The World Cup has lost its lustre

Published by The i paper (4th December, 2017)

I remember clearly the first World Cup that captivated me. It was Argentina in 1978, back in those distant days when seeing football on television was a special occasion outside the weekly ritual of watching The Big Match on ITV. I told all my friends how Ally’s Tartan Army was going to take the famous gold trophy back to Scotland. Reality wiped out my pocket money in lost bets, the pain barely soothed by Archie Gemmill’s waltzing wonder goal against Holland.

Now look at this cash cow, held every four years and leading football’s charge into becoming a money-drenched global behemoth alongside the Premier League. As someone who can remember the crumbling stadiums and contempt for supporters that used to blight the game, not to mention often-stodgy play and fighting fans, I have never begrudged most of the changes in the sport’s stunning transformation. From pitches to players, the performance has improved dramatically.

Football offers proof that globalisation and open borders lift standards to the benefit of consumers. Yes, there are some dodgy owners and fans are fleeced – but there is nothing new in this sorry state of affairs. It is just the scale that changed as foreign oligarchs and millions in offshore accounts replaced local businessmen and brown bags stuffed with cash. For all the romance of childhood pin-ups, those beer-swilling players hoofing the ball up a muddy pitch in the past have been succeeded by dedicated athletes routinely displaying sublime skills.

The draw for the next World Cup should be something to celebrate, the start of fun that culminates for Britons with crushing disappointment as our teams are swatted by superior sides. These are not just football festivals, but uplifting occasions when much of the world briefly unites and smaller nations share the spotlight. And this event can reflect shifting global dynamics; think of South Africa hosting in 2010 or the ‘black, blanc, beur’ wizards winning France 1998, the perfect riposte to a far-right demagogue who said the multi-ethnic team was not really French.

But it was hard to get excited watching Friday’s draw in Russia. The sight of Gary Lineker fronting the show after all his criticism of Fifa seemed to symbolise an event consuming itself through greed and corruption. Laughably, Lineker claimed this was not a political event; perhaps he did not notice it was hosted by Vladimir Putin and taking place at the Kremlin. Yet this is simply one more sad sign of the times in a world that seems uncertain, divided and terrified of speaking truth to power.

The stench from Fifa is so strong that two years ago Lineker demanded a boycott of a body that has become a byword for corruption. Rumours swirl around the awarding of finals to Russia and, absurdly, the desert state of Qatar in 2022. As the allocation of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar took place, a trial went on in New York of three former officials accused of pocketing millions in bribes. More than 40 officials have been charged by United States investigators, with 23 pleading guilty. It has been compared to an organised crime probe, with witnesses threatened and documents destroyed.

Now we see a World Cup held in Russia. A great nation – but no doubt Putin will use this prize to promote his hardline nationalism. The problem is not just that Russia is a repressive regime run by thieves, nor that it is currently supporting war crimes in Syria; our own hands are hardly free of blood in the Middle East, after all. Nor even that this malevolent leader should have been stripped of the event after stealing another European nation’s land just three years ago and is currently waging cyber warfare on Western democracy.

The key issue is that Putin is hosting the planet’s greatest sporting spectacular at a time when his state is accused of rampant cheating and refusal to co-operate with an inquiry. The athletics body, anti-doping agency and even Paralympic organisers are suspended after evidence that more than 30 sports and 1,000 competitors engaged in systemic use of performance-enhancing drugs. Remember Russia’s hosting of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi? More than 20 athletes from them were banned last month amid a probe into sample tampering led by laboratory and security officials.

Fifa president Gianni Infantino dodged questions last week on all this, even though the sports minister at the time of these allegations over state-sponsored cheating now serves as deputy prime minister and president of Russia’s football body. Never mind any sense of decency, let alone setting an example. Those running global football smell only money. So after prostituting themselves to Putin, we will then get the first winter and alcohol-free World Cup finals in Qatar – assuming new stadiums built by migrant labourers are finished and Qatar can find a football team.

The own goals keep flowing. The 2026 World Cup is being expanded to 48 teams in another money grab expected to net Fifa a billion-dollar bonus. When Scotland heroically flopped in Argentina, there were just 16 teams in the fight. Even now, with 32 teams, there is still drama in qualifying – as witnessed with Italy’s failure to reach Russia 2018 – while games tend to be absorbing. The enlarged draw will diminish quality – one more stain on a soiled trophy.

This event underscores shows why football is a strong metaphor for globalisation. The relentless pursuit of profit has led to glitz, glamour and great improvements – but the lack of morality and shameless exploitation shows the need for firm regulation to protect the beautiful game. Otherwise, the World Cup will end up defeating itself.

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