Q&A: Boris Johnson backs 2030 British-Irish World Cup bid - what chance of success?

Tom Morgan
·10-min read
World Cup - GETTY
World Cup - GETTY

A British and Irish bid for World Cup 2030 is more likely than ever after Boris Johnson declared he was "very, very keen" on the possibility of playing host. Talks continue among governing bodies ahead of a potential tilt to win over Fifa, in what could be a major test of Britain's post-Brexit standing on the global stage.

Telegraph Sport explores the bid, its rivals, and how a World Cup might look shared between home nations: the Prime Minister's enthusiastic backing came as the five governing bodies involved welcomed a £2.8million cash injection from Government for their potential campaign.

What did the Prime Minister say, and is a bid now all-but certain?

Theresa May had enthusiastically embraced the prospect of a bid during her premiership, so Mr Johnson's intervention is nothing new. However, the governing bodies were quick to welcome the comments, most notably the Football Association of Ireland, which suggests the game's stakeholders are close to reaching agreement.

The five governing bodies involved welcomed a £2.8million cash injection from Government, as the PM, in an interview with The Sun newspaper, said: “We are very, very keen to bring football home in 2030. I do think it’s the right place. It’s the home of football, it’s the right time. It will be an absolutely wonderful thing for the country.”

A final decision on whether to mount a bid is likely to be announced in the coming months. As Covid restrictions ease, a feasibility study between England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic will gather pace.

How will the bid work, and who are the likely rivals?

The Fifa selection process is set to be launched in the second quarter of next year, with the final announcement scheduled to take place at the 2024 Fifa Congress. Under current rotation rules for global confederations, Qatar's status as 2020 host was previously thought to stand in China staking its claim for 2030.

However, Fifa has suggested that rule could be scrapped, which could in turn pave the way for the Far East nation to emerge as a serious contender. China is already planning new stadia in nine of the 12 cities for the 2023 Asian Cup and Fifa president Gianni Infantino said in 2019 "the more the merrier" when asked about China's candidacy for 2030.

With the state currently facing Winter Olympic boycott threats over its treatment of Uighur Muslims, an attempt to win the World Cup represents an intriguing test of Fifa's credentials after previous scandals.

Another joint bid is expected from South American countries including Uruguay, which wants to mark the centenary of the inaugural tournament there. Spain, Portugal and Morocco could also team up. Only one bid from Uefa countries would be allowed to go forward.

How might a World Cup split between five nations work?

Pre-pandemic, the British and Irish football associations had been in regular talks, reaching broad agreement that any bid should not be too London-centric - with a maximum of three stadia in the capital under consideration.

The FA and its partner associations are expected to agree on a 40,000-seat minimum for the bid. Northern Ireland’s Windsor Park has a capacity of just 18,000, but the other nations have grounds big enough. Fifa has final say on which venues would be used.

UK Sport had said hosting the 2030 World Cup would be the “crowning achievement” in events being scheduled for the home nations over the next 15 years. As well as the World Cup, the government’s elite sport agency would like to attract the starts of all three of cycling’s grand tours by 2025, stage a Ryder Cup in England and bid again for the men’s and women’s Rugby World Cups.

What are the home nations' chances?

There is hope that a multi-nation approach would diffuse any-English feeling, particularly in Europe. Recent bids have not been encouraging. England failed with attempts to host the 2006 and 2018 tournaments.

With the latter, optimism gave way to humiliation when it was revealed England’s bid, which was fronted by David Beckham, Prince William and David Cameron, received just two of 22 votes. Talk of bringing football home is unlikely to win this bid any friends.

Comment: World Cup bid is not doomed to failure but challenges remain

By Sam Wallace

At the end of 2019, the English Football Association, along with its counterparts from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic were given a private presentation asking a simple question: could a British-Irish bid land the World Cup finals?

It was the result of a 12-month study carried out in the knowledge that a Boris Johnson government would wholeheartedly back a bid for the 2030 tournament. The problem was obvious: in its bid for the 2018 tournament, England had been badly burned - eliminated with just two first-round votes from the corrupt Fifa executive committee [ExCo] of 2010. And one of those was from the sole English ExCo representative at the time.

Had Fifa changed in the turmoil of arrests and prosecutions that had ended the reign of president Sepp Blatter? Was the process transparent enough now to justify public money being spent again? Was it in the bag for China anyway, previously anticipated as the host for the tournament, 100 years after the first in Uruguay in 1930?

The feasibility study had been undertaken by then senior Football Association official Rob Sullivan, now the chief executive of the Football Foundation – the organisation through which the Premier League and FA distributes its grassroots funding. Sullivan spent months talking to Fifa figures, counterparts at other football federations and crucially the European governing body, Uefa. Without Uefa’s backing a British bid would be a non-starter.

