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David Owen: It’s a fascinating time for the concept of a British World Cup

FIFA WORLD_CUP_TROPHY_28-11-12

Politics and sport make uneasy, if unavoidable, bedfellows. This has been underlined plenty of times in just the past few months and is now being highlighted once again by tensions in the Gulf centred on Qatar, host of the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

The best-laid plans of lawmakers and score-makers do not always end badly, however.

And if any bunch of legislators has had reason to appreciate sport’s power as a political tool in recent times, it is successive British Governments of the past two decades or so.

By setting up a National Lottery and channelling money from it into elite sports funding, politicians played a big part in transforming Great Britain from Olympic also-rans into one of the world’s best-performing sporting nations.

This in turn delivered both a regular, periodic feelgood factor and a good-news story that the majority of people could relate – and chip in – to in an ever more fragmented and polarised world.

This was, of course, experienced most intensely as a consequence of laying on one of the most efficient and inspirational Olympic and Paralympic Games of the modern era.

So it was interesting, with voting in a divisive and unnecessary general election scheduled for Thursday, to read recent headlines suggesting that one of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful sports bodies (UEFA) would support an English – or British – bid for another sports mega-event (the 2030 FIFA World Cup).

I should emphasise that at the moment, the only thing underpinning this, as far as I can see, is a BBC interview with the European football body’s President, Aleksander Čeferin, before last Saturday’s European Cup final in Cardiff.

Čeferin makes clear he is keen for the 2030 – centenary – World Cup to be staged in Europe, saying: “It’s simply time.”

Asked then by interviewer Richard Conway if he would encourage an English, or pan-British, bid for the competition, the UEFA President replies, “I don’t know how much encouragement they need, but they are capable of organising the World Cup, I am sure…

“If [the Football Association] decide to go, we will strongly support them…

“They deserve to have a World Cup in the near future.”

There is a long, long way to go between where we apparently stand today and an English – or British – bid for 2030 materialising.

The notion does, though, raise some intriguing questions.

One is: can the home football associations conceivably cooperate to anything like the degree necessary to organise a joint World Cup?

After all, while Britain did, unusually, field men’s and women’s Olympic football teams at London 2012, each squad consisted of players from only two home nations – England and Wales for the men, England and Scotland for the women.

The Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish football authorities tend to be very wary of any venture which they feel could conceivably threaten their ability to compete separately in international competitions.

One presumes that should there be a genuinely British World Cup, with matches in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, each of these football associations would expect their team to be allotted an automatic qualifying berth in the finals; this might indeed act as a significant incentive to agree to such a competition.

Would FIFA object to such a large contingent of host-nation qualifiers? Frankly I doubt it.

We seem to be heading for a trio of host-nations – Mexico, Canada and the United States – for 2026. Given the appetite for expansion, moreover, I am tempted to suggest that we might be up to a 64- or 96-team tournament by 2030.

A second intriguing question is this: might the UK Government, of whatever stripe, be tempted to use the process of winning and preparing for a World Cup to try to bind the country together in the wake of an intensely divisive period in national politics which may continue as Britain goes through the tortuous process of leaving the European Union (EU)?

Given the generally positive experience with the Olympics, I think it might well be.

A British World Cup, after all, would be truly nationwide, not focused on the most prosperous corner of the country, albeit a corner with pockets of serious poverty.

It would, furthermore, require little if any construction of new sporting infrastructure, even if general infrastructure leaves rather a lot to be desired.

It could still add up to a high-risk strategy, however.

Almost the least of the envisageable banana-skins is the effect on any hard-won sense of national cohesion and togetherness inspired by the tournament if England had to play say Scotland or Wales in a high-pressure World Cup quarter-final.

I would be inclined to ponder at least as much over a British tournament’s possible effect on the delicate post-EU political balance in the UK.

In Scotland, the Scottish National Party (SNP) is likely to use the situation to step up its push for independence on the grounds that a majority of Scotland-based voters – 62% – voted to remain in the EU in last year’s referendum.

Even if the process of preparing for an event which encouraged the rest of the world to see Britain as a unified entity acted to counter such pressures, any tide of nationalistic fervour triggered by a re-energised Tartan Army might do the opposite.

The UK’s departure from the EU may also lead to a more rigid border between the two parts of the island of Ireland. This is because the Irish Republic would remain part of the EU, whereas Northern Ireland would not.

One wonders whether the prospect of Belfast staging World Cup football matches, and other parts of Northern Ireland hosting training camps for some of the teams, would have any significant impact on the sense of increased separation between the north and the rest of Ireland which may be a consequence of Brexit.

Or alternatively, could the Irish Republic, which has some first-rate stadia, be invited to stage some World Cup matches as well, making it a fifth host-team and endowing the competition with its very own euro-zone?

And if that happened, how might it feed through into regional politics?

Most of this lies far into the future, if not in never-never land.

But it is a fascinating moment in history for the concept of a British World Cup to have been floated.

David Owen worked for 20 years for the Financial Times in the United States, Canada, France and the UK. He ended his FT career as sports editor after the 2006 World Cup and is now freelancing, including covering the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the 2010 World Cup and London 2012. Owen’s Twitter feed can be accessed at www.twitter.com/dodo938.