I have loved the FIFA men's World Cup since I was 10. It is one of the greatest, if not the
greatest, sporting occasion in the world. A gathering of the global community around something of beauty, drama, controversy, triumph and disappointment. Only the Olympics can compare and for many of us the nature of the beautiful game easily trumps that.
Every four years since then I have looked forward to the arrival of the World Cup like Halley's Comet. The anticipation, expectation, elation and – as a Scotland supporter – disappointment. Like many passionate football fans, such have been the memories it has provided, I even think of it in some small way as one of the significant markers of my life.
Before our eyes the World Cup is being trashed, diminished and corrupted. It is being made into something which still contains memorable moments of football but where the wider context is rotten, ugly and oppressive. This is the grotesque nature of global football. The game's authorities and the international capitalist order are together harming this tournament which once represented the summit of sporting achievement and collective joy.
Take three contrasting moments in the opening stages of the World Cup. On Saturday, the day before the tournament opened, FIFA President Gianni Infantino said at a news conference in Qatar: 'Today I feel Qatari. Today I feel Arab. Today I feel African. Today I feel gay. Today I feel disabled. Today I feel a migrant worker'. This was said in a country which is a despotic regime, where gay people have no rights, and where Amnesty International estimate that at least 6,500 migrant workers have died in the construction of World Cup facilities.
On the Monday, the English and Welsh national teams said they would make a statement in support of LGBT rights by their respective captains – Harry Kane and Gareth Bale – wearing the 'One Love' armband. FIFA said shortly before the England game that this would result in each captain being booked by the referee, which means if they did this again, or gained another booking in a match, they could miss a game and jeopardise their team's progress. Both teams folded, giving in to FIFA's threats.
On the same day, the Iranian national team faced England. They were to lose 6-2. But they won something else in a country facing existential crisis. Prior to the match, as the Iranian national anthem played, the entire Iranian team to a man – all 11 players – stood shoulder to shoulder in silence. This was an act of solidarity against their own despotic regime and its brutal repression of its people protesting for human rights. And this was after the Iranian captain, Ehsan Hajsafi, spoke out openly against their country's current regime and the devastating impact it is having on the population at a press conference.
Three different actions. The offensive and out of touch remarks of the head of the governing body of world football; the moral weakness of the English and Welsh football teams when faced with the prospect that FIFA might punish them; and the Iranian team showing a scale of courage and dignity which is almost unimaginable and may have real-life consequences for players and their families. Football really does cover all aspects of human behaviour – from the sublime to the morally reprehensible.
The positives of the World Cup
Football may become the saving grace of this World Cup but that misses a large part of the picture. The World Cup of recent decades represents many changes in the game – some of which, in footballing terms, are positive. There has been the growing internationalisation of the elite game. The World Cup Finals up to 1978 were made up of 16 nations, dominated by Europe and South America. Now it contains 32 nations, and there is an increasing number of African and Asian nations who are becoming more prominent and successful.
There are still only eight nations who have won the World Cup: five European (Italy, Germany – both unified and West – France, Spain and England) and three South American (Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay). No African or Asian nation has yet got to a final, but they will eventually do so and at some time one emerging football nation will win the World Cup. That will be a major story in the shifting power of international football.
For many of us, the excitement of the World Cup as a footballing spectacle is wrapped up in our own individual memories. My first World Cup tournament may have been when I was 10 in 1974, but I was alerted to its importance at the conclusion of the qualifying round.
Something seismic happened in this. England had won the World Cup in 1966 and then qualified automatically and played in 1970, being put out by West Germany, but having the status and swagger of being the reigning champions. Then something traumatic happened to England. They failed to qualify for the 1974 World Cup, being held to a 1-1 draw by Poland at Wembley. This resulted in an angry English media reaction, with football manager Brian Clough on ITV calling the Polish goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski 'a clown'. The sense of fury, bitterness and entitlement was palpable and a huge story.
Scotland famously qualified for the 1974 World Cup held in West Germany. We got a 26-inch Sharp colour TV to mark the occasion, had friends round for the opening match (Brazil v Yugoslavia) and the first Scotland match (Scotland v Zaire). This was a big thing because Scotland had not qualified for the World Cup since 1958, had a talented squad and went out of the tournament on goal difference undefeated – the only team to do so that year.
This was the first of Scotland's five in a row – the pinnacle of our World Cup achievement so far, when we began to think that we had the right to a place alongside the international elite. No more do we think that, despite the best efforts of the current Scottish manager Steve Clarke. Now we have fallen to failing to qualify for a record six World Cups in a row – our last appearance being France in 1998 – which is some kind of consistency.
