No sooner had Boris Johnson announced the desire to bid for the 2030 World Cup, the grovelling began.
The Prime Minister was wrong to talk of bringing football home. ‘It’s a tired mantra,’ cautioned Lord Coe. ‘The watchword for this campaign has to be humility.’
Actually, that’s the watchword for every campaign. We bow, we scrape, we Uriah Heep our way around the globe. We’re the anti-lobbyists, apologising for our every action, humiliating ourselves at every turn. We’re so desperate to be liked, it’s almost repulsive. And liked by who? Crooks. Charlatans.
The organisation that gave the World Cup to systemic drug cheats, to repressive regimes; that left the process open to the most appalling corruption.
Of the 22 FIFA council members who sent the World Cup to Russia and Qatar, 10 have been banned for ethical breaches, a further four have been implicated in cases of criminal corruption and two have been accused but never prosecuted. And we’re the ones who have to be humble? For risk of upsetting this wholesome football family?
Coe is right. The idea of football coming home is tiresome. But not because it is presumptuous or arrogant; because it’s a 25-year-old slogan from an historic tournament and we really should have written some new material by now.
It was funny as a meme when England got to the semi-finals in 2018, but as the peg to hang a campaign on, it just sounds old.
Johnson isn’t a football man, we know that. If he’d had his way as Foreign Secretary, England wouldn’t even have been present in Russia — he wanted to boycott over the Salisbury poisonings — so he’s clung to this because he’s a populist and it plays to his idea of post-Brexit Britain’s place in the world. Our game. We invented it. And hosting the World Cup shows we’re still huge international players.
Yet, realistically, given that all 27 European Union countries are also UEFA members, and that one European host candidate is to be proposed, who do you think the European nations would rather support? The country that told them to get stuffed in 2016 and then took all the vaccines, or Spain and Portugal, the other bidders? Let’s face it, before we start, it’s hard for England to even get out of this group.
So why not tell the truth? Not that football’s coming home, not those tired cliches, but the truth of a tournament in England and the British Isles.
That nobody would have to die to build the stadiums; that we don’t mind if you’re gay; that we wouldn’t have to put 40,000 special policemen on the streets to keep it safe; that we don’t have a state-sponsored doping programme; that we rather value personal freedom; that we’re quite experienced in putting on big tournaments and events; that our stadiums are already good to go; that none of them will end up derelict, or as bus garages; that we really, really love football and have been itching to host this for decades.
Now, it’s a personal view, but if football does come home in 2030, the World Cup’s centenary year, it should go to South America, the continent that hosted 100 years ago. Some part, certainly, should be with Uruguay, the original hosts. England didn’t even enter the competition until 1950.
It’s hard to claim a centenary World Cup for a country that wanted no part in it for 20 years.
Yet worse would be to campaign while refusing to champion what this country did bring to the game. Codified rules, the first leagues and cups, superb modern stadiums, all that wonderful history, a global sport that grew from here. Greg Clarke inserted the word ‘English’ before Football Association to not appear arrogant on the world stage.
That’s the poorest of all strategies. Obsequiousness won’t win a bid, but denies the heritage that is this country’s unique selling point. It was ‘The FA’ because, at the time, there wasn’t another one. It did not need distinguishing.
And while that doesn’t make the World Cup our birthright, we shouldn’t have to pretend it wasn’t so. Football isn’t coming home, but England could host a very good World Cup — and shouldn’t be ashamed to say so.
FIFA slow to act on Covid
This month’s international fixtures were always going to be undermined by Covid travel rules and protocols.
What Jurgen Klopp said on Wednesday — that he would expect club needs to be given priority, and Liverpool would not release players who would be expected to quarantine on return — was entirely understandable.
FIFA should now consider postponing World Cup qualifiers if the process is going to be devalued.
More thought should have gone into this, and sooner.
England's batsmen have sold them out again
Thursday was England’s first score of over 200 in six innings — and their worst day with the bat in India. On other occasions, there have been mitigations.
India prepared wickets that were barely fit for Tests, knowing they had the players to take advantage. Leading the series 2-1, they were never going to gamble in Ahmedabad a second time. A random track was the only way they could lose this match and, with it, a place in the World Test Championship final.
So it proved. This looks like a wicket on which a team can make runs. The professionals are speculating on 400 as par — maybe more if a couple of strong partnerships form.
So to win the toss and score 205 is dismal. It is now the longest spell in England’s Test history without a partnership of 50 or more and one cannot see such a shortfall being replicated by India. Of course, over breakfast this morning, such pessimism may seem displaced. If so, it will have taken a superhuman effort from England’s bowlers — because the batsmen have surely sold them out again.
Party's over for Mendy.... City have moved on
Benjamin Mendy has blown it.
He has not played a league game for Manchester City since December 15, meaning his only starts for the club during their 21-game winning run have been against lower-division teams in the FA Cup.
His contract has more than two years remaining, but increasingly it looks as if this could be his final season.
Mendy was a liability during lockdown and not much better playing. He certainly does not have the discipline to occupy the full back role demanded by Pep Guardiola, and honed by Joao Cancelo.
Mendy’s potential is enormous, hence his £52million transfer fee, but City have moved on without him. Let’s hope the party was worth it.
