(WFI) David Triesman’s untimely demise – and possibly that of the country’s World Cup bid – was a peculiarly English affair.
Barely 24 hours after the England 2018 bid book handover to FIFA in Zurich on Friday, which represented another global media triumph, the bid team was once more dragged through the mud by its malevolent domestic media.
In the Mail on Sunday newspaper, Football Association and World Cup bid chairman David Triesman stood accused of slurring Russia’s attempts to host the World Cup, alleging that it will cut a deal to guarantee Spain’s withdrawal from the contest in return for helping Spain “fix” this summer’s World Cup in South Africa.
Triesman made his comments to a female “friend” – described in the purposely ambiguous language of Britain’s gutter press as having had “an intimate relationship” with the FA chairman – which were taped without his knowledge.
This perverse form of journalism sadly has a long and ignoble tradition in England and set in motion a feeding frenzy among journalists on rival papers, many literally demanding Triesman’s head on a plate.
It scarcely mattered that many of these same commentators spent much of last week reflecting on the outstanding job of the bid team – not least after Friday’s Beckham-led bid book handover in Zurich. The sands had permanently shifted: all that was good was now bad. The slighted Russian and Spanish federations had no need to condemn Triesman and his wild conspiracy theories. The British press could do it for them.
Triesman’s decision to fall on his own sword was a typically selfless act from a good and honest man, who was rare among football administrators in genuinely having the best interests of the game at heart. Among England’s bid team yesterday there was a mixture of anger – that six months of good work had been undone by a piece of malicious journalism – and determination that its efforts would not go to waste.
Yet whether this sense of defiance will be enough to save the bid from its most persistent and dangerous enemy – its own people – remains to be seen.
Sunday’s newspaper sting operation was the culmination of a years-long vendetta many British papers have had against the former FA chairman.
Triesman first came to prominence as a student radical in the 1960s and was for some years a member of the Communist Party. He made his career as a university lecturer and trade unionist, eventually rising to become general secretary of the Labour Party in 2001. He also briefly served as a minister under Tony Blair.
His journey from Communism to New Labour drew withering criticism from the British left, while simultaneously drawing opprobrium from the right – his communist youth making him an easy target.
In January 2008, Triesman became the first independent chairman of the Football Association. A lifelong Tottenham fan, his boyish enthusiasm for the club is one of his most endearing characteristics.
Triesman came in with a reforming agenda and attacked the debt culture which had started to plague the game.
But the laddish and virulent English football media were slow to take to him. Always suspicious of an “outsider”, unlike many of his predecessors Triesman hadn’t served a lengthy apprenticeship in football’s committee rooms. He was also regularly briefed against by his enemies in the game, including rival World Cup bids, which made tantalising copy for a hostile media.
Rather than spit soundbites, Triesman also had a habit of articulating his position as if still on a university lecture podium. Among more cerebral journalists this was perfectly acceptable, but many others bitched that he “talked down” to them. The Times harped that he was “smug and aloof”.
The nadir came last November in a backroom of Doha’s Ritz Carlton prior to England’s friendly with Brazil.
Triesman had just reconstituted the World Cup bid board again; it followed public criticism by FIFA Ex-co member Jack Warner and a series of minor gaffes that had been blown out of proportion.
The English press lampooned him as a ditherer and when he faced them that afternoon he was torn apart; everyone shouting and talking at once, telling him that he was useless and that England were destined to lose the World Cup bid as indeed they lost everything else. A colleague, present with me that afternoon in Qatar, said he was “embarrassed” to be present at this mauling and I could only agree.
But afterwards Triesman had gone around and shaken all of his tormenters by the hand. It was a dignified gesture and more than anyone there deserved. After that afternoon perceptions of both Triesman and the entire bid changed as it gathered rapid momentum.
With David Beckham at the helm, England wowed at the media expo in Cape Town three weeks later.
Soon after, the conclusion of the host city bid process united the country in ways that seemed inconceivable a month earlier. Good news story followed good news story, culminating in last week’s bid book handover by Beckham in Zurich, which generated more global news headlines than the other eight bids combined.
This was all a team effort, but Triesman articulated and embodied the bid’s key messages and core values.
Last Monday, when I asked him if the bid’s main weakness was an unwillingness to get their hands dirty, Triesman replied: “I don’t believe you can ever be too clean… I’ve said from the beginning that we would not try and earn it by means we would be ashamed of. We just wouldn’t do it.”
England’s biggest problem
Triesman’s ghastly treatment is in stark contrast to virtually all other World Cup bid leaders.
No hard questions have been asked by Spain’s servile media about the country’s non-existent public campaign for the 2018 finals, or its uneasy partnership with Portugal. Serious allegations of misconduct have been made about other bids, but few media outlets have been courageous enough to put them to the test.
The real scandal of this whole affair is not Triesman’s unguarded comments, but a media culture – ultimately supported by the British people – that takes delight in seeing a cloud to every silver lining.
The Mail on Sunday, which has so damaged the bid with its assault from its front pages, frothed itself into a rage in its back pages. Triesman had apparently “foolishly humiliated” the entire “sporting nation”. But had he really, or was that just the work of the very same newspaper?
Hundreds of people used the comments section of the Mail’s online edition to vent their anger at the blatant attempt to undermine England’s bid. But people will continue to buy the paper, and the Mail and its fellow tabloids will continue to pull these sort of stunts against easy targets.
This might be the most damaging aspect of the whole affair.
Will FIFA really want nearly eight years of forensic and hysterical attention from the British press if it awards the 2018 tournament to England?
Indeed, in terms of the World Cup bid race the Triesman affair begs a fundamental question not of the former FA chairman, but the English people as a whole.
Do they really deserve the greatest show on earth when they are prepared to see football’s name dragged through the mud like this?
Once the damaged egos of FIFA Ex-co members have been repaired this is the question that they must answer. The 24 members of the FIFA executive decide the hosts of the 2018 and 2022 World Cup on Dec. 2.
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