The Clueless Commander-in-Chief.

At long last it seems that Sepp Blatter, the President Mubarak of world football, is to face a challenge for his presidency in the shape of Mohamed bin Hammam. Just as in Cairo and Tripoli the world has had enough of an unnecessarily long dictatorship. Hammam is of course, from Qatar, which heralds yet another dawning of the new Qatari domination of the world game (see “The Heat Makes People Do Funny Things and “The Fate Of All Our Tomorrows” ). Whilst I object to the game cheapening its character by repeatedly whoring out its prized assets (first it was a few friendlies, then the World Cup and now possibly FIFA’s highest position of authority), I support the removal of such a pompous, homophobic and frankly embarrassing elder statesman.

"D'oh!"

Blatter has run more or less unchallenged for 13 years and is looking to make that 17. That’s approaching Colonel Gaddafi status! It seems the ‘Facebook Revolution’ happening in the Middle East is working its way over to FIFA ‘HQ’ in Zurich…

"I grew up on the Kop...honest"

I have read reports stating that Bin Hammam has youth on his side being a mere 61 years old but this to me highlights a glowing problem rotting away at the core of the game. Football is stuck between clinging onto its history and embracing the new, modern age. It’s this dilemma I believe makes it possible for ‘developing countries’ candidates to incorrectly contest the highest positions of power and thus dictate how the sport is run despite lacking any deep-rooted passion or history of the sport. Yes, football’s now a world game, shown live in every corner of the globe, giving more and more of humanity a certain depth of knowledge about such matters as the Premier League, Serie A and La Liga. But football doesn’t only exist in those exalted arenas. It’s in the lower leagues, in parks and schools where FIFA can have the most cause and effect. For now, that sheer depth of saturation simply doesn’t exist in many parts of the world. Qatar may have grown 20 or so professional football clubs, the USA may be rapidly expanding its Major League and Australia can boast of a relatively successful A-League nowadays but look beyond that veneer. It remains a facade that those countries (and others like them) hide behind to boost claims that football is now a part of their DNA. Unfortunately, that still isn’t the case. In such countries it still lags behind other sports when it comes to brand recognition and more importantly in the minds of impressionable young children. All of which is why I maintain that whilst Blatter should indeed be sent from whence he came, why are there no candidates being discussed from England, France, Spain, Italy or Germany? Bin Hammam himself recently stated that “Europe is the core of football”. I would actually include South America and possibly Africa in that statement but he’s more or less correct. Being a politician, he’s now reading the tea-leaves and looking into ways in which he can garner enough votes from the other confederations to win an election. Which means, incredibly, that he can and most likely will get enough support from Asia (of course….he’s their president already), Oceania, North America and Africa to take power of a sport which he probably didn’t know a thing about until his fifties!!

All those continents can’t boast of a single world renowned club between them so how can this be good for the future of football? We already have Asian businessmen taking over British clubs due to their undoubted financial clout, which in the case of Blackburn Rovers doesn’t appear to be heading to a fanciful conclusion, and as the team hovers perilously above the drop-zone the chairmen have since stated they know next to nothing about football! It shows….trust me.

I guess all I’m trying to say, without being accused of narrow-mindedness or thinly veiled racism, is that the game belongs to those who love it deeply. The fans. Not those with the fattest wallet nor those with the greatest oil reserves. Not those who can strike a deal under the table or those who promise the biggest television numbers for marketing and can squeeze the most from the merchandising dollar. Teams have been displaced, moved across countries with complete disregard for their followers. Ticket prices have risen to unaffordable levels for those that most want to attend. Replica shirts are manufactured so frequently to pray on the most vulnerable (parents). Players inhabit a different stratosphere to those who worship their image. All of this we deal with because we have no choice. Our love of the game is too deep-rooted for us to turn our backs despite everything our sanity tells us is wrong. Why not follow the example of clubs in Germany and allow the fan to pull the strings? Not a lunatic taking over the asylum, just more a case of someone who understands the game at the very centre of their being instead of a billionaire who finds it mildly entertaining for a time.

