Has Peter Odemwingie won the World Cup for England?
As the date when FIFA’s executive committee finally make a decision on who will host the 2018 World Cup draws closer, England and Russia appear to be the bids most likely to emerge triumphant when the result is announced in Zurich on 2 December.
With rival bids from the United States, Belgium and the Netherlands and Spain and Portugal failing to capture the public imagination, the battle to stage the 2018 tournament has effectively become a two-horse race.
Since a six-man FIFA delegation visited these shores in August and praised amongst other things the infrastructure and stadia as well as the passion of the supporters, England’s bid seems to have recovered some of its poise after the near fatal blow delivered by the Daily Mail’s shameful entrapment of former FA Chairman Lord Triesman back in May.
FIFA President Sepp Blatter even suggested that staging the competition in England would be “the easiest way to organise the World Cup… Everything is there – fans, stadiums, infrastructure – it’s easy.”
But Russia remains a serious adversary, despite the obvious logistical problems of hosting the tournament in such a enormous and diverse country. With enthusiastic backing from the Kremlin, an ever-improving domestic competition and the distinction of having never hosted the tournament before, Russia’s bid certainly has a lot going for it. In the grandstanding way we have all become accustomed to over the years, Blatter is also keen for the tournament to leave a lasting legacy once the eyes of the world are focused elsewhere. Staging the World Cup in Russia would certainly have a more significant cultural impact than in the so-called cradle of football.
Lord Triesman’s allegations about a Spanish-Russian conspiracy to bribe referees in South Africa could also count against England’s bid should the Spanish and Portuguese joint bid drop out of the running.
However, despite appearing to have the momentum in the bidding war of late, Russia’s bid sustained an almighty blow last week, albeit inadvertently, courtesy of an unheralded Nigerian striker. To celebrate the sale of Peter Odemwingie to Premiership newcomers West Brom, Lokomotiv Moscow fans unfurled a banner showing a banana and the message: “Thanks West Brom”. Despite protestations from the head of Russia’s 2018 World Cup bid, Alexei Sorokin, the country’s dark secret was out in the open and splashed all over the English press. Racism is still a huge problem in Russian football, and FIFA has been given a timely reminder of what black players could face should the tournament be staged in Russia.
The fact that Sorokin denied the banner was even racist, despite the obvious connotations of the banana, suggests it is an endemic problem that the Russian bid team will find it difficult to keep a lid on. He shamefully tried to gloss over the issue by bizarrely claiming that “there is nothing racial in it. If there would be another player – from Russia, Denmark, Norway or Japan, for example – the reaction could be the same. In Russia ‘to get a banana’ means ‘to fail a test somewhere’.”
Odemwingie, to his credit, suggested that only a minority of Lokomotiv fans were behind the banner, but he did say that black players were regularly subjected to insults in the Russian league, recalling a chorus of monkey chants against him in a game with fierce rivals CSKA Moscow. Marseille’s black players were also subjected to racist chants in a European tie with Zenit St Petersburg two years ago, resulting in a £38,000 fine for the Russian club from UEFA.
With the issue of racism in Russian football now under the full glare of the media spotlight, it could be the intervention of Peter Odemwingie, not Sepp Blatter, which ultimately brings the World Cup to England in 2018.