Mike Lee, the Englishman behind Qatar’s World Cup success

Having helped to bring the Olympics to London in 2012 and Rio four years later, Mike Lee is toasting another victory tonight

Mike Lee worked for the Premier League and for Uefa before working on successful bids for the 2012 and 2016 Olympics and the 2022 World Cup.

At least there was one Englishman in Zurich who had cause to smile today. As the tiny emirate of Qatar became the unlikeliest of World Cup hosts, Mike Lee OBE was the power behind the scenes.

Lee had been overlooked by England 2018 as campaign strategist last year. Memories in football are long and the England bid’s rationale was that an association with Lee would have torpedoed their candidacy. Supposedly he had devised the electoral campaign for the then Uefa president, Lennart Johansson, in his challenge against Sepp Blatter for the presidency of Fifa. But that view misread history: Johansson’s campaign had been in 1998; Lee had not joined Uefa until 2000.

Indeed Lee always insisted that he held the trust of Fifa. Blatter is a member of the International Olympic Committee, where Lee is a well known figure through his work on the successful London and Rio Olympic bids, and it is through these connections that they were acquainted. Ignored by England, Lee chose to sign up with Qatar. The results were there for all to see today.

“This was a magnificent team effort,” said Lee after today’s vote. “It is about two years of global campaigning. You don’t win in the final stretch. You have to focus on the voters and what the narrative means to them. This is their crown jewel and you have to show how you will take it forward for them.

“[Qatar’s emir] Sheikh Mohammed was the first yesterday to speak in a language other than English. Not many of the executive committee have English as a first language, so that is an important issue. What the great campaigns also develop is an international media outlook. You have to have an eye on the global media scene.”

Lee, whose partner is the former Lambeth City Council chief executive, ex-BBC governor and one-time Millwall chairman, Heather Rabbatts, is a lifelong communicator with almost two decades of history in football. Having run the Premier League’s communications from its inception in 1992, he joined Uefa as director of communications. When he left there in September 2003 it was to the position that would seal his reputation: the London 2012 bid. Joining on the same day as Sir Keith Mills became its chief executive, Lee was an influential figure as Barbara Cassani was replaced by Lord Coe as bid chair the following May.

He recognised what buttons needed pushing in the often remote International Olympic Committee and Lee helped deliver the campaign that saw London rise from third-placed candidate, behind Paris and Madrid, to Olympic host city. Having picked up an OBE for his efforts and set up his own communications agency, Vero, Lee was then recruited by the Rio 2016 Olympic bid. This, too, won. He ran the International Rugby Board’s campaign for sevens’ inclusion in future Olympics, another success. So what is his secret?

“You have to work hard to unlock the potential of your bid, to develop a very profound and important campaign narrative,” said Lee today.

In 2003 he had said of himself and London’s Olympic bid: “I am extremely experienced in international marketing and an important part of the job will be persuading the world sporting community that this is the bid to choose.”

Few can argue with that now.