The Politics of Now

David Runciman in the London Review of Books:

The FA’s approach – star power plus a few sweeteners on the side – was exactly the wrong way to go. The stars had little to offer that the Fifa delegates hadn’t heard many times before: they were used to being fawned over. In 2004, when trying to secure its bid for the 2010 World Cup, the South African FA sent the 85-year-old Nelson Mandela, already frail and in poor health, on a 17-hour trip to Trinidad to meet Warner in a final attempt to secure his precious three votes. In the end, South Africa won the final bidding round 14-10, so we may infer that the trip was a success. But subsequent rumours that $10 million also found its way from South Africa to Trinidad may have had something to do with it. As David Conn writes in his exemplary history of recent high football politics, ‘To see the image of a man as distinguished as Mandela forced to abase himself this much, towards the end of his hard and exemplary life, before corrupt thieves like … Warner … is repugnant now.’ It is also revealing: the English just weren’t trying hard enough.

While Cameron was dangling dinner expenses in front of Warner, his French counterpart was playing a very different game. Michel Platini, the deputy head of Fifa, attended a lunch at the Elysée Palace with President Sarkozy and representatives of the Qatari royal family in the run-up to the 2010 vote. Sarkozy let the Qataris know that the price of Platini’s vote would include support for his local team, Paris Saint-Germain, then in financial difficulties. In due course the Qataris bought the club and invested hundreds of millions into it (including the £200 million it cost to buy Neymar, the world’s most expensive player). Qatar also bought the TV rights to France’s Ligue 1 games for more than £500 million a year, and Qatar Airways ordered fifty A320 planes made by Airbus at Toulouse. The value of that deal alone for the French economy was in the region of £15 billion.

As Conn notes, Platini has always insisted that he did not vote for Qatar because Sarkozy told him to. Nonetheless, something happened to persuade him to drop his earlier support for the US as hosts in 2022 and to plump instead for a country with no football infrastructure, no international profile in the game to speak of, and a climate that meant a summer tournament would have to be played in temperatures as high as 50 degrees. What was it about the small, barren, dusty, repressive, oil-rich state that first attracted him? Afterwards, Platini spoke about the exciting opportunities a World Cup in Qatar would bring, taking football to new territories and opening it up to different cultures. He soon speculated about the chance to turn it into a winter tournament, since the summer would clearly be far too hot. Yet the Qatari bid was for a summer tournament, and though it might be possible to keep the stadiums air-conditioned, the conditions for anyone outside, including the workers who had to build the stadiums, would be brutal. Just as England’s attempts to sway the votes of the committee were too petty to be meaningful, the Qatari inducements were so enormous that it was hard to know how to respond. After all, there was no possible other reason to host the tournament there, so what did that leave to be investigated?