MARTIN SAMUEL COLUMN: A World Cup final must go to Wembley, not the North


These days, everyone and everything is northward bound. The House of Lords could be moving to York, and there are advocates for relocating parliament, too — certainly while upgrades to the Palace of Westminster are made.

Next, the World Cup final. If Britain wins the right to host in 2030, the climax should take place away from Wembley say leaders in Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield.

And this is certainly a good way of securing the World Cup gig — for China.

‘The north of England is arguably the strongest football heartland in the world,’ said Andy Burnham, Mayor of Manchester. ‘To the world footballing community the pull would be immense.’ No, it wouldn’t.

FIFA executives, the ones with votes, have spouses and families. So do sponsors and partners and the executives of federations and those whose money makes the World Cup go round. 

And they really don’t care that every signpost off the M62 is a football club, no more than we appreciate the same is true on the autobahns that run through Germany’s Ruhr. FIFA folk want the bright lights, the big city, the capital.

Don’t we ever learn? The marquee events, the marquee players, don’t care about our wish for a northern powerhouse. They are not remotely bothered by decades of economic injustice, or the admirable desire to rebalance the north-south divide.

They want their big day at Wembley, because that is where the prestige is, built around a glamorous weekend in London. The famous sights, the best hotels, a host bid is nothing more than a sales pitch, and if Britain doesn’t sell itself, a rival will. 

China will not be advancing development in Liaoning province ahead of the appeal of Beijing.

It was the same in Brazil in 2014. Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva, the Brazilian president subsequently imprisoned for corruption, steered his World Cup disproportionately to venues in the north because that was his political stronghold, but even he could not avoid giving FIFA what they wanted by delivering the Maracana Stadium and Rio De Janeiro as a final destination.

Just as all roads led to Moscow in 2018, to Berlin in 2006, to Paris in 1998. The World Cup is an international gathering. Capitals, by definition, absorb international events.

Manchester and Birmingham would still be unsuccessfully bidding for the Olympics now, if this country’s politicians had not taken the hint. Come back with London and you have got a chance, Lord Coe was told. So he did, and London won.

Nobody of influence on the IOC was going to vote for an Olympics in Manchester. This may be ignorance on their part, this may be unjust, but it’s also realpolitik.

Still, the north is getting a lot of attention from all sides now it has ditched Labour for the Conservatives and football has always been a vehicle for populist appeal. 

Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan is backing the idea, we are told, which figures because she is one of those ministers whose rise is in indirect proportion to her intellectual competence.

For, analysed, very little of this has been thought through. Hotel capacity, to begin with. London is the only city in Britain that makes the global top 30 for hotels rooms, and the only city in England inside the top 100. And finals place enormous pressure on accommodation because they are the football family’s big day out.

Federations, organisers, sponsors, partners, media, all have to find board, as well as travelling fans. Somewhere like Newcastle, Leeds or Sunderland simply couldn’t cope with a final. By the time FIFA swipes their allocation, plus the teams and commercial guests, the fans would have nothing left.

Spain and Portugal met at a European Championship semi-final in Donetsk in 2012. It was a brilliant stadium venue but the infrastructure and hotel capacity was hopeless. A few days before the match, berths in tents 40 kilometres outside the centre were being offered at four figure sums. It was a mess.

Then there is image to consider. Take Sheffield. Bramall Lane would have to unnecessarily double in capacity, at least, to host a final — and what would Sheffield United do with it after that? As for Hillsborough — consider it from FIFA’s point of view.

There is Wembley, an iconic location, synonymous with football and glory for the host nation, where Bobby Moore lifted the World Cup, where Manchester United won the European Cup, a venue full of history and wonder. Then there is Hillsborough — grimly synonymous with tragedy, with the saddest day in English football history, and a scandal that still rankles four decades on.

FIFA are so image conscious they want full control of stadia for weeks just to put their branding up — so one imagines there will be reluctance to hold a prestige final in a ground that the world outside Britain knows for one reason.

Hillsborough’s narrative needs altering and that may happen if the Football Association can be weened off playing semi-finals at Wembley. Certainly, it could be a great World Cup venue. But the final? It won’t happen.

The same tragedy discounts another city, too. There is a reason why England will never play at Anfield again, or at Everton, even in their new stadium. Neither ground admits The Sun. And the FA are not about to ban one of Britain’s biggest newspapers, owned by an influential media organisation, from its matches. The same applies to FIFA and UEFA.

Liverpool ban The Sun, but cannot for away games, or tournaments. The newspaper was present at FIFA’s Club World Cup, just as it is at Champions League fixtures played away or in neutral venues. Meaning, the FA will not go to FIFA with a proposal that drags them into a volatile domestic issue.

So not only couldn’t England’s greatest football city host the World Cup final, it might struggle to hold even group games if the FA decides to sidestep controversy, or no compromise can be found.

Contracts with outside agencies for the use of Anfield do not include a clause forbidding entry to The Sun. But if the club is asked for guidance it can only give one answer. The FA and FIFA will not get in the middle of this.

Leaving Manchester. The only city outside London with a current stadium of the size needed for a World Cup final: Old Trafford. 

