COS columnist Lord of the Foot sees the positives that may have resulted in a full house at Wembley last night.
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Rarely have meaningless friendless actually meant so much. On an evening where storied South American rivals Argentina and Brazil battled in Qatar, Portugal hosted their bid partners Spain, and England welcomed France to Wembley, style points were at stake for the right to host the 2018 World Cup. And although the scoreboards tell a different story, England won this particular round.
The Qatari Federation spent $4 million to feature the South American powers in Doha. With traveling supporters at a minimum, the local, neutral population were given the opportunity to showcase their country and love of football, and they seized it by selling out the stadium. It means more than you would think to FIFA, after empty stadiums in South Africa plagued the image of this summer’s World Cup. Yet such an issue won’t be a problem in Qatar by any stretch of the imagination, and although a capacity stadium impressed last night, it did very little to enhance the chances of the Middle East hosting its first World Cup. More people surely won’t make it any cooler!
In Lisbon, Portugal welcomed World Champion Spain in arguably the match of the day. Both managers fielded their very best XI (not to mention six players each from Barcelona and Real Madrid) in what proved to be an open, clever, and aesthetic game of football. The hosts shredded Spain to pieces on the counter and thoroughly embarrassed them 4-0, in what turned out to be anything but a “friendly.” Two, late, bone-crunching tackles exchanged between Busquets and Ronaldo highlighted the intensity on the pitch. But this match was also staged as a presentation of the Iberian Peninsula’s bid for the World Cup. Patches affixed to the sleeves of the players heralded the joint Spanish-Portuguese bid, as did Luis Figo’s presence in the stands (shocker). Unfortunately, they were the only ones interested.
The teams played in front of a lackluster 20,000 fans at Benfica’s Estadio da Luz, well short of the 66,000 capacity. Empty sections littered the stadium. Whether from lack of faith in the Portuguese squad after recent performances, or a failure by Portuguese football officials to promote and advertise this match thoroughly, or even a combination of both, the bid failed to muster much excitement. Any FIFA representative with a vote would be hard-pressed to find satisfaction in Portugal’s s overall commitment to host the grandest competition on the planet.
Meanwhile a bit farther north, England faced off against their eternal rival France in front of a sold out Wembley. Braving the cold, rainy weather, 90,000 supporters filled the stadium and added a level of passion and competitive atmosphere to showcase Old Blighty. And to be fair, nobody has ever questioned the passion of English football fans. But on a day when their rivals missed an opportunity, the English presence was ever more noticeable. Results aside, and the hosts were thoroughly outclassed by a more organized and creative France, viewers were treated to a fever pitch atmosphere rarely seen at such friendlies.
It was a breathe of fresh air for the bidding process. The past few months have produced some of the most disingenuous and slanderous attacks between bidding nations (in England’s case within their own camp as well). For once, we could ignore the bureaucrats and party wrangling over Lord Triesman and Russian racism and Qatar’s unfathomable summer heat. For once, ball and foot spoke louder than words. The paying public, not the greedy aristocracy, had a chance to plead their country’s case. FIFA saw a disinterested base of support in one half of the Iberian bid, even though the champions were put to the sword. On the other hand, an enamored English public came out to make their voices heard through action and attendance.
France may have dulled their hearts in the short term, but the English public enhanced their country’s bid last night more than they could have imagined.
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