The diminishing of the World Cup
Back to the current World Cup and what it represents. FIFA is a secretive and unaccountable organisation which has grown fat and corrupt on the cash cow it controls: the World Cup. It is run from Geneva with a super-renumerated senior staff who live in a world of being pampered and fawned after by the rich and powerful. In 2010, the organisation headed up by Sepp Blatter, awarded two World Cups: the 2018 to Russia and the 2022 to Qatar, which resulted in a welter of accusations that the bidding process had been bought and rigged.
Particular focus and criticism centred on the tiny Arab Gulf state of Qatar which has a small population, land mass and little in the way of football tradition and at that point infrastructure. Qatar is one of the richest countries in the world and its regime has used football to gain prestige, buying the French league side and current champions Paris Saint-Germain.
FIFA President, Gianni Infantino, has ambitious plans for the future of the World Cup, which he sees as connected to the development of the world's regional football authorities. The 2026 tournament is being held in Canada-USA-Mexico: the first time it will be hosted across three countries. The 2030 tournament will be the centenary, with the inaugural finals held in Uruguay in 1930. For this reason, a combined Uruguay-Argentina-Paraguay bid was thought to be the favourite. But Infantino is now said to prefer a Greece-Egypt-Saudi Arabia bid – one which will have a significant footprint in the Arab world and Middle East – but which will yet again carry concerns about human rights abuses and dictatorships using football to whitewash their image.
The future and why the World Cup matters beyond football
Related to this is the changing nature of prestigious international sports tournaments, from the football World Cup and European Championships to Summer and Winter Olympics, cricket and rugby World Cups and more. A recent survey by Adam Scharpf of the University of Copenhagen, of the host nations of these tournaments post-1945, saw a shift away from democracies as hosts.
In the period 1945-88, 36% of host nations were authoritarian or dictatorial regimes. But, in the era from 1989-2012, this fell to 15% as the Soviet bloc collapsed, Cold War ended and democracy spread. In the past decade, 37% of host nations were authoritarian or dictatorial.
This recent shift cannot be explained by the retreat of democracy. It is more a product of the crisis of confidence in democracy. Increasingly, such tournaments involve vast outlays of public monies and leave behind a huge amount of expensive facilities which are little more than white elephants. Taxpayers and voters have grown weary of such a bargain. But in authoritarian and dictatorial regimes, such constraints do not hinder regimes which have dreams of bestriding the global stage. This is the logic of China and the Summer and Winter Olympics of 2008 and 2022 respectively; and Qatar in 2022.
Add to this is the shifting power of concentrations of wealth, privilege and status in the global capitalist order. The past few decades have seen an unprecedented redistribution of wealth and assets in favour of a microscopic section of the global elite, who have shaped much of our lives across the world, from the economic and how philanthropy is viewed, to technology and how the future is shaped.
This global capitalism has reshaped the world of football. The English Premiership likes to boast that it is the richest (and hence best) league in the world. Yet it is also a league shaped by what is in effect money laundering, with two teams effectively owned by foreign regimes: Newcastle United (Saudi Arabia) and Manchester City (United Arab Emirates), while a host of other clubs are foreign owned.
No-one should be surprised by this because the Premiership reflects the unedifying nature of British capitalism. The UK has an open system to foreign capital, investment and ownership, with no real legal restrictions on foreign ownership of key assets of the UK economy. UK authorities take this to the extreme so that foreign governments can own key parts of UK infrastructure – with the German, French and Dutch state authorities owning parts of the UK railway network. George Osborne when Chancellor was happy for the Chinese state to own parts of our digital infrastructure – this a rare example of something that successive UK Governments post-Osborne have rowed back upon.
The World Cup then is a reflection on the world as it is, the global capitalist system and the priorities it embodies. There never was a completely unsullied liberal era of this tournament. When it was established in 1930, by the second set of finals in 1934, it was held in and won by Mussolini's fascist Italy. The great Brazilian team of Pele and Carlos Alberto which won the Mexico World Cup in 1970, seen as one of the greatest teams of all-time, gave the Brazilian military dictatorship a glamorous public face to the world.
We are heading into uncharted waters of which Qatar is an embodiment. A rotten, dynastic, feudal regime with no interest in human rights, democracy and modernity, that is diminishing everything about the World Cup. Even more than this, Qatar makes no pretence to be a modern country progressing into a wider understanding and advocacy of respect, tolerance and diversity. In that, it offers a glimpse into our future – of a world of elites saying that democracy and the values of the Enlightenment are not for them.
We in the West and the UK have assisted in this. And while the World Cup is only a football tournament, it is representative of the worst aspects of the global order. Many of us will enjoy lots of these games but something precious has been lost and it is more than the wonder of the World Cup.