By Steven Downes
From the shellshocked look in their faces, you’d have thought this was a retreat from Moscow. Defeated at the hands of Russia in the bidding for the 2018 World Cup just as totally as Napoleon ever was at the gates of the Russian capital, the English FA’s delegation had irony heaped on humiliation at Zurich airport on Friday, as they were asked to wait for their delayed flight in the Panorama Lounge.
“It’s Sepp’s final insult,” one of them said.
This might just be one conspiracy theory too far, because also left hanging around at Zurich airport was the one Englishman who did win something from FIFA this week.
Mike Lee, at least, was able to return to his London office knowing that he had pulled off yet another sports bidding coup. Lee was the PR mastermind who guided Qatar, a country smaller than Wales, whose national football team has never been ranked in the world’s top 100, to the status of 2022 World Cup hosts.
If you wanted to apply Napoleon’s adage about being surrounded by “lucky generals” to the staging of modern day sports event, then Lee would be top of your recruitment list. In the past five years, it seems that there has not been a single major international sports event that Lee has not been involved in.
As media director for Seb Coe’s bid team, Lee took much credit when London won the rights to stage the 2012 Olympics.
In the five years since, Lee has set up his own consultancy firm, Vero Communications, which has had a queue of international federations and bidding cities beating a path to its West End offices.
It was Lee’s firm that ran the campaign to get Rugby 7s into the Olympics. When John Henry flew in to Britain earlier this year to wrest the ownership of Liverpool from George Gillett and Tom Hicks, it was Lee who was constantly at his side.
And it was Lee who formulated the PR strategy that saw Rio de Janeiro win the right to host the 2016 Olympics – beating, don’t forget, the hot favourites Chicago, ignominious first-round losers, just as England were on Thursday, despite for them the prestigious presence at the vote of President Barack Obama. Maybe Prince William ought not to feel too bad.
“The world’s changing,” Lee said on Friday night, finally back in London after one of the most hectic periods in his lifetime.
“The International Olympic Committee showed, by picking China and then Latin America, with Rio, and FIFA has shown by choosing South Africa for the World Cup, and now Russia and Qatar, that it is time for these events to be taken to new places.
“Everyone said that the World Cup in South Africa would be a disaster, that they wouldn’t work. And they were proved wrong.
“Countries in western Europe need to realise that they don’t have a God-given right to stage these events all the time.”
Lee, 52, is from the same generation of Labour spin doctors that gave us Alastair Campbell and Charlie Whelan. Yet while the latter pair has moved into the semi-retirement of memoir-writing and fishing on the Dee, Lee has made himself one of Britain’s few significant figures in international sport.
He began his career as a media adviser to David Blunkett. In 1992, he took the job as spokesman at the newly formed English Premier League, which led to him being headhunted to run media operations for European football governing body, UEFA.
It was his Labour party connections and insight into the running of international sport that made Lee an obvious choice when the London 2012 bid team hired him in 2003.
Given Lee’s ingrained knowledge of football, though, perhaps the England 2018 bid’s biggest media mistake was in not hiring him. Lee says “I had a couple of conversations last year with Andy Anson”, the England 2018 bid chief executive, “but it just didn’t work out”.
Word has it that, in the Machiavellian politics of international football, Lee was seen as too close to too many opponents of Blatter.
In hindsight, had that been a real issue, it might have back-fired on Qatar, too.
Lee’s involvement with an England bid, surely, could not have delivered a worse result than a £15 million, two-year campaign delivering just a single vote from the FIFA executive committee members beyond the FA’s own Geoff Thompson?
There are, though, ever more conspiracy theories as to how Qatar, the only bid to be assessed by FIFA’s own inspectors as “high risk”, still managed to see off the claims of rivals America, Australia, Japan and Korea.
The prospect of $50 billion-worth of de-mountable stadiums that will, after the tournament, be flat-packed off to Africa, is an inducement that did not require any secret filming by the “evil” British media to uncover.
And the role of FIFA ExCo member Mohamed Bin Hammam, the head of Asian football, and his apparently waning ambition to challenge Blatter for the FIFA presidency should not be underestimated.
The West may retain scepticism over the issues raised by awarding the world’s biggest sporting event to Qatar, from its Islamic laws forbidding alcohol to the fierce climate. It is less than a decade since western women, attending an international athletics Grand Prix in Doha, the Qatari capital, had stones thrown at them by some local men.
Lee, emollient as ever, characterises FIFA’s choice for 2022 in the same way that the IOC portrayed its awarding of the 2008 Olympics to Beijing, as being a force for change in a shrinking world.
“No one’s destroyed the World Cup,” he said. “This wasn’t a bid just for the country, this was a regional bid, for the whole of the Middle East.
“By 2022, there will be 700 million people in the region, and most of those will be under 25. You have to bid for things that are right and that you can deliver, and this bid is built on the success of staging the Asian Games,” he said.
“The work is already going on, building a 25-mile-long bridge from Qatar to Bahrain, and there is no doubt that Qatar will deliver on the infrastructure.”
Lee also stresses that successful bids are based on long-term relationship-building. “Every bid needs a rationale, it needs a story-line.
“This was about two years of global campaigning. You don’t win in the final stretch. You have to focus on the voters and what the narrative means to them. This is their crown jewel and you have to show how you will take it forward for them.”
Lee demonstrated his savvy at the inner workings of FIFA when, in the final presentations, he persuaded Sheikh Mohammed, the son of Qatar’s ruling Emir and the bid chairman, to address the audience in a language other than English.
“Not many of the executive committee have English as a first language, so that is an important issue.
“We worked with Qatar on understanding the campaign, offering them advice because not many of them have experience with the world outside the Middle East. What the great campaigns also develop is an international media outlook. You have to have an eye on the global media scene.”
Another impact of Blatter’s decision to roll together the bidding process for two World Cups is that, for a business like Lee’s Vero, there is now a yawning chasm, with no global football event to pitch for business for at least six years.
Not that Lee is overly concerned. “We’ve never been just a bid company,” he says. “That’s how we became involved in the Liverpool takeover, and we operate consultancies across a range of areas.”
Indeed, after delivering the Olympics to Latin America for the first time and the first Middle East World Cup, Lee is now working on getting the Winter Olympics to Korea for the first time in 2018.
And the precedent created by Qatar might even hold out some hope for other “smaller” countries, the likes of Scotland, Wales or Ireland, to stage future major sports events.
Lee says that when he was at UEFA, he considered Scotland’s joint bid with Ireland to stage the European football championship to be the best, and now he sees Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games as an important proving ground.
“Scotland should have ambitions to stage major events,” he said. “The 2014 Games will be important to show what can be delivered.”
At which point, Lee breaks off to go in search of his baggage, which his airline had mislaid.
It is, in the past five years, the only thing that Mike Lee has lost.
This is an edited version of an article originally published in the Sunday Herald