In our rush to seek out new frontiers it seems we ignore the very best candidate. Step forward the man who grew up playing and watching the game as a boy, then went on to become a national icon for his own footballing wizardry before becoming the head of UEFA (which lest we forget is the core of football according to the preferred candidate). He may not be Korean or Iraqi, Costa Rican or Ethiopian but he is a realistic option on the table. If I were asked for my opinion on June 1st (I won’t be), I’d vote for Michel Platini. If not him…me. Does Mohamed Bin Hammam feel compelled to write a thousand words on the state of the game? Probably not, but of course, he can hire someone to do it for him.

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Transfer Deadline Day: The American Way

A convention center in Baltimore. The long reaching talons of world football know no bounds as a non-descript concrete edifice in Maryland grasps the eyes and ears of the soccer world (or…..me and about a hundred others in America) for a few hours at least. So, as I kick back and try to enjoy my first ever Major League Soccer ‘Superdraft” (to give it its full superlative-addled moniker) my first obstacle is the omnipresent choice of Alexi Lalas as host of ESPN’s coverage. No sooner has the draft begun, than the terrifically condescending, flame-haired ex-player has managed to irk me. Upon commenting on a particular college player, Lalas proceeds to give an inopportune ‘shout out’ to the young mans college sweetheart, thus sucking any ensuing tension that particular pick had created. “Way to go, Lexi”!

The future of American football (you know what I mean) is bright. Major League Soccer grows this coming season with the addition of two teams (or as the US put it, two ‘expansion franchises’, which sounds terribly business-like). The Portland Timbers and the Vancouver Whitecaps both re-emerge from years in the wilderness (arguably a welcoming place to a team called “Timbers”) to stake a claim in a new 19-team set-up. Indeed, as proven with Toronto FC’s inclusion two years ago, Canada with its commonwealth roots appears to be a very positive breeding ground for the new frontiers of the MLS. Toronto already boasts possibly the most vociferous fan-base despite having almost nothing to celebrate thus far. Clearly the league commissioners are enticed by this potential source of future income and have already awarded the city of Montreal the honour of becoming ‘Americas’ 20th participant. Perhaps keep your eyes peeled for a future “Quebec Athletic” or even a “Real Ottawa”. Maybe a solution to the current economic disaster zone that is the Scottish Premier League would be to finally merge two or three of the larger clubs into the English game just as the US and Canada have done. After all if it works for Swansea City and Cardiff, both hailing from Wales, so why not? Or maybe the small-print on the ‘devolution’ contracts were “by all means govern yourselves but don’t think we’re taking anymore of your low-rent football teams”!

The Portland Trailblazers will apparently be sporting a rather snazzy new green/gold kit in their maiden MLS season, perhaps even rivalling last years ‘expansion’ team Philadelphia Union for nattiest number in the league. This season will also see the Kansas City Wizards ‘re-branded’ (another of those gloriously business-like terms) as ‘Sporting Kansas City’.

As to the actual talent on offer in a ‘Super-Mighty-Excellent-Draft’ as it shall forever now be known, I must confess to my complete lack of knowledge regarding US collegiate soccer. Therefore all the names being picked mean very little to me and are therefore depriving me of any dramatic tension I may otherwise have felt. Nonetheless, I’m certainly a big fan of the American method of transferring players in sport. It’s the most democratic process imaginable and perhaps would be adopted in Europe if the likes of Arsene Wenger had his way, as he recently called for all teams to start each season on a level financial playing field. I keep imagining how thrilling deadline day in England would be if it involved the likes of Wigan, Bolton or Wolves being offered players such as Rooney, Gerrard or Torres before anyone else got a look in!

As the newcomers, Vancouver and Portland are given first choice of the crop of new talent. The Whitecaps kick off with a certain Omar Salgado, who has a look of Kaka about him. Canadians will be hoping the similarities don’t end there. A lot will be expected of Mr Salgado being chosen before anyone else, and he’s already caused some domestic unrest, as his wasn’t a universal choice amongst the back-room staff at Vancouver, keep an eye out for him.

All of which begs the question, no matter how fair the process, should transfers be chosen by committee, or should ultimate power be handed to the coach? I can’t imagine Brian Clough, Alex Ferguson or Jose Mourinho being kindly informed that the talent at their disposal would be decided by money men surrounding a conference table!

