Image: Mbappé – un garçon des banlieues much like Pelé. Credit: Philosophy Football/Hugh Tisdale.
Writing on the eve of Italia ’90 in the magazine Marxism Today Stan Hey had this gloomy prediction:
“The global success of football has almost certainly the seeds for the game’s corruption. There is now a momentum which seems to be beyond control. Those of us who have retained an optimism for football’s capacity for survival and ability to re-invent itself are already checking our watches. It’s starting to feel like injury time.”
What seemed to prove Stan wrong were all those evenings with Gary Lineker as a nation watched football re-establish its popular appeal – never mind FIFA or those missed penalties in the semi-final defeat to West Germany. 28 years later and an England team has at last won a World Cup penalty shoot-out, has reached a World Cup semi for the first time since 1990, and Harry Kane has lifted the tournament Golden Boot award for top scorer. Surely its scraping the limits of Left miserabilism to suggest Stan’s prediction is about to come horribly true? Perhaps not – Russia 2018 might just prove to be as good as it gets.
As guardian of a global game one of the good things FIFA has done is expand the frontiers of football. Of course they’re after markets rather than nurturing the worldwide culture of the sport – but taking the World Cup to the USA in ’94, Japan and South Korea in 2002 and South Africa in 2010 were absolutely the right things to do. And so was taking it to Russia in 2018, the first post-communist country to host the tournament.
However each of these countries had proven domestic football infrastructure. They had all qualified for World Cups in their own right, not just as hosts. The Middle East was the most obvious part of the planet to take the World Cup to next – but not Qatar. Most scandalously of course, there are the lethally unsafe labour practices that underpin the building of the new stadia, with reportedly hundreds of deaths of construction workers – but the sad reality is that once the tournament begins we will be encouraged to forget about these deaths. Even putting that to one side, though, this is a country that has never before qualified, or come very close. There’s no depth or breadth to football in the country. Football is a tool of Qatari soft-power diplomacy and that’s about it.
If FIFA wanted – rightly – a Middle Eastern, Islamic host, the most obvious candidate that ticks all the right boxes is so obviously Iran – so the fact it was never even considered speaks volumes.
After Qatar won the bid it was swiftly decided that because of the intense heat in the country during June-July, the tournament would be switched to the autumn. Resistance to an autumn tournament can be a tad Eurocentric. The southern hemisphere nations play much of their football in their winter, our summer. But the reality is for the northern hemisphere what makes the World Cup so special is that is at the end of the season. A once every four years summer of footballing love. This is what more than almost anything else draws in the crowds way beyond the footballing diehards. November 2022 will disrupt all this; a mid-season break from the promotion tussle and Champions League that will undoubtedly struggle under the huge shadow of the World Cup.
What has defied Stan Hey’s pessimism about the commercialisation of the World Cup is, more than anything, the mode of its popular consumption, with fans relying on a huge existing set-up of cheap hotels, b and b’s, Airbnb’s, and campsites. The South Americans, Japanese, Mexicans travelled in their tens of thousands this time, and whilst England’s support in Russia was relatively small, it will be bigger next time. It would be wonderful if there can be a similar carnival outwith the control of either FIFA and the authorities could happen in Qatar – but if these facilities are lacking it creates a huge barrier.
What makes a tournament so special is the way the host nation defines it, often in the process defying the stereotypes. No, Russia hasn’t overnight become a worker’s paradise – but neither is it the hell on earth that much of the media build-up presented it as. It was the Russian people, not their government , that turned their country for the past four weeks at least into a place to savour not to fear.
But if Qatar threatens World Cup popularity, things could be even worse at the 2026 tournament. FIFA has awarded World Cup 2026 to the joint bid of USA, Canada and Mexico, undermining the national identity of the tournament. This process has been both justified and amplified by the expansion to 48 nations. But it could result in dragging out the tournament longer than the current four weeks, meaningless group games when the group winners are already settled, tired legs and poor quality football thanks to shortened recovery time.
Hope must spring eternal but it’s not looking good. If the World Cup loses its huge popularity it may never recover. These forces are not fully within the control of FIFA but if it sacrifices the global popular reach of football to suit its organisational ends then it will only have itself to blame. People, not the administrative body, make the World Cup – the fans and the players.
Right now in Mbappé – un garçon des banlieues just like Pelé – France and world has a player who epitomises that. Merci beaucoup, but handle with care.
Mark Perryman is co-founder of Philosophy Football, AKA ‘the sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’. Their Liberté Egalité Mbappé shirt is available from here.