LONDON - The English Football Association kicked off its 150th anniversary celebrations with a star-studded event Wednesday, striving to shift the focus from the domestic and international troubles that have afflicted the country in recent years.
The Premier League's reputation has been hit by racial abuse cases involving fans and high-profile players, while the FA has endured a fraught relationship within FIFA as the world's oldest football federation's influence has declined.
But leading world football figures united in London on Wednesday to launch the FA's landmark year, with FIFA President Sepp Blatter telling the audience by video that "it is called the FA, because it is the No. 1 in FIFA."
Blatter's warm words were a far cry from 2010 when he decried English "arrogance" following their failed bid for the 2010 World Cup.
"The privilege to be called the FA is linked because England has organized football, the modern game has been organized in England," Blatter said. "And more than that they have organized what they call, and we call now, the Beautiful Game."
But that image has been knocked by a perception that racism, thought to have been eradicated by English football, has returned to haunt the home of the world's richest league.
The most acrimonious recent incident led to Chelsea captain John Terry being found guilty of racially abusing a black opponent, having already been stripped of the England captaincy over the incident. That decision led to Fabio Capello quitting as England manager last February, but the Italian signalled that relations with his former employers have healed by attending Wednesday's event on the site of the FA's inception in 1863.
Capello was joined by his replacement Roy Hodgson and three other former England managers — Graham Taylor, Terry Venables and Sven-Goran Eriksson — while Oliver Bierhoff, Lothar Matthaus, Marcel Desailly and Patrick Viera were among the international former players in attendance.
FA chairman David Bernstein believes the organization gets more credit for its work globally, having invested in development projects, than at home where the money pumped into the grassroots game is overshadowed by high-profile disciplinary cases.
"Internationally, in actuality we get a fair crack of the whip," Bernstein said. "It's not sometimes how it is perceived. When you talk to leading people in the international community they treat this country with a great deal of respect."
Sports Minister Hugh Robertson has seen that attitude abroad, particularly in the country hosting the 2014 World Cup.
"The brand (of English football) internationally is not damaged," Robertson said. "In Brazil people don't say to me, 'You have got a lot of problems with football at home.' They said to me, 'You are the country that gave us football.' They really did say that to me on a number of occasions.
"I think here we focus for obvious reasons on the things that are going wrong. Internationally they have a slightly loftier view of it."
Prince William, who is the FA's president, told the audience at the Grand Connaught Rooms in central London by via video that he hopes the "year ahead will allow us to celebrate every aspect of this great game."
"Over 150 years, football has become part of the very fabric of our society," the prince said.
And a series of videos highlighted the importance of England's contribution to the world game, with Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger saying "football is a love affair of my life."
"England created football," Wenger said. "I think the world sometimes forgets that."
The FA will spend the next year reminding the world of that, with the next anniversary event seeing Pele attending the England team awards next month.
Wembley Stadium will also host the Champions League final for the second time in three seasons in May, while the national team will play friendlies home and away against Brazil.
Rob Harris can be reached at http://twitter.com/RobHarris
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