There is a tradition in English football of applying asterisks to setbacks. They are losses that are sometimes not deemed defeats, exits where excuses are immediately available. The Under 21 team conformed to a familiar trend on Tuesday by departing the European Championship unbeaten, except on penalties. England no longer regard death by shoot-out as a moral victory but, on and off the pitch, there can be the sense that they have gone with pride intact.
It was the impression the English Football Association sought to give when their bid to host the 2018 World Cup failed in 2010. Given the institutionalised corruption at Fifa – suspected then, proved since – it was easy to argue that England suffered for retaining their principles. They were less likely to countenance murky dealings with the nefarious types who abounded in Fifa’s upper reaches. They were Victorians who found themselves ill-equipped to negotiate with the mafia. Or so it seemed.
So the full 422-page report by Fifa’s then ethics investigator Michael Garcia must make for embarrassing reading in English football’s corridors of power. The FA were deemed guilty of acting improperly in trying to accommodate the wishes of the Fifa vice-president Jack Warner who, despite stiff competition, may have been the shadiest character at even world football’s governing body. They made a beeline for a man now banned from football-related activity for life and facing extradition to the United States to face fraud and money-laundering charges. They ensured a Warner ally was parachuted into jobs at Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa, a revelation that prompted jokes about Tim Sherwood. The integrity of the bidding process, Garcia concluded, was damaged by England’s inadequate responses to the disreputable Warner’s demands. They courted the corrupt.
The FA’s plan to play an international friendly in Thailand in exchange for votes was branded “a form of bribery". There was talk of “collusion” between England and South Korea, prospective 2022 World Cup hosts, at a meeting attended by the Duke of Cambridge and the then prime minister. They broke rules.
In short, England tried to indulge in the same grubby politicking as everyone else. They just weren’t very good at it. They procured two votes, one from their own representative, Geoff Thompson, in a campaign that cost £18 million (Dh85m). They were aware of the cultures of kickbacks and favours at Fifa. They certainly were not cleaner than clean, beaten only because the game was rigged and they refused to play by its rules. To their credit, the FA offered more transparency to Garcia than their Russian counterparts, who alleged computers containing information about their bid had been destroyed. Equally, as the least successful 2018 bidders, they had most interest in the process being discredited.
It does mean Russia’s methods remain obscured; suspicion of quite how they were so persuasive is understandable. But it prompts renewed examination of an English failure that cannot be explained by a refusal to countenance illicit techniques. There was always something preposterous in presenting Prince William, David Cameron and David Beckham as “the Three Lions”, supposedly superstar diplomats who would sweep everyone else aside in a blaze of charm, something they proved conspicuously incapable of doing.
Much like Cameron in his blundering attempts to cajole the European Union into doing his bidding, the FA found themselves with too few allies abroad. The Garcia report illustrates they need to be better to conjure more support from (hopefully) more upstanding delegates. Because the other embarrassing element, besides the assessment of their conduct, is how few votes the FA secured when, with England’s stadia, geography, history and footballing culture, it ought to be one of the country’s most able to stage a successful World Cup.