The first thing I woke up to this morning, after the alarm clock anyway, was a BBC headline that read “England 2018 World Cup bid ‘unbeatable’”. Of course, the news would have been even more promising had the quote actually come from a member of the visiting FIFA delegation rather than their host, but there still appears every justification for Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg – the holiday for David Cameron presumably having been timed so as to avoid the risk of more Triesman-esque verbal gaffes – to sound so categorically positive. As the Liberal Democrat leader says, “the excitement and passion behind this bid is huge”, and even FIFA president Sepp Blatter’s daily sound bite was superficially encouraging too. “The easiest way to organise the World Cup is to go to England,” acknowledges good old Sepp. “Everything is there – fans, stadiums, infrastructure.”
The idea that hosting a major sporting event should be a serious political coup doesn’t necessarily work exactly the same way in Japan, where the identity of the prime minister changes about as often as the top of the music charts and, similarly, is only really worth keeping up with if you’re actually involved in the industry or still at school. Ironically, this has apparently now extended to the presidency of the national football association, with FIFA executive committee member Junji Ogura replacing the divisive Motoaki Inukai just days after the departure of the 2022 bid inspectors last month. But everyone is still all smiles in this part of the world too. Japan may lack the traditions of the self-styled home of football but everyone knows it possesses sufficient infrastructure, facilities, and ability to get organised when it really matters to put on a World Cup tomorrow. Not to mention the super advanced technology and environmental initiatives promised in the event that the second Finals hosting rights to be voted on this December are sent this way.
An all-Japanese World Cup in 2022 would have terrific consequences for the Kansai region, a historical footballing heartland until much of the J. League’s early success happened in the east of the country. Rather than extending the Yokohama International Stadium or any of the other venues in the Greater Tokyo Area to the 80,000 capacity now required for the opening ceremony and final, the bidding committee intends to build an ultra-ultra-modern facility – tentatively named the ‘Osaka Ecology Stadium’ – right in the middle of Osaka’s central business district. The overdue relocation of a railway freight terminal built back in 1928 before the area became such prime real estate provides the opportunity, and to boot, this site is just ten minutes’ walk from my apartment and even visible from the balcony. I have already been encouraged to stay put by friends, family, and strangers on Facebook and Twitter; none of whom neglect to ask if I have any plans for my spare room twelve years hence.
And yet, the main guarantee of Japan’s suitability as a host nation remains – as it always has – the overwhelming reason that the executive committee should reject it out of hand. When the JFA launched the professional J. League and announced its bid for the 2002 World Cup in the early 1990s, this fitted in perfectly both with FIFA’s vision of taking its flagship event around the planet and with its mission to support the growth of football in key potential markets. As much, however, as a second tournament could further the already impressive development of Japanese football and provide much-needed economic stimulus – not least to the companies commissioned to develop eco technologies for the Osaka Ecology Stadium and what have you – there are now simply too many other countries and fans around the world who have awaited their turn for longer. Supporters of the calamitous England 2006 campaign were irritated when 1974 hosts Germany got their way again; just eight years on from that Ronaldo brace in Yokohama, it would stick in the throats of a lot more people if FIFA were to single out Japan (or South Korea, for that matter) for the reward of two World Cups in as many decades.
Whatever he may say in public, one has to wonder just how much Ogura believes any different. Still, at least the situation remains entirely win-win for him. Sealing the vote would be a personal success; defeat could be put down to the premature ambition of a predecessor looking to secure his own legacy.