But back to the future stars of US soccer and the charmingly named Darlington Nagbe sent his mother by proxy to sign for the Portland Trailblazers. All of which made him tremendously happy as he didn’t wish to ‘leave the country’ and play in the far-flung lands of Canada! Doesn’t bode too well for his future when it comes to making the logical leap to a European league if he’s so reluctant to cut the apron strings. Even the previously like-minded Landon Donovan managed to sever himself successfully from his homeland, well for a time at least.

What does seem apparent is that if you want your child to flourish in US soccer send them to the University of Akron, wherever that may be? With 5 of the first 8 players selected all coming from that very same school clearly Caleb Porter is the Pep Guardiola of school-soccer.

Number three pick Perry Kitchin looks a bit ‘Lampard-esque’ in his highlight reel, a midfielder with a decent eye for goal, so look for him to publicly cheat on his future wife and child someday soon in Washington DC….but if there’s a player who’s caught my eye (as much as a 30 second Youtube showreel will allow), it’s the lanky forward Justin Meram signed later in the day by Columbus Crew, a possible latter day Alan Smith (of 1980’s Arsenal….not the thug plying his trade with Newcastle).

Incidentally, coverage was interrupted with commercials for the 2011 FIFA womens World Cup which begins in Germany this June. Such a tournament is of course given great coverage here in the US given their tremendous history (look…Brandi Chastain in a bra!) whereas most other countries barely register it and even fewer take it all that seriously, but that’s a whole other story. Perhaps I’ll tune in…..but then again perhaps not.

So what have I made of my first foray into the ‘Magnificent-Brilliant-Draft’? Well, it’s all a bit foreign pinning your hopes on an unrecognized college graduate. It also seems a bit strange to devote an entire afternoons television scheduling to essentially young unknowns, before they’ve proven anything in the sport. After all, at this point it’s just potential and nothing more. Of course, America has never been one to shy away from any chance to put on the old ‘razzle-dazzle’. And as live coverage comes to an end, despite the draft not being finished (because ESPN needs to cut to LeBron James talking about what sneakers he may wear or something equally inane), we’re treated to pictures of Wayne Rooneys younger brother John, shifting uncomfortably in his seat, still awaiting the sound of his name being called two hours after we’ve started. Rooney will eventually be signed, rather reluctantly, by the New York Red Bulls, who in their constant quest to become the Real Madrid of America have been turned on by the possibility of an ‘Henry-Rooney’ partnership, despite one of them coming from Macclesfield Town. Just what a young, impressionable and very likely drunken Liverpudlian doesn’t need is to be let loose in New York. I’m thinking Kansas or Oregon might’ve been safer. Still, aside from the aging galacticos at Red Bull Arena clearly name nor reputation mean anything much at all in the egalitarian environment that is soccer in the US of A.

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Battle Of The Giant Little Men

In the light of FIFA’s decision to award Lionel Messi a second consecutive World Player of the Year Award, there seems to be public outcry that the wrong man has been chosen. Now, I’m not averse to pointing a critical finger towards FIFA as you know, but in this case I feel the need to defend their choice, besides, at least with this award we get a full and transparent voting system by international captains and media alike. Points were awarded for 1st, 2nd and 3rd place picks with an accumalative score deciding the eventual ‘best player in the world’. Whatever that means. Of course, the only true manner of deciding who’s best would be to have them pit their wits against each other in gladiatorial fashion, substituting footballs for swords and daggers but as that’s not all that likely we simply watch them play year round and judge accordingly.

Inter Milan’s Wesley Sneijder’s absence from the shortlist of three was a rather glaring omission in my opinion but few can argue with the relative merits of the three ‘Barcelonistas’ who were named. Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi are all hugely important cogs in the greatest ever assembled footballing machine that is Pep Guardiola’s current incarnation of talent at the Camp Nou. In fact, one might argue that several others in that very same team deserve the award too, such as Carlos Puyol or Gerard Pique but that would mean rewarding a defender and no-one wants to do that…

The rally cry from the Xavi and Iniesta supporters was that their idols lifted the World Cup this year, whereas Messi and Argentina did not. But surely Spain were awarded collectively for that in Johannesburg in July? Whilst I agree that in order for Messi to attain true ‘legendary’ status he must perform on the international stage as well as he does each week for Barcelona, he alone cannot be held responsible for being played out of position due to lack of like-minded talent in a an ill-fitting formation dictated by the very man he one day will no doubt emulate, Diego Maradona.

