A grumpy old fan’s guide to World Cup clichés
Why everything ‘They’ say about Brazil 2014 is wrong. Probably.
The World Cup finally kicks off in Brazil tonight. But the pre-tournament phoney war has already thrown up some bolts of blather as big and boring as Sepp Blatter’s ego. Here are a few contenders so far for the title of Cliché of the Coupe du Monde.
‘The World Cup has been tarnished by FIFA corruption and Brazilian protests’
That depends on which World Cup you mean. There have always been two parallel tournaments. One is played out in the world of geopolitics and big business. The other takes place on Planet Football, played on the pitch and unsullied by earthly matters. That latter one will be the ‘real world’ for many of us over the next few weeks.
As a commercial ‘brand’, FIFA’s showcase tournament might have been tarnished by allegations of corruption, with big corporate sponsors demanding an inquiry into how Qatar secured the 2022 World Cup. And as an instrument for boosting the political authority of the host government, the World Cup in Brazil might have lost its sheen with the strikes and political protests against the cost (though it remains to be seen just how unpopular the tournament will be if and when Brazil start winning matches).
But as a football tournament between the world’s top national sides, nothing could diminish the standing of the World Cup as the biggest and most popular sporting event on Earth (except perhaps proven allegations of match-fixing, rather than just the dubious refereeing decisions and one-eyed Russian linesmen which have never been absent).
As I argued here last week, clouds of top-level political and financial corruption have surrounded the World Cup ever since the first tournament was awarded to Uruguay in 1930. Subsequent World Cups have been hosted and exploited by political regimes ranging from Mussolini’s Italian fascists (1934) and the Argentine military junta (1978), to Swedish Social Democracy (1958), Bill Clinton’s US Democrats (1994), the ANC government of post-apartheid South Africa (2010), and even Harold Wilson’s British Labour Party (1966). The peak of Brazil and Pele’s ‘beautiful game’ in 1970 came under the rule of a military dictatorship that made the current Brazilian government look like a carnival act by comparison. None of the political and financial chicanery has managed to diminish the sporting glory of the World Cup.
If some Brazilians want to use the global spotlight on the World Cup to highlight social and economic problems in their developing nation, fair enough. However, it does strike me that even the recent hand-wringing Western media coverage of the favelas has had acknowledge the joy brought to those slum communities by wild music parties, and football. It seems that the paramilitary police clean-up squads sent into the favelas by the Brazilian state are robbing them of the first – and the po-faced international protesters against the ‘unethical’ World Cup would like to deprive them of the second.
‘The World Cup is for everyone – it unites the world’
Well, yes and no. The World Cup is for everybody who loves football and sporting warfare and spectacle. Football is the one truly global game that unites – and divides – the world: the 203 national teams that entered the qualifying competition for the 2014 World Cup even outnumber the 193 member states of the United Nations. And from Europe to Asia and Africa, it is the passion of the masses.
For me, the story of World Cup protests that best captures the popular spirit surrounding the event came in 1994, when the great Diego Maradona was thrown out of the finals in the US on ridiculous drug charges (he had taken a slimming pill). The expulsion was endorsed by the authorities and media who despised the upstart from the Buenos Aires slums, yet caused outrage among millions of fans for whom he was a street-fighting hero, not only in Maradona’s native Argentina but around Planet Football; there were three days of rioting in Bangladesh.
The World Cup should not, however, be for the global army of government opportunists, corporate connivers and phoney moral crusaders now trying to get their hands on the trophy and turn it into a political/financial football for their own ends. The scourge of ‘Soccerism’ – the desperate attempt by isolated elites to use football to find an audience for their agenda – is all over Brazil 2014 before a ball has even been kicked, whether it is UK home secretary Theresa May warning that the World Cup causes men to kick their wives, or international lobbyists claiming that it will turn child prostitution into Brazil’s national sport.
In slightly more sensible times, before becoming Tory leader, David Cameron questioned the use of banning orders to confiscate targeted England supporters’ passports during World Cups, while freely admitting that he was not a football fan. Now, as UK prime minister, Cameron and his ilk are keen to show their toughness by cracking down on the spectre of football hooliganism – yet at the same time insist that they love ‘the footie’ and the World Cup in particular.