But it is old, and in drastic need of improvement if it is to be the prime venue in a World Cup bid. And would the Glazers pay for upgrades? They have shown scant appetite for that to here, and the team rebuild appears to be the priority now.

Of course, this is a national project and ground improvements could be met by government. Boris Johnson, however, might be a little too quick on his feet to start funding American billionaires to make Manchester United even bigger. A new wing at Frogmore Cottage would be more popular than that.

‘The government needs to turn their words about the north into proper commitments,’ said Burnham and that much is true. The north should be a huge factor in any World Cup bid. Just not the final. That heads to Wembley and, if it doesn’t, any pitch is surely doomed.

This country no longer needs to dole out Mulberry bags to FIFA freeloaders to make its case, but let us not pretend about the capital. The north needs more than a whistle-stop jamboree, too. A grandstanding platform for local politicians is not an economic strategy.

What will it take for the Football Association to kick their Cup replay habit? Maybe if Gareth Southgate were to lose both Harry Kane and Marcus Rashford for the European Championship this summer.

Kane is already a doubt and now Rashford is a long-term casualty, courtesy of a superfluous third-round replay between Manchester United and Wolves. 

He has a double stress fracture of the back, with estimates predicting an April return. In a television studio here in South Africa, Robin van Persie said a similar injury kept him out for four months and left him with permanent weakness in the area. And Rashford did this in a match that did not need to take place at all. 

Yet still the lunacy continues. If fourth-round replays are needed this season, some will interrupt the mid-winter break. And even if fourth-round replays are abolished next season, those in round three will remain.

These are seen as a vital revenue stream for smaller clubs. Yet how can funding that arrives randomly be integral? Replays are a windfall, they can be factored into future finances as reliably as the purchase of a lottery ticket. 

Anyway, a number of compensatory arrangements can be made to cover, including greater shares of television and matchday revenue in the event of the underdog forcing extra time.

What the FA are actually scared of is reneging on a television contract, and having to give back some of the money. So stagger existing matches and release more of those to the broadcasters instead. 

There are many ways around the problem. Alternately, limp towards another tournament, while pretending failure is a mystery.

Darren England took charge of two Premier League games on Saturday. His first and, we can only hope, his last — for a while at least. VAR came to the rescue after England missed an incredibly obvious penalty in Southampton’s match with Wolves.

Jonny, the Wolves full back, was hit by a double challenge from Southampton pair Cedric Soares and Jack Stephens. Their fouls occurred simultaneously. England’s verdict? Corner. 

And, of course, anyone can make a mistake. Yet if a referee can miss a decision this clear and obvious, if he can ignore twin offences easily spotted in real time, then he requires more experience at a lower level.

Either England was afraid of making a judgement call against the home side — the penalty sent Wolves level after Southampton led 2-0 — or he genuinely thought it wasn’t a foul. 

Whatever the explanation, his promotion is worryingly premature.

Sonny Bill Williams is now on a second rugby code switch. He started off in rugby league, moved to rugby union, and has returned to league again. 

No problem with that. He has also tried his hand at Rugby Sevens in the Olympics and was, briefly, the WBA International Heavyweight champion.

What he has always been, however, is a New Zealander. In rugby league, for the All Blacks, as his country’s Professional Boxing Association heavyweight champion, Williams is a Kiwi. Yet now, reverting to rugby league, apparently he has options.

Despite winning 12 caps in league for New Zealand Williams may play for Samoa at the 2021 World Cup. How can this be? 

The rules regarding nationality in sport are increasingly a joke. And when nationality ceases to be important, international sport is ultimately diminished, too.

As ever, how best to honour Margaret Court is proving problematic for tennis. It is 50 years since the Australian completed a clean sweep of Grand Slam tournaments in one season and normally such a milestone would be marked regally at each major event.

Court, however, is now a fire and brimstone Christian preacher with outspoken views on gay rights. In a sport that prides itself on inclusivity, her unapologetic outbursts are embarrassing.

So don’t indulge them. Court was a 28-year-old tennis player when she swept the board in 1970. Recognise and celebrate that person instead. This is sport. 

The direction she has taken in later life is no more significant than the anti-Semitic essay Das Judenthum in der Musik is to the appreciation of Wagner.

Court holds views many consider abhorrent, but her tennis remains the bar to beat. Celebrate that alone, and there is no controversy.

Leeds United have won a single game since December 10, a crazy 5-4 victory at Birmingham requiring a last-minute own goal. 

Most promotion chasing teams go through a wobble at some stage and this may be no more than that.

If, however, the run proves more consequential, those familiar with the Championship say the team best placed to capitalise are Brentford. 

They face Leeds for a last time at Griffin Park on February 11. There are five points now separating them, but it could be a lot closer by then.

Newcastle’s position in the Premier League’s bottom three for passing, possession, shots on goal and shots conceded continues to confound. 

How are they doing it, critics ask? How are they relatively comfortable, on the same points as Arsenal and Everton?

Here’s one out of left field, but maybe Steve Bruce  is actually a decent manager. 


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