The so-called ‘wronged man’ of the triumvirate is apparently Xavi. Already a legend at Barcelona for recently breaking the all-time appearance record, perhaps Xavi’s style of play doesn’t grab as many headlines as those further up the field. Messi can score 40-plus goals a season but Xavi can set up double that. I do concur that this was probably his best ever chance at being crowned, it’s just freak timing for him to enjoy playing alongside one of the all-time greats in the little man from Argentina. Of course, Spain are crying foul the loudest, placing both second and third and indeed are now encouraging their citizens to introspectively look amongst themselves for reasons why their country again lost an international vote (after a failed World Cup host bid). I think Spain should be thankful, not only that Messi chose to play on their soil but that almost all the FIFA World XI do too. Speaking of which, the exalted few were as follows:

Casillas (Real Madrid), Maicon (Inter), Puyol (Barcelona), Lucio (Inter), Pique (Barcelona), Sneijder (Inter), Xavi (Barcelona), Iniesta (Barcelona), Ronaldo (Real Madrid), Messi (Barcelona), Villa (Barcelona).

Not much to argue about there. In fact, my own personal votes were almost identical, except for the choice of Pique, whom I replaced with Michel Bastos of Lyon and the only reason I did that was because technically the formation above doesn’t fit (Lucio, Puyol and Pique are all central defenders). In which case, I probably agree completely.

As a fan of the glorious ‘tiki-taka’ football practiced by all three of the finalists I was delighted to see them all recognised, especially at the expense of the preening arrogance of Cristiano Ronaldo. I do spare a thought for Xavi, the player and the man but maintain he’s anything but ‘forgotten’. But Lionel Messi has left my jaw agape every single time I watch him play. In fact, he’s even appeared for nothing but a cameo and managed to turn the course of a match on several occasions. Undoubtedly, he’s a genius and the finest, most humble footballer on the planet. I just wish he was born in Birmingham.

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The Bi-Polar Colloseum

On a recent visit to Milan I took in a side-trip to the magnificent Stadio San Siro, home of both AC and Inter Milan. Or rather, on a recent visit to the San Siro I took in a side-trip to Milan while I was there. I mean, as majestic as Il Duomo and La Scala are, they cannot contend with the lure of Europes third-largest soccer stadium!

"What's in a name......?"

Depending on who you ask, it’s either the Stadio San Siro(AC Milan fans) or the Stadio Guiseppe Meazza(a much heralded ex-Inter player). A few things of note as I meandered the corridors of the Rossoneri/ Nerazurri: Inters dressing room is a sparse, minimalist, no-distraction type affair whilst AC’s is kitted out with plush leather seating and plasma screens for each and every superstar. Hmmmm, I wonder which of the clubs are owned by Italys Prime Minister/Owner of National Television/Renowned International Playboy? Indeed, Berlusconi has left his indelible mark on the very walls of San Siro. The club emblem for Internazionale is of the cheap, window transfer variety whereas AC are gifted their very own illuminated, embossed emblem not just on walls but on ceilings and floors too!

Another point of interest is that the gaping hole in the upper east terrace, of which I’ve always wondered why it’s smaller than the rest, is due to there being another sporting stadia directly outside that side of the ground, meaning the San Siro couldn’t extend on that side(as the rest of the stadium was extended for World Cup Italia 1990) and thus are forever stuck with three big stands and one slightly smaller (sorry…bit geekish of me I know but these things matter to a stadium architecture fan such as myself).

The 'inferior' eastern stand

During my visit, Inter had just announced the decision to offload new coach Rafa Benitez after a sluggish start to his regime. Time and tide waits for no man in the increasingly cutthroat world of instant gratification that is modern world football. And so as Benitez sulks off into the distance, onto the stage struts Leonardo, the handsome, well-dressed Brazilian who already knows his way around the place after a spell coaching AC. Clearly such a divisive background appears not to matter, as long as you grace the assembled hacks with a certain elan, whilst donned in the latest by the cities most famous son (Armani….not DaVinci). Simply put, Leonardo looks Milanese and Benitez doesn’t. Only time will tell if appearances really matter.

