The first World Cup I really remember is 1982, mainly due to a sticker album given by an uncle and because I also annoyed my grandparents and the more Republican sections of our family by wearing a Northern Ireland t-shirt (bought in Boyers). Spending most of the summer up in Louth, I’m glad I eventually made double figures in the age stakes.
I remember 1978 for the reason my Dad supported Holland. In later years he explained it was because one of his colleagues had been to Argentina (working with British Oxygen Company) and told him stories of brutality and repression by the military junta. Dad was always anti-Argentina, even to the extent of supporting England against them.
However, t-shirts and anti-Argentine sentiment are only intros to the meat of this. Last week I took part in a Russian Radio debate on the 2018 World Cup, with asides on the 2022 Qatar event. It quickly turned into an anti-Qatar, FIFA and RFS rant.
Of the four people in studio, including the presenter, I quickly realised that I was alone in not objecting to either host. The presenter introduced me as a pro-Putin football agent (a double lie), which the Russo-American journalist and Russian anti-Putin campaigner used immediately to try discredit anything I would bring to the discussion.
Against me came the human rights, the dirty bidding, the backroom deals, the corrupt FIFA leadership and on and on (I was even afraid they’d bring up the Norn Iron incident). They, rightly, pointed out human rights abuses in Qatar, construction corruption in Russia (where a proposal to use prisoner labour to build stadia is coming before parliament) and some relevant points.
I was then allowed speak, for 15 seconds. After my opening piece I faced 12 minutes (I counted the following morning) of monologues and agreements that would not look out of place in BBC’s W1A. I listened, made notes and then gave a response.
I began by pointing out that I have been involved in different sports at local to international level, amateur and professional. Yet the most fun I had was coaching my club Under-16 side to our first Championship win over significant opposition (Dundalk’s Pearse Og in case you’re wondering) in a generation, and this was with an underage set up that I’d worked endless unpaid hours to establish and to this day that win, against all odds, is a highlight in my sports career.
Working on the Russian bid, or on the Croatia-Hungary bid for Euro 2012, was just a job. I gave my input on what should be done better, gave my opinion and ultimately I was a small fish in a large ocean. I also left them in no doubt that I have no issue with the awarding of the events to Russia or Qatar as all bidding processes are dirty and proceeded with a short history of the World Cup.
It was under English control (Arthur Drewery and then Stanley Rous) that the real ethos and tone were set for FIFA. For them were the Corinthian ideals, not equality, inclusion, or making sure that all were able to enjoy the sport in all its joy.
While the dodgy awarding of the 1958 event to Sweden cannot be solely placed on the shoulders of the English gruesome twosome, the horse-trading which saw Chile awarded the World Cup for 1962 over Argentina (after West Germany withdrew) and the win of England in 1960 over West Germany to host the 1966 event (where West Ham went on to win the Cup singlehandedly) are severely tinged with politics, payoffs and “future considerations”.
Add into this the racism, sexism and eye-making at dodgy regimes, FIFA was as far removed from amateur, Corinthian ideals, as the English Premier League is from sport. And indeed the battle against racism and discrimination, and for equality and Civil Rights in the United Kingdom and its imperial holdings were patently not an issue for the good old boys running FIFA.
And of course in 1966 it was the English-led FIFA who came up with the idea of multiple awards when, after some dodgy deals and messing with fair play, three World Cups, 1974, 1978 and 1982, were divvied out between the big boys without a vote in anger. Democracy writ large in the glorious game.
There was no issue with awarding the 1978 World Cup to a bloodthirsty military regime in South America who, when the decision was made, were already disappearing people as the Dirty War began claiming its 20,000+ lives. And of course the Franco Dictatorship in Spain was never an issue for FIFA, so the 1982 award was par for an uneven course.
They seemed surprised that the USSR were stitched up in 1984 when England, Iran, Greece, Austria, France, West Germany and Yugoslavia all withdrew to make sure the Rocky Balboa versus Ivan Drago fight was heavily favouring the Italian Stallions, who dutifully won a single round of voting and gave Ireland a platform for Packie Bonner’s save and Italian cheating.