Bayern feeder clubs going hungry
For many months now, it has been a question of when, not if, Schalke would be relegated from the Bundesliga. Their only league win of the season came on January 9, versus Hoffenheim, which prevented them equalling a Bundesliga record of 31 winless games. It was a brief respite.
Schalke have amassed just nine points this season, with a goal difference of minus-45. On Sunday, following a 5-1 defeat at midtable Stuttgart, the club sacked the coach, the assistant coach, the fitness coach, the sporting director and the general manager. They are now searching for their fifth manager of the season, including one caretaker, meaning when Peter Knabel takes charge against Mainz tonight, as is likely, Schalke will have set a new Bundesliga standard for incompetence.
No club has ever had more than four managers in one season.
Yet this week two years ago, Schalke were preparing for a Champions League last-16 second leg with Manchester City. They were only 3-2 down from the first game, and had led that 2-1 with five minutes to go.
In January 2020, they defeated second-placed Borussia Monchengladbach to go fourth. It was their last league win until Hoffenheim.
What happened? Well, Covid happened, obviously. Schalke’s reputation beyond Germany is minimal — they are in many ways the country’s Newcastle, with a huge local following but limited international profile — yet the Veltins-Arena draws an average crowd of more than 60,000, making them the third biggest club in the country, and their membership is larger than any club bar Bayern Munich.
Playing in front of an empty stadium has impacted on more than just finances. The power of the football-obsessed city of Gelsenkirchen has been lost — financially, too. Even before the pandemic, Schalke had debts of £175million. And sticking rigidly to the German 50+1 model, in which club members always have majority control, makes them less attractive to investors.
There is one other factor. Like every club in Germany, even the biggest, Schalke are a feeder for Bayern Munich. They sold them Manuel Neuer in 2011, provided them with Leon Goretzka in 2018 and with Neuer’s understudy Alexander Nubel last year.
Nubel was Schalke’s captain, but is yet to even feature in a league game for Munich.
That takes a toll. What is the point of harbouring ambition, of nurturing talent, if it all goes in the service of a rival? Given the crowd numbers, the size and support of clubs such as Schalke, the Bundesliga should be one of the most competitive leagues in the world. And it was, once.
Before Munich’s current run of domination, no team had won the Bundesliga more than three years in a row. When it began, in 1963, it had seven different champions in seven years. There were four different champions in the four years between 1977 and 1980, and four in the five years separating 1988 and 1992 and 2007 and 2011.
Yet Munich are now chasing their ninth straight title and even their biggest rivals, RB Leipzig, were happy to do a deal for defender Dayot Upamecano, Munich having satisfied his release clause. Is it any wonder, in the circumstances, that clubs lose their way?
Schalke will soon join another giant of German football, Hamburg, in Bundesliga 2.
The model so often advanced as utopia has a flaw at its core. It kills competition and, in time, that kills clubs, too.
Gauzere should be stood down after lapse in judgement
World Rugby having deserted him, Pascal Gauzere now admits he erred in awarding two first-half tries to Wales on Saturday. Words alone should not be enough.
The first try, certainly, was such a rogue application of the rules that Gauzere should be stood down for at least the next round of matches. It was more than a misjudgment. It was irrational, it was misrule, the opposite of the order and logicality a referee is supposed to bring to a game. Oops, is not enough.
Arsenal right on UEFA's muddling
The idea that all teams should get exactly the same time to prepare for a match has always seemed ludicrous given ever-changing schedules.
Some teams play Tuesday, others Wednesday, then they meet Saturday. Yes, one has had an extra 24 hours — but it may work in reverse the following week. It would be impossible to contrive fixtures that were always manageable, precise and fair unless clubs wanted to give all the television money back. And we know they don’t.
So Mikel Arteta’s moan that Tottenham have an advantage over Arsenal when the teams meet on March 14 is one we’ve heard before.
Yet this time his reasoning has logic. Tottenham and Arsenal were both due to play the second legs of their Europa League last-16 ties at home on March 18. Yet UEFA rules do not allow matches to be played same city, same day.
So Tottenham’s tie was reversed, meaning that while Arsenal will be flying back from Greece in the small hours of Friday morning three days prior to the derby, Tottenham will have enjoyed a home fixture against Dinamo Zagreb.
Under normal circumstances, that would be fine. UEFA cannot send 120,000 fans into north London on the same night, so one fixture must be rearranged.
Yet there are no fans in stadiums right now. The usual rules do not apply. It would be perfectly possible for Arsenal and Tottenham to play at home on the same night, with minimum local disruption and risk. Equally, it is ridiculous that away goals are still counting double, in ties with both legs at neutral venues. This is not a normal year. Why pretend?
Reithian standards to the fore, Dame Katherine Grainger will relinquish her duties as chair of UK Sport to commentate on rowing for the BBC at the Olympic Games this summer.
It bodes well that usual standards of impartiality will be observed — bursting into tears over a British win, calling into question the impartiality of judges after a British failure, and celebrating when an opponent flops.
A personal favourite was the BBC reporter during the 2015 Women’s World Cup. ‘The England team has arrived to a big cheer,’ she told Radio 5 Live. ‘From me.’