Soccer: Fate of nations in the hands of 22 old men

By Sam Wallace

The average age of the 22 men on the Fifa executive committee is 64 and, as you will see when they shuffle centre stage in Zurich on Thursday night to decide the fate of England's 2018 World Cup bid, they are not an especially dynamic bunch.

Nicolas Leoz, from Paraguay, is the oldest of the lot at 82 and Vitaly Mutko of Russia the spring chicken at 51.

At 55, Michel Platini is another one of the youngsters, but then, he was carried out of a Johannesburg restaurant on a stretcher during the World Cup having fainted over dessert, so it would be fair to say that he too is experiencing the disadvantages of advancing years.

It is often overlooked that winning the right to host the World Cup finals is not about the best stadiums, the most comprehensive infrastructure or the foremost football culture - although all that helps - it is about convincing 13 of 24 members (currently reduced to 22) to vote for you.

That is a different proposition altogether. The problem is this is a group of old men who have lived so long in the febrile political atmosphere of international football, who have so many complex and ever-shifting alliances, that persuading them to vote for your bid above all others is fiendishly difficult.

Why did they decide to award the 2018 and 2022 World Cups in one go? Because many of the committee cannot be sure that they will still be around in 2014 when, ordinarily, Fifa would have voted for the 2022 hosts.

For what will be the last time for so many of the old men who have run football for years, this week's opulent Fifa gala - with Vladimir Putin, Bill Clinton, David Cameron and Prince William in attendance - will make that lifetime of committee room power-brokering worth it.

For a few days, at least, the members from Guatemala and from Cyprus, from Belgium, Japan and Thailand will feel like the prettiest girls at the party as heads of state and famous ex-footballers are delivered into their presence to beg endorsement for their nations.

What actually influences their views - whether it is the rebuilding of Plymouth Argyle's Home Park, the proposed rejuvenation of the hospitality infrastructure in Nizhny Novgorod or perhaps rewards of a more specific nature - we can only guess.

It might fairly be said that concepts such as "legacy programmes" and "dynamic global media hubs", which featured prominently in the England 2018 bid book of 1752 pages, might be of secondary importance to certain members to questions such as "where are my slippers?" and "will we be home in time for Antiques Roadshow?" (or its Paraguayan equivalent).

Which is another way of saying that if, early on Friday the name that comes out of the envelope to host the 2018 World Cup finals is not England, there is no point being surprised or too disappointed.

The race was well run, the English bid gave it their best shot and, unlike the 2006 bid, we did not expect to woo the decision-makers with a barbecue and the chance of a photograph with Bobby Charlton. Yes, there were some cock-ups along the way but nothing that should have undermined such a solid offering to Fifa.

There was also the nuisance of England having a free, robust press, which is such a pain when you are trying to impress men who come from countries with nothing of the sort.

Should the hosts turn out to be Spain-Portugal or Russia, then there is no point beginning the blame game. Perhaps a more realistic attitude would be that the English are no better equipped for the business of winning the right to host World Cups than the national team is equipped to win them.

Of the 17 stadiums in England's bid book, 13 are already built, in comparison with the nine which are yet to be built by the Russians.

England has the most popular top division in the world - if television rights sales are the barometer - and the highest aggregate attendances for its professional leagues in Europe. Unlike the Spanish, England has not hosted a World Cup within the past three decades.

But perhaps England also have to accept that it is not well liked.

That, for all the attempts to drop the embarrassing "football's coming home" schtick, there have been inadequate efforts to establish a major voice among Fifa and UEFA, unless you count the inaudible Geoff Thompson, England's one underwhelming representative on the committee.

England are not very good at the deal-making such as the alleged collusion of Spain and Qatar. We do not have the deep pockets of Russia and Qatar.

We have on our side David Beckham and one jolly royal but we do not have the benefit, Thompson aside, of a veteran of the politicking that is crucial to the lifeblood of Fifa and the committee.

So we lose. Twenty-two old boys tot up their grudges and their allegiances and take their favour elsewhere.

But at least the grovelling can stop.

- INDEPENDENT

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