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The Heat Makes People Do Funny Things.

Just days after their unprecedented, and in my opinion, thoroughly undeserved victory to become the first Middle Eastern host nation of the FIFA World Cup, Qatar have broken yet another of footballs remaining taboos. Barcelona, a club with the steadfast tradition of having never ‘sold out’ by donning commercial sponsorship logos across players chests have finally been beaten into submission by that most unlikely of sources….Qatar. Is nothing sacred anymore?
Obviously, Qatar is rapidly becoming the new centre of the footballing planet.

We’ve all gone Qatari crazy. Surely an announcement by FIFA to move their headquarters from Zurich to Doha is imminent? Oh wait, they wouldn’t like the heat. It’s scorching nature is only good enough for one thing…..playing international soccer in the summer!
There have been rumors of Qatari FA representatives suggesting a switch to a Winter World Cup in 2022, as if only now realizing the shocking ineptitude of boasting an air-conditioned tournament in the desert heat. Short of constructing a roof over the entire country and climate-controlling the nation “Truman Show”-style I still cannot see how, or more importantly why, this is being allowed to happen.

"Does yellow work for you Emir?".

Back to the inevitable yet saddening news of Barcelona becoming synonymous with the Qatari Foundation, 111 years of Catalan stubbornness is apparently also breach-able with oil money. My advice is to get one of the remaining FC Barcelona shirts now while you still can, being the last replica kit we’ll ever see without a garish, capitalist logo larger than the club badge. Now, whilst the Qatari Foundation is a non-profit organization with aims to promote education in the Middle East (certainly a very noble cause), Barcelona will receive almost $200 million for the privilege. Therein lies the rub, as the Catalan giants currently promote UNICEF (the global children’s charity) from their own pockets. They actually pay UNICEF around $2 million per annum to host the logo, a philanthropic gesture the like of which has all but disappeared in the commercial nirvana that is modern sport.
Indeed, when the UNICEF deal was announced in 2006 the club were quite rightly hailed for taking the moral high ground when ex-president of the club Juan Laporta remarked “It is important that we try to present an image of the sport in the world that changes the idea that football is only about money, but that it has a heart and a soul”.

Four years later, despite the promise to somehow squeeze both logos onto their shirt (reason alone to horrify the purists), Barcelona will now prostitute their once historic reputation to help service their debts. Yes….Barcelona, the current iteration of which may be the finest assembly of footballing talent ever created, are in a lot of debt. What happened to you football?

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The Fate Of All Our Tomorrows….

The date is Thursday December 2nd 2010. Yes, 2010. A day which is to decide our collective World Cup fates for the next twelve years as FIFA, in their infinite wisdom, decide to announce the hosts of both the 2018 and 2022 tournaments in a glitzy, star-studded event in Zurich. The fact that we’re still four years away from the NEXT World Cup in Brazil doesn’t seem to faze the hyperbolic media machine ramping into overdrive as both behemoths of the world game and newcomers alike battle it out against each other for the right to have a few million international visitors crammed onto their soil over a four week period in over a decades time. Of course, the talk is all of alleged corruption. After revelations of ‘bungs’ or ‘backhanders’ being thrown to the exalted 23 men on the voting panel there lies a cynical air over proceedings. Two FIFA panelists have already been removed yet mounting evidence suggests that more should follow including the always questionable figure of Jack Warner, from the very highest echelons of the FIFA rank and file. What is all about to unfold will no doubt be torn asunder by lawyers of the losing bids and perhaps even be dragged through the highest courts in an undignified, arbitrary fashion akin to Florida in 2000.

Will Qatari oil money trump other, more worthy footballing nations to host a World Cup in the extreme desert heat, making the complaints of Jack Charlton and his Irish team in 1994 about New York’s mid-day temperatures look churlish in comparison? And just what else is there for visiting fans to do between games? Having watched several friendlies played in Doha I have to hesitate as to there being any passion present whatsoever inside the stadium. Sure, spectators will be comfortable and whisked from venue to venue in streamlined, air-conditioned and clockwork fashion but Qatar will be left with a dozen or so huge empty stadiums once the tournament is over. Not that they care?

