London now able to lure the greatest events

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International sports fans had better get used to London – the 2010s may be Britain’s decade.

The UK capital has already won the right to stage the 2012 Olympics, to widespread astonishment. The 2018 World Cup may follow.

You might think England’s chances of hosting football’s quadrennial showpiece any time soon were slim. For the last two hosting competitions, covering the World Cups of 2010 and 2014, Fifa, world football’s governing body, has applied the principle that the tournament should rotate between the continents. With Germany having staged the competition just a year ago, this would make it tough to argue that 2018 should again be Europe’s turn. South Africa will host the 2010 World Cup, with Brazil set to step in for 2014.

Beyond 2014, though, the rules determining who may and may not bid have been left open. As one Fifa official told me this week: “The exact application beyond 2014 has yet to be discussed and decided.”

I understand that the matter may be settled at a meeting of Fifa’s ruling executive committee in Zurich in October where, I am told, a senior Fifa figure may propose that any country be allowed to bid for a World Cup, except those in the last two continents to stage the competition.

This would not make England a shoe-in: sports-mad Australia and China are among a string of possible rivals. However, it would establish the legitimacy of an English bid. What is more, with France, Germany and Spain having hosted World Cups more recently, with Italian football in a mess and with eastern Europe having secured both the 2012 European football championship and the 2014 winter Olympic Games, England would for once be the obvious European choice.

There seems a good chance that such a proposal – which would restrict Europe to at most one World Cup every 12 years, rather than every 24 years under a strict rotation policy – would be accepted. Now that Australia has moved from the Oceania confederation to the Asian one, pursuing strict rotation indefinitely does not appear a viable option – unless Fifa is willing to countenance the prospect of a World Cup in, say, Vanuatu.

The notion of a return to football’s prosperous European heartland in 2018 would probably appeal to Fifa’s money men. Indeed, staid old England may look especially attractive after two World Cups in developing countries that are likely to prove challenging in different ways both to Fifa and some if its corporate backers.

Even if England lost out in this World Cup vote, expected in 2011 or 2012, lots of other international sporting events are set to come here. Sporting infrastructure, especially in and around the capital, is poised for a monumental leap forward, thanks mainly to the Olympics. This will both encourage more UK bids for prestigious events and improve their chances of success.

You can stake your house, for example, that it won’t be too long into the next decade before the European Cup final returns to Wembley. The world swimming championships may take a little longer but the state-of-the-art Olympic pool complex soon to take shape in east London should act as a potent lure. The world gymnastics championships are to be held in the city in 2009.

Nor is the recent trend for countries from all over the globe to play international football matches in London showing any sign of running out of steam. Since the phenomenon was spawned in part by the number of top foreign players now employed in England, it is unlikely to do so while the fabulously wealthy Premier League remains such a magnet for international talent.

British sports administrators are making headway too. Next month in Osaka, Lord Sebastian Coe will be one of eight candidates – along with Ukraine’s Sergei Bubka, the former pole-vaulter, and Cuba’s Alberto Juantorena, the 1976 Olympic 400m and 800m champion – for four vice-presidencies at the athletics governing body. Some still believe that the charismatic chairman of the London 2012 organising committee could eventually become head of the most powerful sporting body of all – the International Olympic Committee.

David Morgan is set to take over as president of the International Cricket Council, while Bill Beaumont has been made vice-chairman of the International Rugby Board and Geoff Thompson a vice-president of Fifa. Meanwhile, the British government’s recent sustained focus on corporate governance in sport has helped to ensure that the calibre of those in charge of domestic bodies has been improving.

The timing of this British resurgence in the engine-room of international sports is no accident: as became plain during the London Olympic bid, Britain has finally outgrown the aloofness that all too often characterised the country’s reaction to the internationalisation through the last century of sports originating in the UK.

Of course, there is no guarantee that hosting will equate to winning, as it did when the World Cup last came to England in 1966. But that’s another story.


davidowen58@netscape.net

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