Tom Degun: A bad day in Doha for Sir Dave Richards

Tom Degun_in_front_of_ball_Doha_May_2011

As far as bad days go, March 14, 2012 is one Sir Dave Richards probably wants to forget.

The strange thing is that it all started so innocuously for the English Premier League chairman on the first day of the International Sport Security Conference here in the Qatari capital Doha.

Richards sat down to take part in an interesting if unspectacular panel session titled: “New Frontiers: Rewards and Challenges to Growing a Sporting Brand in New Markets”.

Despite his obvious importance in football – given that he is also chair of the European Professional Football Leagues (EPFL) and vice-chairman of the English Football Association (FA) – he probably wasn’t even the big name on the four man panel.

That title belonged to His Royal Highness Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, the young and charismatic vice-president of FIFA.

Also taking part in the discussion were the not unsubstantial figures of International Rugby Board (IRB) President Bernard Lapasset and International Cricket Council (ICC) chief executive Haroon Lorgat.

But shortly into the discussion, Richards quickly eclipsed them all as he unexpectedly launched an outrageous attack on the world and European football governing bodies.

“England gave the world football,” he declared.

“It gave the best legacy anyone could give. We gave them the game. For 50 years, we owned the game, we were the governance of the game. We wrote the rules, designed the pitches and everything else. Then, 50 years later, some guy came along and said: ‘You’re liars,’ and they actually stole it.

“It was called FIFA.

“Fifty years later, another gang came along called UEFA and stole a bit more.”

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Shock reverberated around the auditorium and it was Prince Ali, who was quite clearly trying to cut the tension, who quietly suggested that China actually created the game.

“It started in Sheffield 150 years ago,” he told the rather baffled FIFA vice-president.

“We started the game and wrote the rules and took it to the world. The Chinese may say they own it but the British own it and we gave it to the rest of the world.”

For some unexplainable reason, the Premier League chairman appeared to feel as though he had not insulted enough people for the day and decided to turn his attention on hosts Qatar, suggesting that fans would boycott the FIFA 2022 World Cup in the country unless alcohol becomes readily available across the region, which it is currently not.

“To have a World Cup in Qatar in 2022 where alcohol is not available would be a terrible thing,” he said.

“If that is the case, we need to know straight away and give a very, very early warning to the fans that that is the case and that all the hotels are dry.

“I think it would mean that fans would not come which would be a great shame.”

He then turned back on FIFA, saying that the organisation allowed the FA to waste money on their 2018 World Cup bid when, he said, they had little chance of winning it.

“Why couldn’t FIFA have said, we want to take it to the Gulf,” he said, seemingly forgetting that Russia got the 2018 World Cup that England bid for rather than Qatar, who took the 2022 competition; and that bidding doesn’t really work like that.

“We spent £19 million on that bid.

“When we went for it everybody believed we had a chance.

“But as we went through it a pattern emerged that suggested maybe we didn’t.”

It left all of us sitting in the front row rather confused at why a man notorious for saying little if anything in front of the media had decided to suddenly open up and offend as many people possible in his short stay in Qatar.

That confusion continued throughout the day, where Richards was the talk of the conference.

Even as we headed off for the formal conference dinner on the West Courtyard at the Museum of Islamic Art, he was still the buzz of Doha.

But little did we know that the best was yet to come.

Shortly after taking my seat at dinner, and in deep conversation with the esteemed Mihir Bose, I turn just in time to see a man clumsily trip and fall face first into the shallow ornamental pool in the middle of the marble floor.

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An audible gasp echoed around the West Courtyard before a flurry of activity saw the man pulled out of the water by Bolton Wanderers chairman and Premier League board member, Phil Gartside.

It was only then that the soaking wet figure of none other than Richards emerged, his pristine suit completely dripping. Looking very shaken, he was quickly escorted away by a team of waiters but unsurprisingly did not return.

However, it was not so easy for English football’s damaged international reputation, which appears to lie low in the water where Richards rather symbolically fell.

While his bizarre antics were the source of huge amusement, it was clear there were much bigger repercussions abroad.

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Britain’s FIFA vice-president Jim Boyce was left scratching his head at Sir Dave’s disastrous trip to Doha.

“Anything at the moment that could bring back old sores, for want of a better expression, is unfortunate,” Boyce told insideworldfootball.

“It would have been better if Sir Dave’s remarks had not been made given the publicity they have generated.”

To be fair to Richards, he quickly said sorry for his baffling antics.

“I would like to apologise for any offence caused,” he said in a statement.

“It is important to clarify that I was expressing my personal views and not those of any organisation I represent.”

He later explained this on television.

“I’d like to clarify something – I am a Yorkshireman and I am quite broad and if I say something it can be taken out of a little bit of context,” he said.

“I was asked about the heritage of the game, I would never want to offend FIFA or UEFA. I used a word which was, looking back, probably inappropriate but it is the way I am.”

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What repercussions there will be from the PR disaster, one can only guess.

Neither the Premier League nor the FA will find the gaffes easy to laugh off – they made that much clear in statements distancing themselves from his words – while FIFA and UEFA would not have looked too kindly on another attack from the pesky English.

But the biggest hit could come to Richards own personal legacy.

Before Doha, Richards was the man responsible for turning the Premier League into one of the richest and most high profile sporting leagues on the planet.

Now, he may well be remembered as the buffoon who made outrageous comments and then fell face first into a pool.

Tom Degun is a reporter for insideworldfootball