Speaking of efficiency between venues, Japan have the gall to be bidding for yet another World Cup, as do South Korea, so soon after hosting a tournament together in 2002. This surely rules them both out of serious contention despite their wonderful, futuristic intentions such as beaming the games holographically in 3-D to countless empty stadia around the world enabling fans to watch the game ‘as live’ wherever they may be. An astonishing prospect but it would be plain wrong if either country is awarded a second World Cup so soon.

Likewise the USA. Honestly, if the whole country were behind the efforts and truly wanted another World Cup (after also recently hosting in 1994), I believe the United States would trump all others but theirs seems a somewhat half-hearted appeal despite the presence of Bill Clinton, who already worked his magic in bringing it to America in 1994 after Colombia were deemed unworthy. The Americans are promising record gate-receipts at every game but the country is so vast that fans cannot ever congregate, to meet and enjoy the fan zone aspect of a truly international, cosmopolitan sporting event. Besides, they just don’t care enough.

Which, of the remaining bidders for 2022, brings us to Australia. In my opinion (which is probably completely wrong), Australia are the ones to beat. They even wheeled out Nicole Kidman onscreen to name it the ‘No Worries’ World Cup. Or, the ‘Hakuna Matata’ Cup. They’re also promising glorious sunshine, beaches and barbecues. How can FIFA resist? Especially when it also checks the box next to ‘exploring new soccer frontiers’. The relatively fledgling A-League is in its infancy and the boost provided by a World Cup on Aussie soil could prove immense. Trust me, we’ll all be seeing pictures of Brazilians dancing outside the Sydney Opera House and English fans being sunburnt on Bondi Beach in 2022.

So what of 2018? I’m not a fan of the current trend of ‘joint-bids’ in which two countries pool their collective resources to outbid other nations. Spain and Portugal could no doubt host a World Cup on their own terms, as Spain already have in 1982 and Portugal did with the Euro 2004 tournament. Why then award it to the whole Iberian peninsula instead of a solid one country with a strong enough personality to stamp its own impression on the game. Spanish hopes are high after apparently promising to split votes with a Qatar win for 2022, and some of their team have already boasted of claiming at least 7 or 8 votes of a necessary 12 votes-to-win target. If this is true, then they really are the favourites, just as the team itself was in South Africa 2010. They delivered then and perhaps they’ll deliver again now. Holland and Belgium have ‘buddied up’ too. The common feeling seems to be that they’ve no chance of hosting. Shame, as Belgium could use some help in qualifying (the hosts qualify automatically….something Qatar would be extremely grateful of too). I was in Holland and Belgium for the Euro 2000 tournament which was an orange-washed sea of fun (apart from the running street fights between English and German fans or the baton-wielding Belgian riot police). Dutch attitudes are notoriously laid back so no doubt they’ll take defeat with a knowing smile and nonchalant shrug especially as they appear to have already made themselves persona non grata with FIFA, having made public FIFA’s secretive list of ‘new laws & rules’ required to present a bid.

That just leaves England and Russia. Formidable opponents for very different reasons. Despite my obvious bias, I strongly believe a World Cup on English soil for the first time since 1966 is way overdue. The English invented the game as it is today. They have the finest League in the world with more professional clubs than anyone else. No other country in the world…..yes, the world, has the omnipresent passion for soccer as the English do. In short, we’re crazy for it. It’s down to the constant heartbreak we’ve suffered in the last 50 years. Like a lover who treats us badly that we just can’t walk away from despite the pain they always inflict. Call us gluttons for punishment if you will. But cast your eyes around any stadium at any World Cup match and no matter which two teams are battling it out I guarantee you’ll see the St George flag. Iran v Ghana? Australia v USA? N Korea v Kazakhstan? English fans will be there. In numbers. The relatively small geography of England lends itself to a tournament in which visiting fans can intermingle and easily travel to any and every venue without changing time zones or crossing borders. History and legacy is on the side of England. Are the corrupt 23?

