Brian Mawhinney: Why England’s World Cup bid failed

Former Football League chairman BRIAN MAWHINNEY, who was deputy chairman of the bid to stage the 2018 finals, reveals…



MORE than most people involved in football, Brian Mawhinney has been there, seen it and done it.

In 2003 he was appointed chairman of the Football League in succession to Keith Harris, spending seven years in the position. After one year in office, he oversaw a re-organisation of the League’s structure, including renaming the former Division One as the Football League Championship. A former Northern Ireland Sports Minister, he was deputy chairman of England’s bid to host the 2018 World Cup.

Now Baron Mawhinney of Peterborough, he has also served as chairman of the Conservative party during his 26 years as an MP.

In his autobiography, Just A Simple Belfast Boy, he takes us behind the world of politics, football politics, giving a damning verdict on England’s failed World Cup bid and FIFA’s “unimpressive” behaviour as Qatar won the right to host the 2022 finals.


The choreography of our bid presentation in Zurich was rightly hailed as another success, but the voters were not impressed. They wanted more substance from the contenders. The Russian Deputy Prime Minister’s speech was dismissed by our team as too long, complicated and boring. But he addressed the members’ real concerns about Russia – infrastructure, stadia, travel distances and so on – in an impressive and reassuring way. Mr Putin understood what he was doing and what was being done in his name.

When it came to Qatar’s turn to present its case, the wife of the Emir cut through the tendency towards Hollywood hype. She asked a pointed, searing question. When did FIFA members think would be the ‘right time’ to hold the World Cup finals in an Arab country? Despite Qatar’s burning heat, the voters got the political message.

For our part we made legacy claims which simply were not believable and talked about how we would use football to change lives in a way that must have seemed like scratching the surface to those whose lives and countries literally had been transformed by the beautiful game. Our bid was polished, professional and very well received. Sadly its substance was not thought to match its presentation.

No country received better accolades from FIFA for its bid book and inspection visit. So why only one vote apart from [England’s FIFA ex-co representative] Geoff Thompson’s? In no particular order: we were seriously underfinanced; we got our strategy wrong; we created management and governance structures which were dogged by conflicting egos and football politics, too much of which stemmed from the senior ranks of the FA; we had little, if any, influence in FIFA; the British media had become the bête noire and the Premier League and its clubs did not flex their considerable financial and sporting muscle sufficiently on our behalf.

Geoff Thompson is an honourable man of genuine integrity. I count him a Christian friend; but not even his best friends would claim he commands situations, compels support or shapes outcomes. His judgment is usually sound but too low key for the brash world of FIFA football. And he was our one and only national representative among the FIFA elite. He told me he thought he had persuaded some of his friends on the executive committee to vote for us, presumably believing their word. In the event they let him down. Or, to be blunt, they lied to him. Maybe they thought, knowing Geoff’s sense of Christian forgiveness, that their lack of morality was relatively risk free.

FIFA’s behaviour throughout the process was unimpressive, to put it delicately. It had created a strong sense that its judgments would be objectively based on demonstrably fair criteria. This turned out to be nonsense. Qatar’s risk factor assessment was high, though not, of course, when it came to finance. The country was deemed to have insufficient infrastructure, no stadia (except on planning paper) and a temperature which would be around 45 degrees Celsius at game time.

And what notice did ExCo members, including Sepp Blatter, take of this risk assessment? None.


My first press conference was a revelation. Two questions predominated. The first was, chairman – a politician? A Conservative politician? (in tones which parodied John McEnroe’s famous ‘you cannot be serious’). This was an early warning of football’s disdain for government and politicians. On that first day, the cream of English football reporting had great difficulty in progressing beyond the box labelled ‘politics.’ There was no recognition that I may have any skills – inherited or learned – relevant experience or personal commitment.

Indeed the continued use of the word ‘politician’ too often sounded as if it was accompanied by a curl of the lip. English football fans deserved something a little more analytical and, dare I add, more objective.

The second question was how many clubs I thought the Football League would lose by the end of the season. The reporters’ downbeat assessment was that six to eight clubs could go out of business. I told them I did not have a crystal ball and would not guess (‘speculate’ is the polite word).

Many football journalists are transfixed by speculation; perhaps because so much about football revolves around prediction, passion, prejudice, hope and injury rather than hard fact. To be fair, they have to explain a game where the past is never a reliable indicator of the future. Some journalists thrive on substituting ‘what-if or maybe’ in place of informed judgment. They talk and write as if feelings are a solid base for factual analysis – or indeed even for guesswork. ‘How do/did you feel’ has become the lazy substitute for proper questioning in football, as it has throughout the media. ‘What do you think?’ seldom gets examined.

Fortunately there are outstanding exceptions to this slightly unflattering generalisation. Each of us will have his favourites. Mine include, but are not restricted to, Patrick Barclay, David Conn, Charlie Sale, Martin Samuel, Henry Winter and Jimmy Armfield.


So what is cheating? Other than physically endangering an opposing player, the cheating I find most unacceptable is the deliberate blocking of the taking of free-kicks by the refusal of one or more players to retreat 10 yards immediately a free-kick has been given against their side. The rule book says that is a yellow card offence. Instead what we see far too often is a deliberate and often apparently practised effort to prevent the taking of the free-kick by the team that offended. Shame on the guilty managers.

When you add to this the pervasive stealing of yards at throw-ins and free-kicks, players claiming advantage they know they do not deserve, or illegally trying to intimidate the referee, the deliberate illegal holding, often wrestling, of opponents in the penalty area, shirt-pulling of epidemic proportions, iniquitous diving, bad-mouthing referees, the feigning of injury (in an attempt to falsely damage the prospects of an opposing player) you are left wondering why managers do not, and do not even want to, exercise more control over their players and why club directors do not insist they do.

A flurry of yellow cards, as the laws require, would lead to player expulsions, is an argument against such punishment. There would be short-term mayhem. So what? Once managers understand that the change in attitude was permanent they would very quickly force a change of behaviour from their players. And the game – faster, cleaner, fairer – would be transformed for the benefit of the fans. But everyone opts for being loved rather than respected.

*Just A Simple Belfast Boy by Brian Mawhinney (Biteback Publishing, £25 hardback).

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