Mihir Bose: FA will learn nothing if they do not confront England 2018 defeat

Mihir Bose(2)

It did not take long for the board of the Football Association to choose David Bernstein as the new chairman. The whole thing, I am told, took a bare five minutes. He was nominated, all hands went up and on to the next business.

However, sometime after this decision, there was a report by Andy Anson on England’s disastrous World Cup bid for 2018. Here something rather curious happened.

Before the meeting there had been much anticipation of what Anson, the 2018 chief executive, might say. In the event he said very little about a bid where the FA spent £18 million and got one non-Brit to vote for England. This suggests that as far as the FA is concerned this is now part of the dead and discredited past that is best left undisturbed.

I agree to dwell on the past can be morbid. But you can also learn from the past and the FA urgently needs to do that.

Defeats, as the ancient Romans always said, are best treated as orphans with no one wanting to claim parenthood. In contrast, everyone claims to have fathered a victory. However, while nobody may rush forward to say they fathered the 2018 disaster, it would do England, and the FA, good if they looked at how other organisations dealt with traumatic defeats in their bids to bring international competitions to this country. This is where football may have a lot to learn from the Olympics.

I have been talking to one man who knows how to convert defeats into victory and it has been very illuminating. That man is Simon Clegg. Often the Chef de Mission of the British Olympic teams, the long serving chief executive of the British Olympic Association has since exchanged his Olympic hat for a football one, becoming chief executive of Ipswich Town.

Clegg has keenly followed the comments of the England 2018 bid team made after the defeat in Zurich. These were that FIFA Executive members lied to England about their voting intentions. These lies so outraged Roger Burden, the acting FA chairman that he decided he would not take up the job fulltime. Had he not withdrawn after the Zurich debacle he would have been crowned FA chairman in place of Bernstein on Wednesday. Burden’s reason was as the FA chairman he would have to deal with Fifa officials and could not do business with people whose words he could not trust.


Clegg told me: “Whilst I recognise that everyone in the bid was hugely disappointed the comments made after the defeat were not helpful. I spent 20 years at the highest level of international sport and one of the perceptions we had to always battle was that the British were arrogant. The comments after Zurich will not have been well received in the international sports community and will reinforce the perception of the superior British. When you decide to bid for events like the World Cup or the Olympic Games you have to also decide to accept and work with the electorate whose vote you are seeking. You have to know how the bidding process works and tackle it the best way you can.”

One of the points much made by the England 2018 bid team was that England’s bid was technically the best, rated much superior to Russia. So how could England get just two votes when Russia in the first round itself got 9 before romping home in the second? In the eyes of the 2018 bid team this suggested that the whole bidding process was unfair.

Clegg recalls “The first bid I was involved in for the Olympics was the 1992 bid by Birmingham. It was fronted by Lord Dennis Howell [who at that the time held the record for having been the longest serving sports minister, a record since broken by Richard Caborn]. Everybody at the IOC said the Birmingham bid was the best technical bid the IOC had ever received. Yet the Games went to Barcelona. When bids are decided you have to accept that the technical qualities are not the only criteria for judging a bid. Otherwise why have a vote?”

Birmingham the best bid got eight votes, three ahead of Amsterdam but less than Belgrade, Brisbane, Paris and a long way behind Barcelona. The Spanish city with 47 votes beat Paris in the final.

After Birmingham Clegg was involved in two failed Manchester bids, the second one saw Sydney win the right to stage the 2000 Olympics, Manchester lost getting 11 votes, around 15% of the total. That meant in a decade Britain had bid for three Olympics, 1992, 1996 and 2000, and got nowhere.

“We came back from Monte Carlo where the vote for 2000 Games was held,”recalls Clegg, “and decided we must talk to the electorate and find out what we can do to construct a winning bid.”

It was this talk to the IOC electorate that eventually shaped the winning London bid. “IOC members made it clear that if Britain wanted to be taken seriously as an Olympic candidate it had to come back with London and we listened. When you make such bids you must listen to the electorate, otherwise you might as well not bid.”

But it was not enough to present London. The right team and political muscle was necessary and as Clegg said, “We worked on the then Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, to get his support.” As is well known dear old Ken had no interest in sport. However he saw the Olympics as driving the regeneration of the east end. While the original BOA plan had talked about the Games being staged in west London with Wembley the hub, to get Ken’s support  the location was switched to the east end.

Also, as Clegg reminded me, the BOA from the beginning decided that the bid team would be very distinct from the BOA. In contrast 2018 was very much part of the FA. This was to have dramatic consequences when the original 2012 bid leader Barbara Cassini decided lobbying IOC members was not really something she wanted to do. London had just made the short list but was a very poor third to Paris and Madrid. It could have been tricky. It was handed well with Seb Coe, Cassini’s deputy, taking over and in the end proving a great leader.

Contrast this with 2018. When Lord Triesman, the FA chairman and bid leader, had to go because his remarks were leaked to a Sunday paper it meant not only finding a new bid leader but a new chairman of the FA. A new bid leader was found in Geoff Thompson but the FA did not find a new chairman. With the chief executive also having left it meant the FA went into the World Cup, a crucial lobbying opportunity for 2018, with both these top jobs in the hands of temporary officials. It was this that prompted that Michael Platini’s famous comment in South Africa.” You have an acting chairman and an acting chief executive. What is the FA, a bunch of actors?”

Clegg admits that in Seb Coe they had an ideal replacement and in Sir Keith Mills, a businessman who quickly worked out the IOC and how to cultivate its leadership.

However in addition to this there was also thought about what not to say. Early on in the campaign there was talk how both in 1908 and 1948 London had come to the rescue of the Games by staging them when other countries could not. But once the bid started little was made of this.

“When you bid for events like Olympics or World Cups,” says Clegg, “you have to work out what the sport will do for your country and what your country will do for the sport. You also need to be careful about harking on about the past. This country has a great sporting past but constant stress on it can be seen as arrogance. We are no more entitled to the Games than any other country. We have to earn them.”

If the FA were to learn, like the BOA did from its three failed bids before it succeeded with London, then with the right leadership the World Cup could come back to this country, even in our lifetimes. That is one of the major tasks facing David Bernstein. It is not going to be easy.

Mihir Bose is one of the world’s most astute observers on politics in sport and, particularly, football. He formerly wrote for The Sunday Times and The Daily Telegraph and until recently was the BBC’s head sports editor.