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How Fifa and Uefa turned choosing tournament hosts into a ‘stitch-up’

With the UK and Ireland awarded the 2028 European Championships, football governance is experiencing a familiar trend

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Tuesday 10 October 2023 15:42 BST
UK And Ireland Set To Host EURO 2028

It is only now, despite knowing for months, that those involved in the United Kingdom-Ireland Euro 2028 bid are excitedly talking about the reality of tournament football returning to these islands. There was a sense from inside the campaign of not wishing to tempt fate, given how previous bids have gone. That is despite the fact this has been a fait accompli for well over a year.

And, even though this victory should be celebrated, it does provoke bigger questions over football politics, especially given the controversies over the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bidding processes and the reforms that followed them.

Euro 2028 is one of potentially five consecutive European Championships and World Cups that will have had virtually no competition in the bidding processes.

The 2028 decision has been made because Turkey finally withdrew. But they were never likely to win due to their comparative lack of infrastructure, which is why they have joined up with Italy to bid for Euro 2032.

That Mediterranean joint-bid is similarly the only candidate for 2032, after a prospective Russian campaign was ruled ineligible by Uefa due to the invasion of Ukraine.

In echoes of the 2028 process, the Canada-Mexico-USA bid for the 2026 World Cup did face competition from Morocco, but the latter was seen as having no chance for the same reason as Turkey. The “United 2026” bid ended up getting more than twice as many votes as its African rival.

That saw Morocco eventually join up with Spain-Portugal for 2030, in a move that was seen as “outmanoeuvring” the politically influential Saudi Arabian bid since it split the African vote. The Gulf kingdom was no longer confident of victory so didn’t want to go through defeat, withdrawing … temporarily. The only competitor at that point was the South American bid to celebrate the centenary of the inaugural Uruguay 1930 World Cup, which had an inspirationally romantic sway.

They were instead co-opted into an unprecedented “global celebration” for 2030 by being allowed to host the first three games. Uruguay get the opening match as recognition of their status as 1930 host and champions, Argentina get the second match as recognition of their performance as 1930 runners-up and major partner. Paraguay get the third match, doing very well out of being the base of the South American federation, Conmebol.

While there is admittedly a similar romance to that solution, and it eliminates any politicking before such a symbolic tournament, it has one more questionable effect.

Fifa’s continental rotation rules mean South America has given up the chance at 2034 – since no confederation can host competition fixtures in consecutive tournaments – for a mere three games. It’s quite the trade-off. As one involved figure said, “that’s football politics”.

A Saudi Arabia fan with a replica World Cup Trophy during the Fifa World Cup Qatar 2022

That only leaves countries from the Asian Football Confederation and Oceania Football Confederation eligible, and the former are already fully backing Saudi Arabia. Australia and New Zealand are, meanwhile, left scrambling to find at least three extra stadia that meet the 40,000 minimum capacity in time for the 31 October bid deadline.

It already looks like the decision may well go to the member associations for mere ratification.

That should pose much bigger questions for football governance since one of the crucial points after the farce of 2018-22 was to improve transparency. A key measure in this was supposed to be bringing the World Cup vote to the members.

That may still happen by the letter of the rules, but the spirit of it all has felt somewhat different.

If the post-2022 reforms were supposed to be about preventing backroom deals, what has happened here?

“It’s clear it’s gone backwards in terms of democracy and bidding,” one centrally involved source said.

Wider politics clearly plays an influential role here.

After the game was split by the 2018 and 2022 votes, with the World Cup brought to effective autocracies, three successive tournaments are now going back to traditional Western European football powers.

Saudi Arabia crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, Fifa president Gianni Infantino and Russian president Vladimir Putin at the World Cup in Moscow in 2018

England is the biggest partner in 2028, enjoying its first full tournament since 1996. Spain is the biggest partner in 2030, enjoying its first full tournament since 1982. Italy is the biggest partner in 2032, set to enjoy its first full tournament since 1990.

Bookending those three tournaments, then, are almost certain to be two of the true geopolitical powers. The USA is now seen by all of football as the priority market with the sport burgeoning there.

Saudi Arabia has meanwhile targeted a huge expansion into the game as part of a wider political and economic project. The kingdom also enjoys an increasingly strong relationship with Fifa, and its investment funds were set to bankroll the original idea for the expanded Club World Cup. That plan has now settled into a 32-team event in 2025 in the USA, that Saudi Pro League clubs are targeting for a major statement as the next phase of their development. They want to help make it a competitor to the Champions League, increasing their own profile. The prize and participation money for that event have yet to be decided.

The Henri Delaunay Cup prior to the UEFA Euro 2020 Championship Final, played at Wembley in July 2021

Most of the major nations look to have got what they wanted without much pushback.

Many sources talk of “horse trading”. Others go so far as using words like “stitch-up”. Some smaller South American federations aren’t overly happy with the 2030 decision, especially with how having three automatic qualifiers – in the three host nations – immediately reduces the value of the highly lucrative qualification league, while denying the chance of hosting a World Cup for 24 years since Brazil in 2014.

On the other side, some admit this situation may be better than random bids and huge amounts of money being wasted on failed campaigns.

For all the power of the club game, the hosting of the World Cup is still the most important factor in how football develops around the world. It usually influences the game for a decade, if not longer.

The latter could be seen in how USA 94 directly instigated huge American investment into football, as well as multiple ownerships that started with the Glazers. The decision to award 2022 to Qatar was probably the most influential moment in modern football history. It directly caused regime change at Fifa and Uefa, changed the calendar, and was a factor in Qatar taking over Paris Saint-Germain and Saudi Arabia buying Newcastle United. It has undeniably played a part in Saudi Arabia seeking to host a World Cup, too. The regional rivalry means Mohammed Bin Salman wants his own tournament.

Fifa president Gianni Infantino and Uefa president Aleksander Ceferin at the 2023 Champions League final in May

That speaks to the profound political power of the World Cup, with football now the most popular cultural pursuit the planet has ever seen. And the tournament itself is becoming so big that fewer and fewer countries can actually stage it.

So much of this serves as a metaphor for the game as a whole.

At the end of it all, there is still pure beauty in how people get to watch these great magical events near them. All of Dublin, Glasgow, Cardiff will be thrilled.

But that is precisely why all of this has a power beyond emotion.

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