Spanish FA president Angel Maria Villar with his Portuguese counterpart Gilberto Madail (Getty)

(WFI) INSIDER understands that despite the low profile of the Iberian World Cup bid, co-leader and FIFA vice president Angel Maria Villar Llona has been a significant presence on the campaign trail since Spain won the World Cup in July.

Sources in Madrid with access to the Spanish FA have told INSIDER that the Iberian bid strategy rests “almost solely” on the diplomatic work of Villar and his co-chairman, Gilberto Madail, and that the success of this tactic was heavily dependent upon Spain’s victory in South Africa.

After Spain’s World Cup win, Spanish football has never enjoyed such high prestige, and Villar, who has been in charge of the Spanish FA since 1986 and instituted a number of reforms to the country’s youth development structure, has been trumpeting the country’s success.

But is such behind-the-scenes work enough to win a major sporting event, or is a more well-rounded approach required?

For the past 16 months, INSIDER has covered every twist and turn of the World Cup bid race, but Spain-Portugal, who can still provide a strong challenge to England, Russia and Holland-Belgium for 2018 (despite faring badly in our bid index), have not garnered many column inches in INSIDER’s coverage.

None of this has been intentional and INSIDER’s experience is shared by other publications. Of all of the nine remaining bid candidates, the Iberian bid has had by far the lowest profile, with even those high up the ladder in Iberian football oblivious to the bid’s machinations.

At a football industry conference this time last year, a senior official at the Spanish football league pleaded ignorance to INSIDER when I asked him about the bid. Journalists from the country’s football papers have continually admitted similar befuddlement when questioned about it.

Spain’s sports newspapers – which have a reputation for making a minor story into a major one, often in excruciating and tedious detail – have shown extraordinary ambivalence to the bid process.

During last month’s FIFA inspection visit, they stopped reporting the minute that Harold Mayne-Nicholls and his team crossed over into Portugal. The wrap up (staged on Portuguese soil) received very little coverage in the Spanish press.

This is in keeping with the Iberian bid’s non-existent PR campaign. “They sometimes get players to pose in bid branded t-shirts, but that’s about it,” says one well-placed observer of the domestic campaign.

Internationally, INSIDER suspects that suspicion of the English-speaking media is high. At last December’s FIFA bid expo in Cape Town, the Iberian bid’s representative gave INSIDER a press contact with the sort of good grace one would expect if he was handing out his daughter’s phone number to a potential suitor.

Since then Spain-Portugal have hardly been proactive in making their case. The bid website didn’t even go live until six months ago, and while the appointment of an international PR agency in August – Fast Track – hinted at some change, the lines of communication have again gone silent.

Iberia’s case for 2018
So what is going on with the Iberian bid? Only the bare bones have been revealed publicly.

There are 21 prospective stadiums, but just three are Portuguese – this despite Portugal putting up 40 per cent of the bid budget. How stadiums, such as Vigo’s 31,800 capacity Nuevo Balaidos, will be brought up to scratch is unclear. Spain is suffering some of the worst effects of Europe’s economic crisis, but much of its stadium infrastructure is municipal; who will fund this?

No legacy case has been made by the bid at all. INSIDER knows nothing about their commercial strategy, marketing and broadcast plans, or the economic case for a Spain-Portugal World Cup.

It is not just the press and public who have not been briefed. At confederations meetings – where bid committees often present – such details have been conspicuous by their absence. Following the CONCACAF congress in Johannesburg in June, one delegate described all the bid presentations and got to Spain-Portugal before pausing. “Well, there was lots of paella, but not much football” he admitted.

Rumours of disharmony between the two countries have abounded, while it is not entirely clear why there is a joint bid at all.

One suggestion, pointing to the apparent tokenism of the Portuguese side, is that Portugal is only included so that FIFA can claim “new territory” if the World Cup is awarded there. Another is that it is Portugal’s Gilberto Madail who is the driving force behind the bid. INSIDER understands that the truth probably lies somewhere in between: that there is strong football unity, but misgivings at government level.

Hard to dismiss
Because of the way that FIFA decides who will be awarded the World Cup, it remains impossible to dismiss the Iberian bid. A successful bid needs 13 Ex-co votes to succeed; no matter how badly this bid publicly fares, it has at least four in the bag – those of it bid co-leader Angel Maria Villar-Llona, plus the three CONMEBOL votes.

On its own merits this is significant, but it is also a huge bargaining chip with the 2022 candidates and INSIDER understands that Villar has been highly active on the campaign trail.

Goodwill and influence will also be spread by a series of prestige friendlies planned between world champions Spain and politically significant opponents. Last month, Spain played a match in Argentina (FIFA Ex-co member Julio Grondona’s home turf) and there is a deal to play in Qatar (AFC chief Mohammed Bin Hammam is Qatari) some time next year. Other matches are to be lined up.

Both the Spanish and Portuguese bid leaders are well liked in FIFA, which cannot be said for all of its rivals. Villar, in particular, seems a likable and charismatic individual.

