The politics of a UK and Ireland World Cup

4 Oct 2018

“It’s coming home.”


This now iconic phrase was coined the last time England hosted an international football tournament with the 1996 European Championships. This year it was the catchphrase of the summer once again, as people celebrated England’s unexpected march to the World Cup semi-finals. The 2020 European Championships will also offer something of a homecoming, as Wembley hosts both the semi-finals and final. England, however, is still waiting to host a World Cup again, having not done so since 1966. In 2030, the long wait could end, with the FA reportedly preparing a joint bid with the football associations of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Ireland. Discussions have been given a boost with Theresa May’s declaration that “they can count on the government’s full support.”


Contentiously overlooked when bidding to host this year’s tournament, England hopes that a joint bid for 2030 will be more successful. FIFA’s decision to expand the tournament from 32 to 48 teams means joint hosting is likely to become the norm. Until now, the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan is the only instance of the tournament being held in more than one country. However, this is set to change: the U.S.A, Mexico and Canada have been awarded the 2026 tournament, while the UK and Ireland’s rival for 2030 is likely to be an alliance of Uruguay, Paraguay and Argentina. With sixteen more teams to cater for, it is highly unlikely that one country alone would be able to shoulder the burden. While the temptation to celebrate the tournament’s centenary year by going back to where it all began in Uruguay may prove too strong to resist, the UK and Ireland will hope that it’s Europe’s turn.


With the government now throwing their weight behind the idea, it’s worth considering how the bid could be influenced by Britain’s political climate. The biggest unknown at the moment is what will happen to the United Kingdom as a result of Brexit. The UK as a union has been under strain since the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. A bad outcome from Brexit will only lead to an increase in calls for a second Scottish referendum. After all, Scotland did not vote to leave the EU and if the consequences of their forced departure are as bad as predicted, Scotland will inevitably be resistant to capitulate. The UK and Ireland bid could even become the UK, Ireland and Scotland.


Then, there’s the Irish question. The border between Northern Ireland and the Republic in the south has been the biggest stumbling block in negotiations with the EU. The establishment of a hard border could spell the end of the peace process. While you would therefore expect the UK to avoid such an outcome at all costs, even if it means remaining a part of the single market and/or customs union, it seems that particular politicians are willing to take the risk in exchange for a sufficiently ‘pure’ break from Europe. A reigniting of hostilities in Ireland would not only put the whole of the UK’s security at risk, it would open up another battleground for the future of the union, as calls for a united Ireland resurface.


The dissolution of the union wouldn’t necessarily mean the end of the bid. After all, every other instance of joint hosting is between separate states. Furthermore, the success of the North American bid shows that the countries don’t even need to be on particularly good terms, with Trump straining relations between the U.S.A, Mexico and Canada. In fact, the UK’s four-in-one nature could be a strong selling point. But any political upheaval could make the prospect seem increasingly unfeasible and unattractive.


Having explored the doomsday scenario, it is only fair to consider the potential positives. Whatever the country’s state in 2030, the government will be hoping that it can have a similar impact to the 2012 Olympics. A lot has been said about the Olympic legacy and how the event helped to rejuvenate parts of London. A UK-wide World Cup would be a great opportunity to spread that sort of development across the country. With all the great footballing venues in the Midlands and the North, everyone could feel the economic boost that hosting a sporting tournament can provide.


London 2012 also served to improve morale. As seen this summer, national sporting success has the ability to unify the country, in a way that politics rarely does. The opening ceremony of the Olympics is looked back upon in some quarters as an example of a Britain they were once proud to live in.


The Olympics in 2012 also exposed the interesting ways in which we decide how and when to compete as a United Kingdom rather than four disparate nations. Sport has always been an avenue through which people express their identity and feel a sense of unification. This is particularly fascinating in Britain’s case. When Andy Murray wins Wimbledon, he’s British. When he loses, he’s Scottish. Meanwhile, many individual sportsmen and women find themselves torn between nations, forced to declare their allegiances for one or the other. Just look at the current debate surrounding West Ham’s Declan Rice. Clashes between the home nations have always had an added degree of passion, influenced to an extent by the political hostilities of the time.


Whatever condition the union is in, a World Cup could bring the home nations together in a way that its politics currently isn’t. The hope will be that the occasion is one motivated by healthy competition rather than outright rivalry. In 2030 football could come home; but the government will have to hope that it’s not a broken one.


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