Making political capital from sport comes naturally to boastful Boris Johnson | Richard Williams

It’s time, Boris Johnson assured us in the days leading up to the general election, for football to come home. The prime minister’s pledge to put the government machine at the heart of a UK and Ireland bid to host the 2030 Fifa World Cup was further embellished by a promise to spend £550m on creating 2,000 new synthetic pitches and renovating 20,000 existing grass ones.

The instinctive response was to file this along with all the other campaign promises – 50,000 more nurses, 20,000 more police officers – received with such scepticism by his opponents. After almost a decade of savage cuts to public services, why should anyone believe in the generosity of a Conservative politician? After all it was Johnson’s current henchman, Michael Gove, who did so much damage by killing off 450 school sports partnerships to save £162m, while attempting to provide compensation in the form of a risible “Schools Olympics” with a budget of £10m.

On the other hand, we know Johnson has some sort of liking for sport. Who can forget the sight of him, rugby ball tucked under his arm, flattening a 10-year-old boy during what was supposed to be a game of touch rugby during a trip to Japan? We know, too, that he played a game of tennis with David Cameron against a Russian pair in return for a £160,000 donation to their party from the wife of Vladimir Putin’s former finance minister.

We also know he is happy to take credit for the achievements of others. “Above all,” he said of the prospective World Cup bid, “I want it to unite us in celebration like the 2012 Olympics did when I was London’s mayor.” Let’s remind ourselves of who was London’s mayor when the Games were secured for London in 2005, at the end of the bidding process. Ah, yes – Ken Livingstone, who supported the bid from its inception and ensured a corner of London’s East End would be redeveloped as a result.

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But by the time the Games came round Johnson was serving his first term as mayor. So it was he who represented London during a handover ceremony in Beijing at the end of the 2008 Games, when he told the Chinese host: “Ping‑pong was invented on the dining tables of England in the 19th century, and it was called whiff-whaff. And there you have the essential difference between us and the rest of the world. The French looked at a dining table and saw the opportunity to have dinner. We looked at a dining table and saw an opportunity to play whiff-whaff. And that is why London is the sporting capital of the world.” Standing beside him, Sebastian Coe and Colin Moynihan laughed so hard at this example of their fellow Tory’s wit that they practically needed hernia surgery on the spot.

As usual, Johnson had stretched the facts to suit his needs. The game was already generally known as ping-pong by the time an equipment manufacturer tried to market a table-tennis set under the invented name whiff-whaff. But why bother with the truth? He had got his headlines.

In May 2012 he was also on the plane to Athens, along with Princess Anne and David Beckham, to witness the ceremonial transfer of the Olympic flame into the hands of the organisers of the London Games before the torch relay around the UK. Reporters travelling with the party relied on him to provide the quotes that spiced up their stories.

Boris Johnson, then London’s mayor, attends the Olympic flame ceremony in Athens alongside David Beckham in 2012.

Boris Johnson, then London’s mayor, attends the Olympic flame ceremony in Athens alongside David Beckham in 2012. Photograph: Orestis Panagiotou/EPA

“I love the smell of legacy in the morning,” he remarked at a press conference, enjoying the chance to mint a soundbite in answer to a question about whether the Greek capital had benefited from hosting the 2004 Games. “We flew into an airport and drove on roads that would not have existed had it not been for the Olympic Games. The quality of the air is considerably sweeter for the installation of mass rapid-transit systems. We are breathing legacy here, if I can put it that way.” The fact that Greece’s £320bn national debt had landed it in deep trouble with the EU was brushed aside.

As for the World Cup “coming home”, remember that the English FA cold-shouldered the first three editions between 1930 and 1938, having boycotted its predecessor, the Olympic football tournament, between 1920 and 1928. And, of course, both the World Cup and the modern Olympic Games were ideas cooked up by the French.

The UK-Ireland bid for the 2030 World Cup was not Johnson’s idea: a feasibility study was launched some time ago. Rival bids for the centenary tournament include joint efforts from Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria; Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia and Romania; and Uruguay, the host and winners of the first tournament, with Argentina, Chile and Paraguay. Two years ago Luis Suárez and Lionel Messi promoted the South American bid during a friendly between their countries.

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England’s last bid for the World Cup ended in tears with Cameron, Prince William and Beckham returning home shame-faced in 2010 after the votes they believed they had been promised failed to materialise and the right to host the 2018 tournament was won by Russia. It remains to be seen whether the fallout from Brexit – if and when it “gets done” – will leave relationships within the British Isles sound enough to allow Johnson to front a bid that also includes Scotland and Ireland.

If it does, and if the bid succeeds, there is the awful prospect of the 2030 World Cup providing a stage for a prime minister entering a third full term of office and perhaps feeling confident of achieving his ultimate objective. A World Cup for a World King? Well, a lot can happen in 10 years.


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