The fuss that Jack built

Austin ‘Jack’ Warner is the Muhammad Ali of football administrators.

In other words, he’s not like Ali at all but he occasionally delivers a pungent phrase or gag almost worthy of The Lip.

He speaks with the confidence of a man used to being listened to. And he knows how to incite the media.

Like Ali in his prime, the only headlines he doesn’t like are those that don’t have his name in them.

The CONCACAF president’s speech at the Leaders in Football conference at Chelsea’s Millennium Hotel was a virtuous performance, as entertaining, in its way, as one of those one-man shows where Simon Callow pretended to be Charles Dickens.

Warner’s brief was to give the 1000 or so delegates a global perspective on football.

What he gave them was a very personal perspective on football history, England’s World Cup bid, cricket (“a dying sport, it’s dying in the West Indies and it’s infectious”), Michael Jackson’s doctor, how hard it is to get refunds on business class tickets for players who are mysteriously unavailable for international duty and the future of women’s football.

Warner said it would be a good idea if Europe started a women’s Champions League – obviously unaware that this was such a good idea that UEFA has already started one.

As if that wasn’t enough, Warner chucked in some novel ideas to improve the laws of the game.

Ten-a-side, new technology at the service of the referee, time restrictions on the taking of free-kicks, throw-ins and corners.

It would be intriguing to know how many of these ‘improvements’ were testing the water for, as Warner called him, the “visionary” Sepp Blatter.

Warner’s speech aspired to be inspirational.

He even tried his variation on JFK’s inauguration speech, effectively telling delegates: ask what you can do for football, not what football can do for you.

But at times, the note of resentment was so strong I was reminded of that old gag about the Australians being the most well balanced people in the world – because they have a chip on each shoulder.

Warner argued persuasively that Europe – and England in particular – could not afford to ignore the rest of the football world and, by being more socially responsible, would set an example others would be bound to follow.

One of his suggestions was that clubs pay a sum worth 10 percent of a player’s salary to the country he came from so it could be invested in grassroots football.

In the same vein, he suggested 2018 World Cup bids could be judged on whether they promised to invest in developing football outside their own confederation.

Warner was right to highlight the interdependency of this new, globalised football industry.

But the one word that never appeared in his bracing address was transparency.

There was not even a tacit recognition that the financial shenanigans at some FAs might lead some to question where all this cash might really be invested.

This is the same Jack Warner who, according to former Scottish FA boss George McBeth, asked for the cheque to cover the match fee for a 2007 friendly to be made out to him personally.

The year before that, Warner’s Trinidad and Tobago FA rowed so bitterly with players over bonuses after the World Cup the issue went to the Sports Dispute Resolution Panel.

Understandably Warner was keener to talk about 2018 than 2006. His well-publicised objections to England’s bid boiled down to four points.

1. England have been too slow off the mark and seem to think they have a ‘divine right’ to stage the finals.

2. There were no freebies in the Leaders in Football conference reception from England, whereas Australia thoughtfully gave delegates a free case and Qatar, already looking to 2022, had strewn bags of goodies around.

3. England weren’t making enough of David Beckham and the Queen.

4. England’s U20 team had refused to play a friendly against Trinidad and Tobago in Cyprus.

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None of these raise fundamental questions about England’s ability to host the finals.

Points 1 and 3, as Football League boss Brian Mawhinney tactfully pointed out later, are a matter of tactics.

This sparked several minutes of futile linguistic debate between Mawhinney, the press and (in absentia) Warner, about whether bidding for a World Cup is a sprint or a marathon. Or the 10,000 metres. (Okay, I made that last bit up).

London and Rio’s success in winning the 2012 and 2016 Olympics suggests, to switch sporting metaphors, that the best approach is to come up on the rails in the final furlong.

Still, Warner’s barbs had the desired effect. There is nothing your average British football correspondent likes better than writing a story accusing the FA of doing sweet FA.

The story practically wrote itself but I caught two seasoned hacks rehearsing across the press room: “Football’s coming home... arrogance... divine right, yeah, that’ll do it.”

They nodded, trying to look their usual phlegmatic selves but I could see glee in the corner of their eyes.

Andy Roxburgh, UEFA’s likeable technical director, took the refreshing, if old fashioned, view that his speech ought to be useful – and delivered an insightful address on the coach’s many roles.

His most charming story concerned a coach in Argentina who had drilled his defenders in where to stand and how to jump to stop a Maradona free-kick.

After 40 minutes, when Maradona won a free-kick just outside the area, the coach peered over to make sure the wall was right.

His players lined up correctly, they even jumped in unison, but the coach’s admiration turned to fury when he saw his players, as one, turn sideways.

As they came off at half-time, the coach demanded to know why they had all turned sideways.

One player was honest enough to admit: “We just wanted to see the goal boss.”

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