Land of Hope and Glory

Over this last two weeks, I have tried very hard to avoid writing about the FIFA World Cup.  As the tournament started I wrote about FIFA and the corruption of money in its ranks including a prediction for its eventual winner. For what it is worth my prediction can still happen.

Otherwise, I have been silent on football, but last night’s events, however, have caused a change in plan.

For those that don’t live in England or have absolutely no interest in Football, England won a game of football. It was a tense affair. England were in the lead and Columbia equalised 3 minutes into injury time. Extra time. Another 30 minutes and the scores are still equal. A penalty shoot-out. England missed first immediately followed by a Columbian before the English goalkeeper saved one, and we had won.

Over these last few weeks, there is a growing belief among xenophobic supporters that England may even get to the Final. Thanks to early exits of Germany and Argentina, they are now the highest ranked team in their half of the draw. I am not being a football nerd with these statistics. Every Englishman knows this because World Cup fever has gripped the country.

England didn’t win the final or even the semi-final but a match in the last 16, yet still, 24 million watched on TV; the largest audience since the closing ceremony of the London Olympics. All over the internet are pictures of fans celebrating, almost wildly. These aren’t the fans who treck around the country on a Saturday following a local team. It is everybody.

The main radio news programme, The World At One is leading on the result with a promise of the ‘lowdown on the side England next play, Sweden’. This is not a sports channel but Radio 4, the most serious of the BBC channels.

It is not that other sports haven’t had global success, but football is different. One way or another, it is the sport that all kids play. Their heroes are footballers and they have been deprived of global success. Older fathers and grandfathers tell mystical tales of 1966, the zenith of our global achievement.

As in 1966, the current success of the national side in a global tournament pulls the country together like nothing else reminding us, as another radio programme said, of the unity and togetherness of the second world war.

We are a nation that loves its sports. We invented many of the now global sports. We revelled in the Olympic Games in 2012 and this is just the same. This is nationalism at its best.

And as in 2012, again we are seeing the power of sport to unite a nation. Everything seems better. You can’t tell anyone that it is just a game. It is the English game. We invented it and it is not a coincidence that the Number 1 today in the music charts is, Three Lions – Football’s Coming Home, the 1996 anthem of the English game.

The final is on Sunday 15th and if by chance England are playing, or even win there will be a level of rejoicing and exhilaration like nothing before. There will be calls for immediate knighthoods and national holidays. But more, much, much more, the country will feel good about its self. It won’t be just good, but the country will be better than it has been for a long time.

At that point, Prime Minister May will launch an audacious bid for a hard and unyielding Brexit telling the House of Commons, to a background of MPs humming Queen’s, We are the Champions, we don’t need them, we don’t need the Europeans.  We are British. We are the champions.

The World’s Favourite Game

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Belgium will win the tournament answering the famous quiz question: name a famous Belgium.
  4. 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.