Friday, May 28, 2010

Turkish tears as France bags Euro 2016

It always seemed a pipe dream, but it almost came to pass.

That Turkey, a relatively poor muslim nation with humble infrastructure on the fringe of Europe, would pip two established football powers to the hosting of the continent's prestige event always looked a bit of a long shot.

And yet, when it came down to the vote in Geneva yesterday, UEFA's Executive Committee voted for France to host Euro 2016 by only one vote. France was a safe bet, the safest pair of hands of the three final competitors for the big prize. Italy, the other continental giant in contention, was eliminated after the first round of voting, perhaps still reeling from its rejection for 2012 in favour of Poland & Ukraine after Calciopoli and a season of ugly fan violence had exploded in UEFA's face.

On paper, the French bid had little donkey work to do, with the memory of France '98 still vivid and the Eurostars and TGVs still zapping through la campagne at dizzying speeds. Nevertheless, UEFA still found time to nitpick about the hotel provision and the lack of space for media and hospitality around their stadia.

Compared to its 1998 selection, the French Football Federation's choice for 2016 has no place for Brittany and the North-West with Nantes dropped in favour of Nancy and Strasbourg in the East, a region which missed out 12 years ago. On the Mediterranean coast, Nice replaces Montpellier, while in the far north, Lille's future 50,000-seat venue is included, adding another convenient venue for travelers from the United Kingdom.

While the nationality of UEFA President Platini may have had an invisible influence on the votes, what could well have swayed wavering votes are the ongoing travails surrounding Poland and especially the Ukraine, a fear carefully exploited by the French in their canny bidding slogan 'Pride and Security'.

That Turkey had made it through to the final three was impressive enough, that it missed out by one UEFA delegate heartbreaking for the nation's FA.

"We are devastated," bid leader Orhan Gorbon said. "This was our third bid so it is not much consolation to know that we lost by a small margin."

The thirteen members of the Executive Board were asked to consider a number of factors, but as with the Olympics and the World Cup, decisions of this stature are often coloured by internal and external politics, deals, personal relationships and inner prejudices.

Political pressure surrounding the sensitivity of the European Union's eastern frontier with Russia's hinterland has ensured Ukraine has been kept on board for 2012 despite its manifest shortcomings, so in the same way it had been thought Turkey might benefit from the political moves to grant Turkey full EU membership, an angle hinted at by Turkish President Abdullah Gul in his pleas for a "historic decision."

Nor can Michel Platini's nationality and the saga of delays surrounding Ukraine's Euro 2012 hosting be discounted as irrelevant, or the proximity of the vote for the 2018 World Cup, and the concomitant possibility of mutual back-scratching among the Europeans. Perhaps some delegates held uncomfortable memories of the cauldrons created by Galatasaray and other Turkish ultras, a more fiery and uncomfortable atmosphere than Western Europe can whip up.

"I am also against any comparison of Turkey with Ukraine," added Gorbon. "There is no reason for this decision. Perhaps it is simply that people feel closer to France."

Turkey's advantages were also its disadvantages - a large developing market for UEFA whose developing needs were a cause of uncertainty. After Ukraine has missed deadline after deadline for improvements for 2012, the Turkish government assurances of a billion Euros for six new stadia and support for the estimated 27 billion needed for infrastructure projects may have seemed too big a risk.

While Turkey has a good supply of hotels and tourist infrastructure along its coasts, its single high-speed rail line and network of intercity coaches compares unfavourably with France's TGV trains. As well as being larger than France, Turkey shares borders with Iraq and Syria amongst others and is muslim, which might have swayed some votes.

Following FIFA's lead, UEFA spread its wings with the 2012 vote but has retreated to a familiar face for 2016. Sooner or later Russia and Turkey, with their large populations and potential markets, will host the European Championships. But the expansion to 24 teams for 2016 has shut out the smaller nations, with a minimum of nine stadia and three reserve required, so former joint bids such as those of Croatia & Hungary and Ireland & Scotland would need serious construction projects to win in future.

In Switzerland yesterday, it became a straight choice between a country with the infrastructure and one which promised to build it in time, but the reasons behind the 7-6 vote are probably a lot more complex. Europe's sports journalists backed the Anatolian option, as did Guus Hiddink and others, but the French bid was still perfectly valid and crucially, reliable.

"We all did our best," said Gul, dejected. Turkey's next chance to host will come in Euro 2020.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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