Sanjoy Sen is a chemical engineer. He contested Alyn and Deeside in the 2019 general election.
With by-election fall-out at home and tragedies unfolding abroad, sport has slipped off the news agenda lately. But its impact can go far beyond the stadium, transforming economies, for better or worse. It can even play a role in bringing nations together – though sadly, not always. Hosting awards may have major political ramifications.
Football’s coming home, at last
Firstly, some good news. With their sole opponent (Turkey) dropping out, the UK and Ireland have been awarded the UEFA Euro 2028 football tournament. Joint hosting is increasingly common for this ever-expanding event, including the COVID-delayed, trans-continental Euro 2020. And this latest collaborative venture should be a strong one.
The Euros will come to one venue each in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic plus a spread of English stadia from London to Newcastle. Compared to previous tournaments, the infrastructure spend ought to be low: eight of ten grounds are already in use, whilst Everton’s new dockside stadium is edging towards completion.
Scotland fans have already expressed disappointment that Glasgow’s ageing Hampden Park will enjoy mere “tweaks and upgrades”. But bigger issues await with the only proposed new-build, Belfast’s Casement Park. Spades aren’t yet in the ground, with funding uncertain and controversy over the re-use of a former Gaelic football site. With no major club in the city as a prospective tenant, a smaller permanent venue (complemented by temporary stands when required) might be a better alternative to the proposed 30,000-seater arena.
It’s off the pitch where the real complications might arise. Back in 1966, Newcastle lost its World Cup hosting rights to neighbouring Middlesbrough after T Dan Smith’s Labour city council and football club clashed. These days, British politics is a whole lot more complex: the current patchwork of devolved parliaments and mayoral authorities might yet throw up a wide range of priorities for hosting. For once, post-Brexit, London-Dublin relations might be the easy bit with a common goal to work towards.
Politicians should also be wary that neither tournament to reach these shores has delivered a ballot box bounce. “Have you noticed how we only win the World Cup under a Labour Government?” hinted Harold Wilson – only to be turfed out by Edward Heath. And Alastair Campbell understood the significance of Gareth Southgate’s Euro 96 Wembley penalty miss in flattening the national mood (in England, anyway) and contributing to John Major’s exit the following year.
Whilst football tournaments keep expanding, things look far less rosy for the Commonwealth Games. Their very future appears in doubt, with traditional host nations seemingly pre-occupied.
Australia have just hosted the FIFA Women’s World Cup and are chasing the 2034 men’s event (more on that later); furthermore, Brisbane has already bagged the 2032 summer Olympics. Meanwhile, Canada is spent up from co-hosting the next World Cup and has dropped its 2030 Winter Olympic bid.
It is perhaps not a surprise therefore that both Victoria (2026) and Alberta (2030) have withdrawn from hosting the Commonwealth Games. Future bids also look unlikely from cash-strapped British cities. Whilst Birmingham successfully hosted last time in 2022, the games are now seen as a factor in the collapse of its Labour-run council.
Critics have long argued the so-called ‘Friendly Games’ are a political anachronism as member states transition into republics. The UK isn’t unique in feeling the pinch lately: France is fast getting edged out across Africa as Chinese and Russian influence spreads. A revamped sports tournament clearly isn’t going to turn the clock back, but a modernised event (perhaps spread across existing British venues) might yet have a future.
Sport-washing the World Cup
Once upon a time, the World Cup was a straightforward affair where 16 teams (later 24) showed up alternately in one of the two hotbeds of football, western Europe or Latin America. Then FIFA started getting creative.
USA94 was a partially successful attempt at launching soccer stateside. Japan-Korea 2002 got historic foes collaborating and both are now quite handy on the pitch. South Africa (2010) and Brazil (2014) were well-intentioned but lumbered developing nations with unwanted stadia and debt. Massive controversy then ensued with Russia (2018) and Qatar (2022) interspersed by an explosive corruption scandal.
By contrast, the 48-team North American extravaganza in 2026 should prove relatively benign. Such is the draw of the beautiful game, the shared bid was carved out whilst Donald Trump was busy clashing with Mexico over his border wall.
But perhaps that’s just the calm before the storm. Whilst I once speculated that future bids might be creative, seemingly no-one was prepared for the tri-continental, six-nation jamboree that has just won out for 2030.
At the heart of the winning bid lies something eminently sensible: a pan-Iberian joint venture. Spain, one of Europe’s footballing giants, is long overdue a tournament since the 1982 World Cup. Portugal is equally football-crazy but small: Euro 2004 saddled it with a herd of white elephants. Adding nearby Morocco looks geographically logical – and politically attractive.
But having missed out on numerous previous tournaments, its recent success couldn’t have come at a harder time. New stadia must be constructed as the nation re-builds following the recent Atlas Mountains earthquake that claimed 3,000 lives.
Conspiracy theorists might be on to something for once. Awarding a slice of the 2030 tournament to Africa plus crumbs to Latin America (one fixture will be played in each of Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay) eliminates those continents from the 2034 bidding.
The Saudis aren’t the first Arab state to invest in western football clubs. But they’re also busily luring big-name players to their shores, and their teams are even rumoured to be joining the lucrative UEFA European Champions League. Whilst some now fear a takeover similar to that already achieved in golf, the Saudis, including Crown Prince Bin Salman, appear comfortable with the criticism: “If sport washing is going to increase my GDP by way of one per cent, then I will continue doing sport washing”.
Fixing the Middle East via football
Recent events in the Middle East have already spilled over into football, with all UEFA matches in Israel postponed. With Wembley’s iconic arch often lit up in response to global events and causes, the Football Association’s decision not to do so for Israel has been met with criticism. And with historic rivalries (Glasgow’s ‘Old Firm’, Spain’s ‘El Clasico’) overlaid with the Israel-Palestine conflict in recent years, clubs such as Celtic now find themselves at odds with some of their own supporters.
Worst of all, two Swedish supporters were murdered by an Islamic State member ahead of a Euro 2024 qualifier in Brussels.
Landing a major tournament is no guarantee of future stability. Sarajevo descended into civil war less than a decade after the 1984 Winter Olympics. And Ukraine’s joint hosting of Euro 2012 feels a long time ago now.
Until recently, FIFA was even encouraging a shared Middle Eastern World Cup bid featuring Israel, the UAE and others. Sport can sometimes make things a little better. But it can’t fix the world’s problems.