I didn’t need notes to recall the long history of questionable FIFA dealings and was about to go onto the Olympics when I realised it was pointless. They were not looking for middle ground, only to be right. Like the corrupt mandarins who run countries and sports into disrepute.
Instead I told them that I believed awarding large events are inherently dubious and that leadership of large organisations, whether they be English, Swiss, Congolese or Canadian, is always open to manipulation and corruption. That construction projects, whether they be for events or grand government development schemes, always present opportunities for lining the pockets of politicians, construction companies, archaeological “consultants”, officials etc., whether it is in London, Linz or Lipetsk.
I felt that I’d made the point that FIFA (though not alone) has always represented an ugly face of sport and that whinging on radio, TV or the net will not do a thing to change it as the people with real power – the “fans” will never do anything worthwhile. The mistake was my saying this out loud.
I was then labelled an “anti-fan”, and I agreed, I am a supporter. I enjoy the sport, I go to matches, I play when I can and I read and write about the game as well as watch it on TV. If I truly wanted to change FIFA I would immediately withdraw from all of the above and, god willing, tens of millions of others would follow suit.
Without viewers or subscribers, TV companies would have no way to bring in advertising. Without bodies in stadia, clubs would have no cashflow and no sponsors. The great slackjawed uprising would bring FIFA tumbling down to be replaced with the next bunch of good-intentioned, soon-to-be-corrupted chancers.
When I asked the three of them if they even watched football, the two journos “had no interest in sports” and the presenter said he was a Barcelona fan, so effectively only I had any interest in football.
To round off a depressing night the “weather issue” was put to me, that Qatar is so hot that the tournament was now in December, that it has destroyed football “as we know it”. I asked if any of them had been in Germany in mid-Summer, or Spain, or up in Mexico City where even horses are forbidden from racing. Or did any of them remember Steve Staunton and the milk bottle Irish in USA ’94? Did any of them visit Italy in July?
In fact, what will they do this summer in Russia when the Moscow streets bubble up or the Sochi rocks heat up enough to fry eggs on? Sure Qatar is hot in any case, but a winter World Cup has not or will not destroy football as football cannot be destroyed.
It is like hipsters who talk about “discovering” the Bundesliga while desperately trying to stay relevant and yahoo’ing the most obscure facts about the Hesse Liga to win an argument. And like those pigeons, no matter how hard you try to run them over, you look in your rear view mirror and there they are, unharmed and still ridiculous. Like matter, neither can be destroyed.
My final word was that if we truly wanted to change football, to bring about a new era for the sport and get rid of corruption, then we have to bring down the insane salaries and prices of tickets. The only way to do this is if we just stop! Stop watching, stop reading, stop going. We go and play in the street or meadow. We turn our backs on professional sport and bankrupt the system.
But it will never happen. The “liberals” won the night and left to drink their coffees in the Starbucks next door. I’d been taught me a lesson that I was an active participant in evil (yet I’m not even a Manchester City fan) and that to point out the utterly bleeding obvious is the way to win a debate.
On the way home I resisted supporting a FIFA sponsor (McDonald’s) and bought a Sharma prepared by an Azeri. As I walked in the rainy Moscow gloom, I wished for the happy summer days in Tallanstown where I could wear a Norn Iron shirt without comment.
This piece was submitted the night before the FIFA arrests, the latest distraction for us all. While many are aching for Mr. Blatter to be taken out and done away with like Ceausescu, there is more of a “Dirty Dozen: The Next Mission” feel to what has been going on. Anyone who remembers this lukewarm follow up to the 1967 classic will be aware of the plot where a rag tag group look to assasinate a German General. Yet just before the sniper, played by Ricco Ross, is about to kill their target, he spots Hitler. Lee Marvin tells him that if he takes out Hitler, the war will just “go on and on”. The FBI can investigate FIFA yet ignore the NCAA, the media can assault Castle Zurich yet ignore the Swiss banks. The only people who will bring down the current leadership are the supporters of football. If Sepp goes, we’ll face far worse, and there is no proposal which will change football and FIFA for the better. Power corrupts and FIFA is pretty powerful.