to stage it you do not require the culture and passion which gave tournaments in places like Argentina, Spain, Mexico, Italy, France, Germany, England and South Africa vibrant and distinctive lives of their own.

You just need the money and the connections and we are not talking about prime ministers and royalty and celebrity players.

No, it is the men of the truly big money, Fifa announced in Zurich yesterday, who conquer all.

England may have lost the staging of the 2018 World Cup, but there are now compelling reasons to believe that a prize was rescued from defeat. It is called integrity and pride in what you are trying to do. It is to attempt to win, not subvert, in a cold, clean light.

This is a claim that those behind the England bid can make even if it cannot be said to be flawless.

Too many people in high places were too equivocal when it came to the principle that there is no reward that could justify suppressing the truth – whether it concerns human rights or corruption in high places in an organisation charged with running football decently.

That the BBC and a British newspaper were deemed to be threatening the national interest by investigating Fifa corruption is not a problem that will go away as easily. Certainly it was never going to be sluiced away in a tide of champagne or the prospect of following the London Olympics with more evidence that if we are seldom sure-fire winners we know how to put on a show.

There is, the belief has been harboured here, no sports circus that can compete with the World Cup.

The Olympics are thrilling and at the highest level of competition they are, as Usain Bolt reminded us in Beijing two years ago, the most riveting of spectacles.

But the World Cup touches something of the soul of a football nation and we have seen the wonder of it in so many places.

This once joyous reality should not colour the reaction to the news from Zurich.

The most important fact is that there was indeed another prize at stake and it was the one we have identified as integrity; a sense that if English football is capable of all kinds of bumbling, its heart, and morality, were in the right place when it made its case to Fifa. England's bidders did not pack for the journey to Zurich any sleight of hand and sweetheart deals with characters who see football and its spiralling revenues not as a cause but quick and delicious profit.

There was one uplifting certainty when Fifa came to announce the votes. It was that win or lose, the English bidders could go home without fears of knocks on the door and that when all the hype and the controversy was over they could begin with clean hands to help in a most necessary fight to put the greed and the cynicism of Fifa into the harshest possible light.

Staging the World Cup was a great and valuable challenge but not to be won at any price.

It wasn't to descend into the trough. It wasn't to play anyone's game but your own. The World Cup was a precious thing, before it was blown away on a desert wind.

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