Russia has a phenomenal new wealth forcing the bid through, and the domestic game appears to be thriving with teams such as Zenit St Petersburg and Shakhtar Donetsk playing on a level playing field with some of Europes most exonerated clubs. Stadiums are being built in grandiose fashion too and the possibility of allowing soccer to explore yet another new territory (Russia has never hosted a World Cup despite its massive presence) must be very tempting to the FIFA coffers. My hunch is that it’s David Beckhams teary-eyed speech against the whole of Russia methinks (except their absent Prime Minister Putin).

Crikey, I’m feeling nervous! The announcements are now delayed. Apparently the voting is close and several rounds are being employed. Prince William and David Beckham look rather glum though, unlike the Qatari contingent who are beaming with smiles. I’d love it if in ten minutes time I hear the words “England will host the 2018 World Cup”.  Of course, I’d have to return to my homeland for a month in the summer of ’18 but there are plenty friends and family with sofa’s on which to crash. I’ve already worked out a place to rest my weary, football-filled brain in Bristol, Newcastle, Sunderland, Manchester and London. Just need some friends in Moscow and Sydney now……
The wait is over. It appears it’s time to see just how wrong I am. Mr Blatter, the results please:

World Cup 2018 will be hosted by…………….Russia. The iron curtain has well and truly faded away. Despite Sepp Blatter calling England the “motherland of football” they seem to have fallen at the earliest hurdle. There will be no two million free bikes for fans in Holland and no football fiesta on the Costa Del Sol. Blatter then mistakenly calls Russia a continent, which of course it isn’t. It spans Europe and Asia. Either way, the Russians are coming.

And..
World Cup 2022 is to be hosted by……uh-oh. It’s Qatar. A football tournament in a country that simply doesn’t play football. No leagues, no serious international set-up and certainly no decent players of note. FIFA have now clearly decided to use the World Cup as some sort of political development tool for countries most in need of infrastructure. All the games will be played within a 60km radius and all stadiums (which will be purpose-built) will then be packed up and shipped off to various third-world countries as Qatar will have no need for them. It’s a generous gesture that no doubt won several key votes among those FIFA delegates aiming for some kind of Nobel Peace Prize but also a ridiculous one. We can only guess the state of Middle Eastern affairs in the year 2022 (it was the only bid labelled as “High Risk”) but we can almost certainly pinpoint the searing heat that teams and fans alike will contend with in the arid, dry (in every sense) landscape just south of Saudi Arabia.
The results are also a sign of the newer world in which we move into. No longer the old heritage of Europe or even the millions of New World dollars but wealth beyond compare owned by those connected to that black gold…..oil. Russian oligarchs and Saudi tycoons have won the day. That bodes well for World Cups in India and China within the next century too. I can’t help but feel disappointed that football is being force-fed to developing nations as a tool for capitalism, wherein companies such as Coca-Cola and McDonalds flaunt their logos in full view of local inhabitants without the means or desire to buy them.  We also learnt today that the world is getting flatter still. Since USA’94, then Japan/Korea’02 followed by South Africa’10 and now onto Russia’18 and Qatar’22 the world games can reach just about anywhere. Old institutions are dead and although Blatter and co might claim to be blazing a new political trail and using soccer for the greater good, it’s clear that money has spoken…nay shouted in Zurich today.

NB:- I later realised I mistakenly referred to Qatar as having no professional soccer league. This is patently untrue. What a huge disservice I did to such a well-established hotbed of football. Indeed, the “Qatar Stars League” boasts a whopping 12 teams! This is up from a previous 9 then 10 combatants. Indeed, almost every team has either changed name or merged with another in their very brief history and as recently as 2009 the ‘powers that be’ in Qatar announced that no team would be relegated that year….just ONE GAME before the final round of the season.

In conclusion, I have perhaps been a little harsh on Qatari football, not realizing the vast under-running soccer culture that seeps from the pores of every man, women and child in the region. And if you detect a hint of sarcasm in my writing I can assure you it’s completely intentional. Oh look….a shiny new stadium that looks like a boat! There’s another that looks like a sea-shell! Oh wow….you mean we arrive at the game by water taxi!? It’s so modern, so astonishing, so unexpected…..so…..utterly devoid of character, history or common sense.

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