Half the world will groan, and half will cheer. We will not be divided by gender, age or even continent. Starting today and for the next four and half weeks, there will 64 football matches to find the FIFA World Champions.
You have to be a fairly hardened football fan to want to watch all the games which start today with a match between the hosts Russia and the lowest ranked side, Saudi Arabia. It is not the most glamorous of matches.
Newspapers and websites have spent much of the build-up trying to predict the winners and what is clear that few of the this final 32 stand a chance. So, we must ask why are there even 32 teams and their fans crisscrossing Russia?
The answer, of course, is the same as always – money. FIFA, the world governing body makes money out of the World Cup. In 2014 was $4.8 billion. The bigger the spectacle the more the money which explains why by 2026 there will be 48 teams taking part in the finals. That is nearly 25% of the total football playing countries.
Money, scandal and football have been close bedfellows for many years. When his spending promises grew and grew Prime Minister May once had to remind the Labour leader that there is no such thing as a magic money tree. But, May was wrong. Football is that tree.
Football is flush with money and therefore also personal greed. FIFA boss Sepp Blatter and other senior officials were arrested for lining their own pockets. It is strongly rumoured that both Russia and Qatar, host in 2022 won their bids with judicious bribery and sundry corruption.
Other than winning by foul means, and I suppose that is a rather big other, I have no problem with Russia and Qatar hosting the finals. For many years I have made clear my admiration for Russian people alongside my sadness that they are being led into a democratic abyss by Putin. I love Doha as a city. I have been there many times and I like all the Qatari people I have met, but is bribery the way to decide where the Cup should be played?
If we are going to have a final of 48 teams I wonder if ever again one small country, and I include England, should host the global game?
In 2014, the finals were hosted in Brazil. After years of unnecessary construction and countless protests, Brazil was found to be in a worse state than before. It caused damage to their environment, society and did not produce anything like the profit that was initially projected. The total cost was estimated to be around $15 billion. That money could have been allocated more effectively elsewhere in the country
The 2020 UEFA European Football Championship will be held in 12 cities in 12 different European countries. They talk about it being a ‘one-off’ to celebrate the 60th birthday of the competition but it should be the norm. The 2026 World Cup has just been awarded to a joint bid of Canada, USA and Mexico. It is a sign that we are moving in the right direction. We should spread the cost and the fun.
But for the next 4 weeks, we have Russia and it is time for predictions.
- It will take something quite spectacular for home players to win. It is more likely that they will fail to get out of their group of four.
- There will be more than one incident of extreme Russian hooliganism including racism and LGBT abuse. It will take the headlines from the football for more than a week.
- Belgium will win the tournament answering the famous quiz question: name a famous Belgium.
- And for a bit of jingoistic romance, they will beat England in a tense and low scoring match reversing the result from the Group game.
Have a happy World Cup.