Villar has hit the campaign trail hard since Spain’s World Cup win (Getty)

A couple of sources say that the general aura at the Spanish FA headquarters belies the hard-nosed image of modern football, with deals being done over long lunches and a “mañana” attitude to administration (which may explain some of the bid’s apparent shortcomings).

Such attitudes may be at odds with the professionals who actually run FIFA, but crucially it won’t work against Spain-Portugal’s relationship with other Ex-co members.

After all, these men put a premium on the congeniality and friendships that define their old boys network; longevity plays a role too – Villar has been on the FIFA Executive Committee since 1998 – engendering trust and building relationships.

The most instructive thing gleaned from the bid book handover in Zurich in May was the body language of Sepp Blatter, whose mood seemed to lift the minute Villar entered the room. While ambivalence towards some visitors seemed clear, Villar was all smiles with the FIFA president and his secretary general, Jerome Valcke. Such a good relationship will surely have a bearing on FIFA’s D-day in nine weeks time.

New order challenges old boys network

One thing the 2018/2022 bid race has unveiled on the global stage is an outstanding generation of emergent football leaders, such as England’s Andy Anson, the USA’s David Downs, Hassan al-Thawadi of Qatar, and Bonita Mersiades, previously of the Australia bid.

These individuals at once grasp the need to combine a bold bid vision with commercial imperatives, building relations with FIFA and engaging with the broader football-supporting public. In doing so, they challenge the idea that major sports events can be carved up by old men in backrooms and corridors.

Such leadership is in tune with what fans and sponsors want from a prospective World Cup host nation, but is it what the 24-man FIFA executive want? Or will friendships and vested interests win the day?

Iberian bid officials with FIFA president Sepp Blatter at the bid book handover in May (Getty)

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Given its strong football heritage and fiesta culture, INSIDER has no doubt of Spain and Portugal’s ability to throw a superb football party in eight years time.

But the modern World Cup has become more than just a four-week tournament and demands prospective candidates provide detailed visions for domestic and international legacy, commercial partners, broadcasters and all manner of other stakeholders. In short there is a need to engage with a huge range of people in order to show broad support for a candidacy, from the top of the FIFA tree to the fans who may only watch the tournament on TV.

At the moment the Iberian bid has done none of this. There may well be a different, more detailed message going out to the FIFA executive, but if it is, it’s not one we’ve heard about.

For FIFA to award the Iberian bid the 2018 finals on this basis would be rather like a teacher giving a pupil who hasn’t done his homework an A grade because he has relations on the school board. Such a scenario may have been acceptable in past generations, but the world of modern football demands and expects much more.

WEEK IN REVIEW


Good week for: The USA, who revealed exclusively to INSIDER their bold international legacy plans, and rose up to third in the INSIDER World Cup Bid Power Index (published on Sept. 29).

Bad week for: Japan, still rock bottom of the INSIDER World Cup Bid Power Index despite upping their global PR drive.

Lobbying trail:
England, Holland-Belgium, South Korea, Japan and the USA were all represented at last Saturday’s Women’s U-17 World Cup final in Trinidad, where several FIFA Ex-co members were present. David Beckham captured global headlines, appearing with his son Brooklyn at the opening of a football school, but perhaps the US bid’s sponsorship of the CONCACAF congress counted most with those who mattered. Or were they merely preaching to the converted?

Russia’s bid team went on a tour of South America, with bid committee member Viacheslav Koloskov arriving in Asuncion to meet CONMEBOL president Nicolas Leoz, fifteen years after first being invited. Leoz gave him the Honorary Order of South American Football, an accolade he also bestowed upon Korea’s Chung Mung-joon in August.

Talking points:
-England remained top of the INSIDER bid power index, with Russia in second and the USA in third both recording the biggest gains. Loudest complaints came from Australia fans, who alternately claimed a bias against their bid – which is placed seventh – or that INSIDER was too generous to their country’s troubled bid leaders in our analysis.

– England bid international president David Dein says England will “almost certainly” withdraw from the running for 2022 if the USA pulls out of 2018 – remarks whose significance was overplayed by journalists with no understanding of the bid race. If USA pull out of 2018, all European candidates are out of 2022; FIFA rules prevent confederations getting successive World Cups.

– Russia bid co-chairman Vitaly Mutko said that he hoped Brazilian FIFA Ex-co member Ricardo Teixiera would reciprocate Russia’s backing for the 2016 Olympics. Expect plenty more favours to be called in between now and December.

– As North and South Korean military leaders held talks for the first time in two years – making the South’s “passion that unites” 2022 bid slogan seem a touch more realistic – Korean football leader Chung Mong-joon made a rare public statement on the country’s bid. FIFA’s “most important” consideration was legacy, said Chung “and Korea certainly isn’t off the pace in this respect. If World Cup is held in Korea, it will support world football development and promote peace, prosperity in East Asia. It could be a splendid legacy”.

Next week: The Leaders in Football conference in London brings bid leaders from eight of the nine candidates together. Australian bid leaders, who will not be present, will host CONMEBOL president Nicolas Leoz in Sydney, where Paraguay are playing an international friendly.

By INSIDER’s European correspondent James Corbett

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