Football holds little allure for me most of the year. I don’t care about the various national and international leagues or their tiresome politics or the endless Saturday coverage of every pointless game. My dad is the kind of man who will watch any football match just for the fun of it, whereas I could go for years at a time without watching a game and being wholly satisfied with life. If I want to watch overpaid celebrities with too much fake tan preen for an audience, I have Hollywood for that!
Still, I hold a soft spot for international games. There’s a unique thrill that comes with seeing your country’s team take on another country, for hope and glory and that smidgen of smugness that comes with being the best for 90 minutes plus injury time. As a Scot, this feeling is ahem… rare? We take our joy where we can but football victories for us are not a reliable source of nationwide happiness. Yet even when watching other countries, the sensation remains. While fairness clearly doesn’t enter the equation, the national teams feel like a more level playing field than the big leagues where success is dictated by who can spend the most money on players. You stick with your country because you believe in them. Or you do what way too many Scots have done and dig deep into the family history to see if you have an English or Irish great-grandparent to make country shopping a little easier.
Of course, the zenith of this system is the World Cup, which is currently taking place in Russia. This is really the only time when I become wholeheartedly invested in a football tournament. As a kid, my dad used to ensure we had the big fixtures poster that the Sun newspaper gave out free on our walls. During the 2002 tournament, I ran a betting pool at my primary school, and drew a ticket for every entrant that featured their chosen country’s team strip. The winner won a giant bar of chocolate (I picked Brazil, so I won. Hey, those were the rules). When Scotland last qualified, way back in 1998, me and my classmates had a giant celebration in the school playground, which involved dozens of kids marching around the grounds, waving flags we’d brought in and holding the team scarves high as we sang the national anthem and some football chants I only vaguely understood as kind of offensive. The World Cup is the one time of the year where everyone in my family will sit around the TV to watch a football game and nobody will complain about it.
Much like my enduring love for the Olympics, I love the World Cup even though it’s utterly and almost irredeemably awful.
I’ve had long arguments with friends over who is more corrupt: FIFA or the International Olympic Committee. The latter has at least never been stupid enough to commission a hagiographic movie about themselves starring Gerard Depardieu, but that’s not a glorious point in their favour. Two of the defining sporting events on our planet, both of which laud themselves as beautiful pinnacles of community and celebration, stink of the stain of backhander payments and large suitcases of money ‘left’ in hotel rooms.
FIFA’s corruption would be laughable in its blatancy if it weren’t so horrifyingly damaging. Consider the case of Brazil in 2014, who were already going through some major financial and construction issues getting ready for the event. Beer sales had been illegal at Brazilian football matches since 2003 as part of an effort to curb hooliganism and violence. Overall, this law was pretty popular in the country and it had effective results. But FIFA have a major sponsorship deal with Budweiser, so that simply wouldn’t do, and they demanded a change in law so that beer could be sold at World Cup matches. The General Secretary of FIFA handled this sticky issue with the grace one expects, by saying, ‘Alcoholic drinks are part of the Fifa World Cup, so we’re going to have them. Excuse me if I sound a bit arrogant but that’s something we won’t negotiate. The fact that we have the right to sell beer has to be a part of the law.’
Brazil suffered hard after the World Cup, which came only two years after they also hosted the Olympics. A year after the celebrations, those glorious stadiums that cost around £2.5bn to build mostly sit in rot. Buildings paid for with public money, a decision that angered many Brazilians, now make for little more than an interesting background drop. For FIFA, however, 2014 was a great year thanks to £3.2bn of revenue which gave them a profit of £1.7bn. That’s money Brazil will never see.
FIFA’s corruption doesn’t just extend to the need to make more money. During the 2010 event in South Africa, they waded into the courtroom to become judge. These so-called FIFA World Cup Courts were established to quickly deal with trouble. South Africa’s government agreed to establish new fewer than 56 of these courts, staffed by their own personnel. According to the Guardian, these courts barely covered any cases, and they could only account for 25 at the time of writing - a cost of £160k per conviction. Most of these cases were things as minor as a man who stole some Coca Cola from a hospitality lounge. A more ludicrous example centred on 36 Dutch women who were charged with ‘ambush marketing’ for Bavaria Beer. This case, as the Guardian further details, is even more insidious than first glance would suggest because it was preceded by yet another change in national law that made such offences a criminal one rather than a civil one. Once again, FIFA demand draconian changes to the legal system, then force the country themselves to foot the bill.
Russia are these year’s hosts and there is nothing I can say about the ridiculousness of this situation that hasn’t already been said by hundreds of others. When the home nation opened the tournament by playing Saudia Arabia, one couldn’t help but wonder how long it would take for both countries to get a full house in a round of human rights violation bingo. Russia followed suit on a few law changes but issues of racism and homophobia in the country, the latter essentially enshrined in their own laws, remain. In four years time, the tournament will be held in Qatar, a country where Summer heat exceeds 50 degrees Celsius and labour laws barely skirt the lines of slavery.
And yet I keep watching. If ever there was a dictionary definition for ‘problematic fave’, it would be my relationship with the World Cup. It’s skills and thrills and misplaced patriotism and fans dressed like Mardi Gras swung by. It’s that devoted emotion of pretending you understand all the riles because you’re having so much fun. It’s feeling invested in the high-low stakes of sports and the delirium it inspires. It’s that moment where, for a brief moment, you get why your dad is so into this sport every damn week.
It sucks, but it’s kind of fantastic too.
Make sure you keep up with the wonderful Lord Castleton’s daily recaps of the tournament for much funnier and more informative coverage of the World Cup. And let us know who you’re rooting for. I’m sticking to my national pride and rooting for everyone playing against England.
(Header photograph courtesy of Getty Images)