The answer was that there were many hurdles for a British-Irish bid but the consensus at the end of the meeting was that it was a cautious “Yes” for 2030. As ever with the intensely political Fifa, the landscape has changed since then but the intention in the British government has remained. Johnson announced his backing on Monday for a 2030 bid and an investment in grassroots that would build the legacy before the tournament: £550 million over 10 years with £25 million spent in the next fiscal year.

FIFA president Sepp Blatter (R) poses after receiving the bid books for 2018 and 2022 FIFA World Cups from former England football captain David Beckham  - Getty Images
FIFA president Sepp Blatter (R) poses after receiving the bid books for 2018 and 2022 FIFA World Cups from former England football captain David Beckham - Getty Images

Even so, after the humiliating rejection of the English bid in Zurich in 2010 – is it really likely that Fifa’s 211 nations would give the United Kingdom a majority bid? It was noted the phrase “Football’s coming home”, liberally used by Johnson, was considered so toxic by the 2018 bid team that they banned it from all promotional material and conversations. It was perceived as being arrogant, presumptuous and sending out all the wrong messages about the English game. But that alone was not enough to persuade Fifa.

The fundamental change, the British and Irish FAs were told in 2019 was in the bidding process. No longer is the decision made by the Fifa ExCo, 22 very malleable men as it turned out in 2010. Now each federation has a single vote and that vote is a matter of public record. When the vote for the 2026 World Cup hosts was run on at the Fifa congress in Moscow in 2018 there was a gasp when delegates ran through a dummy vote to test the system. Their votes were broadcast on the big screen, telling the world which side they had backed. Those doing the gasping had clearly promised their backing to both the successful United State-Mexico-Canada joint bid as well as its rival, Morocco.

The new process also places much more emphasis on technical and economic strengths. In 2010, the English bid scored highest in these independent reports which were then ignored by the members of the Fifa ExCo.

But British-Irish success is by no means a fait accompli. For many years it was expected that 2030 would be China’s year. It would require the Fifa president Gianni Infantino to change the rules given that a fellow Asian federation member – Qatar – will host the 2022 World Cup finals. Current regulations dictate that there must be two clear tournaments before a federation can host the World Cup again. But changing the rules to suit a preferred host is not unheard of at Fifa.

As for China itself, the superpower has given out signals recently that it may be prepared to wait. One reason could be the nation’s men’s team's poor showing. They are ranked 75th in the world, which could be a concern for the country’s leaders. They would not wish to be humiliated in front of their own fans.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino holds a press conference at the headquarters of Sudan Football Association - AFP
FIFA President Gianni Infantino holds a press conference at the headquarters of Sudan Football Association - AFP

Another challenge for a British-Irish bid is securing the backing of Uefa which would give it the block of 55 votes that it would need to start building towards a winning majority. Since that 2019 presentation, Spain and Portugal have announced their own intention to launch a joint bid. It is unclear whether that is a political move to ensure they land the 2028 European Championships. Either way it remains a potential problem.

There have been major efforts by the English FA in particular to try to improve its relations and image with fellow Fifa nations. In private it now refers to itself as “the English FA” rather than just “the FA”. After more than 150 years of reminding the world it was the original football association, and required no geographical reference, it has now accepted that is not a way of making friends. Working with its fellow British and Irish FAs gives the bid a collaborative edge which is a boost. Smaller football associations around the world will see the value in that.

Additionally there was much good work done by Greg Clarke, the former FA chairman obliged to resign last year for his mistakes in a parliamentary hearing. Although an often awkward performer in public, Clarke was a different kind of FA chairman to those Uefa had to endure in the past. He built a strong relationship with Aleksander Ceferin, the Slovenian lawyer who rose from obscurity to run the organisation. Insiders feel that Clarke’s departure, and the failure so far to replace him, has to be addressed. Ceferin has said in the past he would welcome a British-Irish bid.

For years, Blatter had suggested that Uruguay, along with neighbour Argentina, might be an appropriate host for 2030, to mark 100 years of the World Cup finals. While that might be the romantics’ view, the view in Fifa is that it would place both countries under intolerable strain to improve stadiums and infrastructure in time.

One curious question, if a British-Irish bid was successful, would be how all five nations could be guaranteed qualification. Wales, for instance, have not reached a World Cup since their sole appearance in 1958. For Northern Ireland it was 1986. For Scotland it was 1998. For the Republic of Ireland it was 2002. Insiders say that the problem was addressed in that 2019 meeting, and there is a potential solution – although it remains a secret, for now.