Our game

This is the second time this year I am going to write about football — ehm … soccer — and I don’t even like the game. But something is not right in the state of FIFA, the international football federation.

Its head, Sepp Blatter, seems to think that football was invented in China. Possible, but then, someone asked, why are the Chinese so lousy at playing it? Of course, every schoolchild here in London believes that football was invented in England. Well, the English are not so great at playing it either, judging by their performance in the last World Cup in South Africa. But at least they won it once, in 1966, when they beat Germany thanks to a goal they are still not quite sure they scored. So they know they only win it when the finals are held at Wembley, which is probably why they competed for the right to hold the 2018 World Cup at the FIFA Executive Committee meeting in Zurich last week. And once they made up their minds, they left absolutely nothing to chance, spending 15 million pounds in these days of austerity and sending a crack attack formation — consisting of Prime Minister David Cameron, Prince William (for once labeled in the media as the future king of England), and David Beckham, once the shiniest star in the LA Galaxy firmament — to present their bid. Sure enough, of the twenty-two votes cast by members of the FIFA Executive Committee (two were suspended from voting because of suspicions of corruption), England got exactly … two. Russia ultimately got thirteen, along with the win. They have nine time zones so they can hold prime time TV matches for practically every place on the globe.

The US men’s team has never won the World Cup but the US women’s team has one twice, once when they also played at home. The United States hosted the men’s tournament once, in 1994, and it was great fun in spite of the fact that neither of the two finalists was even able to score. So why shouldn’t America bid to hold it again in 2022? At the current rate the number of socceros in the country will have at least doubled by that time. President Obama, well acquainted with the treachery of the sporting world after his Olympic effort earlier in the year, chose wisely not go to Zurich but the Americans were still the odds-on favorites. And the winner was … Qatar, a nation of under 1.5 million people, with average high temperatures for July, when the tournament will culminate, of 115 degrees.

Well, who cares, I can hear many Americans muttering. Myself, too. But the truth is, it is not a trifling matter. The finals in South Africa were watched by 700 million people. Around 1.5 million people watched the matches at the stadiums. The proceeds from tickets, advertising, merchandise and broadcasting fees run into billions. FIFA profited more from the 2010 World Cup than the host country did, and without running any of the risks.

There are two serious considerations here, one geopolitical, the other moral. Is it any accident that the two countries that won the bidding, Russia and Qatar, happen to be oil- and gas- producing countries? And is it any accident that many oil- and gas- producing countries happen to keep all kinds of loose cash around? And given the fact that we are dealing here with an organization with all the accountability of the North Korean government and all the transparency of the Vatican, is it any surprise that these two countries won? The stories abound. Football is only a game but one cannot help wondering what they are doing with the rest of the cash. The stories abound.

The other thing is that kids the world over love the game that only takes a ball and a few spare yards of land or street to play in. They have an uncanny ability to remember every goal scored in every game at every World Cup and every player legend who ever put on cleats. In learning about football and the ways of football, they learn about the world they’re a part of. Is this the kind of world we want them to see?

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