Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Despite repeated claims from managers, pundits and fans that the European Cup (it’s not a league and it’s not just for the champions) has overtaken international football as the loftiest arena for the game, I will always prefer the World Cup. In fact, as we are approaching one of those irritating summers without an international football tournament, I am currently looking towards my World Cup Highlights DVDs as a sort of methadone to get me through it. I am also keeping a close eye on England’s bid to host the thing in 2018: I would very much like the World Cup to be held here within my lifetime, and I think there’s a good chance of this happening, as long as we put forward a compelling bid and I remain in reasonable health.

I've been looking at the other bidding countries, and here’s my analysis. I may not be as well-informed as various other sporting journalists who’ve been writing pieces like this in the last few days, but I do at least know that the proper plural of ‘stadium’ is ‘stadia’.

I admire Indonesia for having a go, but it seems to me they have way too much work to do. Spain/Portugal and Holland/Belgium will be rejected because there are perfectly good single-nation bids, and Sepp Blatter has said that he’d only go to a joint bid as a last resort. Which does make you wonder why Spain has gone ahead with theirs, since they’re better placed to do it alone than many other bidding nations. Australia has a good case: FIFA likes opportunities to grow football in countries where it’s not the most popular sport, and unlike a lot of those countries, Australia has big stadia that can easily be adapted to football. However, I think FIFA is more likely to look at Australia for 2022 rather than 2018 because otherwise that'll be three southern-hemisphere tournaments in a row.

In addition, although there’s no longer an official system of continental rotation, the biggest TV audience for football is in Europe, so it would be surprising for FIFA to keep it out of here three tournaments in a row (although South Africa is conveniently in line with us in terms of timezone). This may also hamper the bids of Japan, USA and Mexico – all of whom have held the tournament relatively recently, and Mexico has hosted twice since England last did. It’s also worth bearing in mind that the modern game is played at a much higher tempo than in 1970 and even 1986, and is less well suited to being played at the height of summer in central America than it used to be.

It would be a bit controversial to go back to the USA so soon: football may be getting more popular over there, but does FIFA really need to give them another World Cup to boost the sport? They organised it well last time, but there wasn't much of a buzz about it: it’s one of the few places you can hold a World Cup without most of the population noticing. Japan’s bid is totally dependent on Tokyo hosting the 2016 Olympics, which could rule them out before it even gets to the voting stage.

The big rival, therefore, is Russia: the other credible European bid, and the one which would prevent England bidding for 2022 and, indeed, 2026. However, I’ve looked at Russia’s top-flight stadia (not in person, on Wikipedia) and they currently only have two that are big enough – the Luzniki in Moscow and the almost-complete Zenit Stadium in Petersburg. Many are below 20,000 and FIFA requires twelve stadia of 40,000 capacity, as well as one of 80,000 for the final. That's a lot of work to do, and look at how Ukraine is struggling to get just four ready for Euro 2012. Moreover, six of Russia’s 18 top-level clubs are based in Moscow – and you're only meant to use one stadium in each city, so nowhere gets overloaded. They might let really big cities use two – England seems set to advance both Wembley and the Emirates – but that still leaves Russia with the task of developing a lot of big stadia in places which might not need one when the tournament’s over.

England, by contrast, has nearly enough stadia to host the tournament tomorrow if need be. (In fact, we possibly do have enough, as I’m told that the KC Stadium can be expanded from 25,400 to 45,000 by lifting the roofs off and putting in temporary seating. I cannot possibly imagine how the hell this works, but apparently it does.) There are already several clubs making expansion plans regardless of the World Cup bid, so by 2018 there’s no doubt that we can have plenty of stadia ready – and we won’t need to build new ones, which doesn’t always go down well with the clubs who get saddled with them after the tournament (Juventus fans always hated the Stadio Delle Alpi, built for the 1990 World Cup – that’s being completely rebuilt at the moment until no trace of the original is left). And yes, our transport infrastructure isn’t great – something which isn’t helped by the fact that we’ve pointlessly rebuilt Wembley in one of the least accessible parts of London, when there’s a disused train yard just north of Kings Cross that would’ve been a superb location – but on the upside, we’re a small country and nowhere is all that far from anywhere else.

So basically, as long as we don’t fuck it up by being arrogant twats, we’ve got a very good chance. Although, as I just typed that sentence, it occurred to me that the FA is involved in this.

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