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Nov 24, 2010

World Cup going Dutch?

I have a pitch for you. A global TV show called Do you wanna host the World Cup?, in which candidate countries present themselves and their bids. The millions, maybe billions, of viewers all over the world can vote them off, one by one, by internet or SMS. I could make a fortune from the show, generate sensational hype for weeks and in the process add some much-needed transparency to the procedure. FIFA have definitely missed a trick.

The current system is an invitation for rigging, wheeler-dealing, manipulation, conspiracies and, allegedly, bribes. That is the likely result when there is a multi-billion project up for grabs - it is a natural instinct. It is definitely not fair, but it is the way we are, some more than others, and if you are looking for a large collection of these more unscrupulous people, then you don't have look any further than the football world and its hugely competitive, money-ruled, easily accessible and no-questions-asked society.

There are people who are deeply concerned about corruption in and around FIFA, but in my opinion it could have been much, much worse. Having seen the kind of the folks that try to grab a share of the billions of dollars floating around in our beloved sport, I am surprised any standard of ethics can be reached at all. We should not therefore fool ourselves that the bids for the World Cups in 2018 and 2022 can ever be fair or ethical. Think again. Let's hope these contenders just don't go too far. Enjoy your sausage, but never look inside.

Over the last year, snippets of accusations about the bidding countries have surfaced in the newspapers and don't need to be repeated here. The Netherlands/Belgium (N/B) bid has, for the moment, managed to stay clear of any mud raking. Maybe it is considered an also-ran by the others and is overlooked in the smear campaigns, but this cleanness has now become a selling point. Over the last month, director Harry Been has, almost triumphantly, tried to spin the campaign into being the No. 1 in terms of morality.

Of all the participants, Netherlands as a nation can claim a superior seventh place in Transparency International's annual Corruption Perception Index, with most European rivals placed between 20 and 32, including partner Belgium, and Russia as a distant number 154. This gives the Russians an edge, however, when it comes to organising the World Cup. Don't expect them to deliberate whether the needed infrastructure really is environmentally friendly or if the eight-hour day for the construction labourers is being safeguarded. Whatever happens, Russia can guarantee that work will be finished way before the World Cup starts. Money is not a problem either, which is very unlike the situation in the Netherlands.

Furthermore, FIFA's evaluation report states: "If Holland & Belgium are awarded the hosting rights, FIFA's legal risk appears to be medium. Whilst the requirements for contractual documents have been largely met, the necessary government support has not been secured as neither the government guarantees nor the government declaration have been provided in compliance with FIFA's requirements for government documents." All the European rivals have a low legal risk.

Doubts especially exist over the VAT exemption that FIFA demands. The N/B bid had fixed a solution to fool the watchful European Union watchdogs, but in both parliaments members have voiced their disapproval. In fact, the Russians have an advantage as they don't have to comply to any EU rules.

A second setback was a report about the economic effects of the World Cup in the Netherlands. An independent research bureau produced estimates ranging between a worst-case loss of €1 billion to a best-case profit of €400 million. This profound investigation was cast aside by the second opinion of the N/B bid, who let some 'football experts' pump up the numbers to expect a whopping €1 billion profit. That went nicely with another magic figure, an extra tax income of €1.2 billion for Germany thanks to the World Cup in 2006, which was trumpeted through the Dutch media.

The source of the teutonic windfall has remained a mystery as such a figure is all but impossible to account for. None of the official German reports made mention of this number. It may have had something to do with the government investing several billion in new stadia. 'A cigar from your own box' is what we say in the Netherlands.

Doubts have also arisen over the renovation of the Dutch venues. Local and national governments signed a letter of intent to accomodate grounds in Enschede, Heerenveen, Amsterdam and Rotterdam that matched World Cup standards with at least a 45,000 capacity. Later, a dispute emerged over who actually had to pay for this. No one knows.

A great selling point in the N/B bid is to be the 'Greenest World Cup'. With small distances between host cities and the use of sustainable energy the ecological footprint of the tournament will be as low as possible. The expected two million foreign fans will all have a bicycle at their disposal. Come again? Two million free bikes? An neat idea, but not very realistic. Where are these bikes coming from when the industry only produces one million a year at the best of times, and where will they go once the tournament is over?

When it comes to influencing the FIFA Executive Committee the N/B bid has only opened several 'Cruyff Courts' - small playing grounds with artificial turf - in some foreign cities while playing friendly games with former star players on the doorstep of the Executive Committee members. One vote is theirs already as Belgium's Michel d'Hooghe backed the bid from day one. Understandable, but on the other hand even in the Eurovision Song Contest the juries cannot vote on their own act. D'Hooghe endorsed the bid even before one single letter was written in the bid book.

Last week, the new Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte called FIFA president Sepp Blatter to emphasise the enthusiasm of the Dutch government for the bid, as this was doubted in FIFA's evaluation report. Rutte also pointed out the cleanliness of the campaign and continued by ensuring N/B backing if Blatter would ever run for secretary general of the United Nations.

I made up the last bit, but you never know. World Cup bidding is a free for all, which is not restricted to the transfer of money. It is a murky world in which all participants will have dirty hands at some point, but there it is. You can't eat an omelette without breaking eggs.

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