Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 26 October 2014

James Lawton: Fifa insulted Australia by running with Qatar

FIFA President Sepp Blatter names Qatar as the winning hosts of 2022 duirng the FIFA World Cup 2018 & 2022 Host Countries Announcement at the Messe Conference Centre on December 2, 2010 in Zurich, Switzerland.

This may be the most beautiful cricket place in the world, here in the late afternoon with the breeze in the eucalyptus trees and the flags billowing above the stands named for the Chappell boys, that look as though they might have been designed to overlook some fabulous old jousting ground.

Bradman played here at the peak of his powers, an adopted South Australian and the nation's supreme sports genius, and with a full house in for the first day of the Ashes Test yesterday it was easy to imagine how it was on the most tumultuous of days at the Adelaide Oval – and certainly the one when Harold Larwood laid waste to half the Aussie batting order while Bradman avoided the bullets.



There are so many places in this country redolent with such history and peopled by those who both care and know about sport and so inevitably you thought of those places and those people in the small hours of the morning here yesterday.

This was when you tuned into the sickening spectacle of Fifa president Sepp Blatter dispensing his bumper gifts of World Cup 2018 to Russia and 2022 to Qatar and when, somehow, England's predictable defeat at the hands of the Russian big-money men and their huge majority of Fifa voters seemed less shocking than the obliteration of Australia by the plutocrat pocket emirate beside the Persian Gulf.



Australia is a great sporting nation – pound for pound perhaps the greatest, even after feeding into the computer the current difficulties of Ricky Ponting's Ashes contenders. Qatar, relatively speaking, is a speck of sand.



Yet they wheeled in 14 votes in their crunching triumph. Australia, brilliant hosts of the 2000 Olympics – 44 years after cutting their teeth with the Melbourne Games – and the rugby union and cricket world cups, mustered just one.



How could it possibly be? What else but money, the money that flows into the ruling family of Qatar who own the third most valuable oil and gas deposits in the world? Blatter made a stomach-wrenching speech about the combative nature of football and how that also applied to the staging of the sport's greatest event.



He made it sound like a toe-to-toe battle involving brilliant planning and mind-expanding innovation. He made it sound like some gripping race for the right to stage the greatest show on earth. He made it sound both bold and decent. It was neither. It was the money-grubbing which has become so intertwined in the administration of the world's most popular game.



It means that Qatar – which is a sort of toddling version of Dubai with less bling and C-list celebrities and infinitely more money and American-made fighter planes, and where you can't get a drink without considerable inconvenience and then have to consume it in some gloomy tavern which might have come straight from the pages of Charles Dickens – will be in charge of the world's greatest sports event.



And what will Qatar give to football, apart from oodles of money to Fifa? They will show football how you air-condition whole stadiums and play in conditions which otherwise would be the closest thing on earth to the red planet and also point out to homosexuals that they are in imminent danger of prosecution.



The weird inappropriateness of Qatar as World Cup hosts is only underlined by the humiliation of Australia. When Frank Lowy, an 80-year-old Hungarian-born business tycoon who has poured millions into the establishment of Australia's professional A-league, which is fighting for life against the much more popular and established major sports of Aussie "footy", rugby league, rugby union and the national game of cricket, heard that his effort had yielded just one vote, he was not so much angry as bemused.



He looked rather like the victim of a car crash. He just never saw the red lights in the eyes of Blatter, never grasped that with the United States, South Korea and Japan, Australia was just part of the background, the furniture of the illusion that it all hadn't been carved up long ago on behalf of the place in the desert where football lacked even a semblance of cultural underpinning.



"We came to Zurich with optimism because we thought we had a good bid and that we were representing a great sports country and were sure that there would be a wonderful response back home if we were successful," said Lowy. "We didn't want to get involved in controversy or politics. We just wanted to say what we had to offer."



Around the Adelaide Oval the reaction was low-key. "Well, I'm sure we would have given it a good go, mate," said a big amiable man nursing his first cold one, "but it's not the end of the world, for sure. We'll get along without the World Cup, no worries. I'm a bit more concerned by the fact we've just lost three wickets, including Ponting's, for two runs."



Australian sport is not, of course, composed entirely of innocents. The fans have seen the worrying effects of a changing, money-driven culture, and are noting that their Ashes team have rarely looked so vulnerable as in the last week or so of battling the holders England in Brisbane and now here.



They have noted the dramatically rising incomes of the cricket stars and, in particular, the shocking denouement of the team's fastest and most successful bowler, Mitchell Johnson.



Johnson left here this week with the need to remake both his image and his talent. He is reckoned to be on a minimum of £2m a year – huge money for a man who could do no better in the first Test than make a duck, take no wickets for 170 runs and drop a vital catch. Johnson has been the most important sports story in Australia this week, far more charged than the defeat by Fifa and Qatar.



For the outsider the business is so offensive because of the belief that anyone could spend just a little time here and produce a raft of reasons for supporting the Australian bid, not just against the absurd and disturbing Qatar success but most any other contender.



The most compelling argument is the sheer fibre of Australian sports, their range and character. It was easy to say that Australia were so good at sport because they could spend so much of their time outdoors but the reality was that much work, and expense, went into the creation of a stream of heroes. The Shane Warnes and the Glenn McGraths didn't just come storming out of the bush. They were moulded by fine coaches and superb facilities.



Thirty years ago it was dazzling to visit the nation's centre for sports excellence in Canberra. There were youngsters from every corner of the vast but lightly populated country, swimmers and runners and tennis players, and if they were pushed hard they were given their options – and an atmosphere guaranteed to produce that "combativeness" which makes champions but which Blatter applied to the altogether different business of shaking down a successful World Cup bid.



Qatar won and Australia lost and when it happened all those images came flashing back. You thought of great winners like Dawn Fraser and Lew Hoad and Rod Laver, the Waugh and the Chappell brothers and Warne and McGrath and Ponting and you saw the racing of the America's Cup off Fremantle and how brilliantly the young sons of immigrants responded to the coaching of Guus Hiddink that carried them to the World Cup in Germany, and a hard-fought game with the eventual champions, Italy. You saw that the Socceroos were back fighting at the highest level in the last World Cup. You saw all over again the force and the ambition of a proud and feisty and still ambitious sports nation.



Then you looked at the score again, Qatar 14 Australia 1, and you considered what sport had come to under the guidance of a man like Sepp Blatter. He said what happened in Zurich on Thursday was about combative striving in the highest traditions of football. It wasn't that, it wasn't anything like it, and the nerve he had in saying it was quite stunning.



It was taking the money and ignoring the kind of impetus in sport which Australia has so long brilliantly represented. Qatar!

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