David Davies OBE may not be a diplomat, but he is certainly well practiced in the art of diplomacy. For more than a decade he was Executive Director of the Football Association (FA), leading the organisation through probably the most turbulent period of its almost 150-year history. (Before adding sports administration to his CV, Mr Davies spent over 20 years working as a political and football correspondent for the BBC.) In 2006 he achieved the rare feat – for a senior football official – of retiring from the FA of his own volition. Since then, he has among various engagements served as a senior advisor to Dr Danny Jordaan, CEO of the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa, and is currently working together with a team from Scott Wilson Ltd, an international consultancy, on the reform and restructuring of football in Hong Kong. Here he talks to Martin Newman about the transformative power, in social and diplomatic contexts alike, of sport.
As Executive Director of the FA, you were in the room nearly a decade ago when London’s decision to bid for the 2012 Olympics was taken. Was it an easy decision? Was there unanimous backing?
The sports world was pretty much united. But there was something of a difference of opinion – not for the first time in the history of the Labour Government – between numbers 10 and 11 Downing Street. Blair, unsurprisingly, with his mind firmly set on preparations for the Iraq War, was broadly in favour of bidding for the Olympics. Brown was sceptical, seeing the 2018 FIFA World Cup as probably a more winnable project. I sympathised with Gordon’s view – you have to remember that at this stage everyone saw Paris as the strongest-placed 2012 Olympic bid city. But I had seen World Cup hopes come and go, and I knew that our chances of securing 2018 were far from guaranteed, so perhaps I played a small part in persuading the Chancellor to support the Olympic bid. So there we were, the five CEOs of the main sporting bodies and the British Olympic Association, sitting one evening in a room at the British Museum, of all places, and announcing to an aghast public that we would indeed bid for 2012. Even though at this stage there was no financial commitment from government, we were convinced it was the right thing to do.
You’re saying that the focus of government was guns and not goals?
Actually, sport had already been able to prove its point as a very potent weapon of public diplomacy. Eight weeks after the Taliban were ousted from power in Afghanistan, we took Premier League referees and two coaches on a military plane and staged a match at the Olympic stadium in Kabul where the Taliban had done all sorts of terrible things. If the Taliban wanted to remind the population of what would happen to people who stepped out of line, they drove captives into the middle of a football match at half time and murdered them in front of 35,000 people. The bad guys certainly know how to use the context of sport to get their message across – think of the propaganda coup of Hitler’s 1936 Olympics. There’s no questioning the force which sport represents: I believe it’s our responsibility to use that force for good around the world.
Do you think that Governments have always understood this idea of sport as a force for good?
I remember the days when Mrs Thatcher would haul the FA into Downing Street and tell them that football was a disgrace to the nation! But she had little time for sport of any kind, and in her defence this was during the darkest days of football hooliganism, when football’s contribution to British public diplomacy abroad was a serious problem. John Major was the first Prime Minister to really understand the positive power of sport, and since then things have got better. But politicians taking a positive interest is only half the story – it’s when sport itself stands up and makes a contribution to the community, at home and internationally, that it earns the right to a ‘grown-up’ relationship with government. When you see sport and sporting heroes campaigning on tough issues – crime, drugs, HIV, racism, even literacy – that’s when you see the real power of sport to get people to change the way they think and behave.
Of course, in one way governments have always known how to use sport and sporting events – the Beijing Olympics, for example, were definitely intended to mark an international coming of age for China, and Rio 2016 is clearly based on a similar strategy for Brazil. But great public diplomacy, the real power for good, is unleashed when you get the sporting world, the public and governments all pushing together. We saw that in Barcelona and Sydney, and as a result it’s impossible to think of those two cities – or, for that matter, of Spain and Australia – in quite the same way. We feel that these places truly gave something to the world. And we respect them for that. That’s the goal to which London 2012 must aspire.
You spent much of the past two years working as senior advisor to Danny Jordaan, CEO of South Africa’s World Cup. When you started, there was a lot of scepticism about the country’s ability to stage the tournament. What lessons did you learn?
First, that it’s very hard to shake off prejudices. Not impossible, but hard. South Africa was dogged from the start by a perception that crime was rampant. This was a huge weight around their necks. A concerted effort to shake this off was just beginning to pay dividends when there were the shootings and deaths in Angola during the African Cup of Nations last January . No matter that Angola is a completely different country – for the outside world ‘Africa’ meant Africa, and this had, after all, been sold to the world as Africa’s World Cup. This could have been the moment when people started to cancel their bookings – first the supporters, and then the teams. But Danny Jordaan was magnificent; he came out straight away with a very clear and strong message. You could see that as a crossroads moment – it could have gone either way.
The second lesson is: never underestimate the power of momentum. Danny’s firmness made people sit up and take notice that South Africa had a fighter for its cause. He made it clear there was no ‘Plan B’. The local media picked up on that and began to warm to him. And then it was as if the whole population began to realise the enormity of what one of these events could be like for a country. South Africa started to believe in itself, and the whole thing began to turn around in a fantastic way. Eventually even world news organisations like CNN, who had from a very early stage focused relentlessly on problems and negatives, felt the change of mood and responded to it.
Of course, it could still have gone wrong. And the death of Nelson Mandela’s great-granddaughter on the eve of the opening came as a tragic reminder of how events could have turned against South Africa. But the positive momentum we had built up meant that even that awful moment became a cause for sympathy and solidarity with South Africa – not as fuel for the country’s critics. By day 10 of the tournament, when maybe the biggest issue on everybody’s agenda was the musical virtue – or not – of the Vuvuzela, people in the organisation at last relaxed. A few days later I had the huge pleasure of doing a celebratory broadcast from the crisis centre we’d created for the World Cup – it was the first time that centre had ever been used.
If you look at India’s hosting of the Commonwealth Games, I think it’s a lack of positive momentum from all sectors – from government, from the organisers and from the Indian public – that was ultimately their biggest problem. The media picks up on it; when they sense it’s not there, they will go for you. Every sporting event will have its teething problems, but with momentum and genuine popular goodwill you can surmount a very great deal.
With so much that’s not controllable in the world of sporting events, should we be surprised that sport remains so central to aspects of public diplomacy?
It’s been alleged that in my darker hours I have described sport, and more particularly football, as the modern day ‘opium of the masses’. Now, you can look at that very cynically – and I’m sure many Governments do – as a social control mechanism or a very deliberate way of manipulating a country’s image. But I see it in a more positive way. Sport is an effective way of engaging people for a very simple reason: its universal appeal. The most successful sports around the world share a fantastic simplicity (let’s leave cricket to one side for a moment!). It’s interesting that one of the reasons Sepp Blatter has given for opposing the spread of technology in football is what he calls the ‘universality’ of the game – the fact that it’s the same game when you put your coats down in the park as it is when you’re playing in the World Cup final. I’m not sure I’d go quite that far, but he has a point: when you have something universal, it’s a way of engaging the whole world. No wonder it remains, despite all the risks, a huge net asset for public diplomacy.