The next month may not be much fun for football-haters. But neither will it be all fun and games for football fans who have to tolerate every self-important tosspot in politics and the media pontificating on a game of which they know little and care less. We would be happy to see our world divided from theirs for the duration. Hands off the World Cup, give us our ball back, and let’s kick Soccerism out of football.
Away from that circus, there are the World Cup clichés about the football itself…
‘We love the World Cup because it showcases all that is best about the beautiful game’
This is the sort of lazy cliché rolled out every four years by those who don’t really follow football between one World Cup and the next. The fact is that the football at the World Cup is often dire, with plenty of drab draws and scrappy matches. The past couple of tournaments were widely seen as pretty poor (and not only by England fans). But even a highpoint such as Italia ’90, the World Cup that supposedly made football cool among the English middle classes, had its share of dross. England striker Gary Lineker recently admitted that, during the dire 1-1 draw with the Republic of Ireland (damned by the Italian press as ‘peasant football’), a ‘stomach upset’ forced him to shuffle along the ground, wiping his backside on the grass. That was not the only crap in evidence on the pitch at Italia ’90 and every other World Cup.
In purely football terms, the glossiest international ‘showcase’ today is the European Champions’ League, contested by star-studded club teams assembled from around the world for eye-watering sums and honed to razor sharpness by a permanent coaching regime. By contrast, national teams are inevitably picked from the best of a limited bunch who happen to have the same passports, thrown together a few weeks before a World Cup and expected to make the Earth move. If they are unfortunate enough to be born in the ‘wrong’ country, some of the greatest players might not play in the World Cup at all – think of George Best (Northern Ireland), Ryan Giggs (Wales), or this year, Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Sweden. Little wonder that the tournament rarely reaches the predicted overhyped heights, or that the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich or Manchester City could probably beat whoever wins the World Cup next month.
What the World Cup has, however, is a magic – no, a numen – all of its own. Its global standing, history and visceral appeal can move the masses like no other sporting event, igniting an explosive mix of football passions and patriotic fervour (not something often seen in politics these days). It is why Time magazine can still seriously describe Brazil’s defeat by Uruguay in the 1950 World Cup final as ‘a result that is widely considered the greatest tragedy in contemporary Brazilian history’, and why 1966 and all that can rival 1945 in the media’s history of ‘our’ finest hour.
Despite what the rugger buggers, cricket chaps or darts players might claim, and regardless of the quality of the football, there can only be one World Cup, and we wouldn’t want it any other way.
‘As the best team and the home team, Brazil are certainties to win it’
The fawning of Nu Football luvvies over the samba boys from Brazil is almost enough to turn any old-school supporter into an Argentina fan. These are the type of people who express their love of the beautiful game, yet fear and loathe the ‘ugly’ people who tend to watch and play it over here. Brazil are clear favourites for 2014. But history suggests things might be a bit more complicated than our Brazilian-boot-kissing simpletons might assume.
It is certainly true that real outsiders have never won the World Cup. The 19 tournaments completed since 1930 have produced eight winners. Uruguay won it twice, way back in 1930 and 1950, England and France once each when playing at home, and Spain broke their duck four years ago in the World Cup in South Africa. The other 14 World Cups have been divided between only four big football powers – Brazil (five times champions), Italy (four), (West) Germany (three) and Argentina (two). Moreover, since England’s victory at Wembley in 1966, the 11 subsequent finals have been contested by just seven countries – the Big Four plus France, Spain and the Netherlands.
None of that means, however, that the pre-tournament favourite or best team always wins the World Cup. Hungary’s Ferenc Puskas-inspired ‘Magical Magyars’ lost the 1954 final to the dour Germans. The same fate (at the same opponent’s feet) befell the Dutch pioneers of ‘Total Football’ in the 1974 final. As for Brazil, after the trauma of that 1950 final loss at home to Uruguay, they won the 1958 and 1962 World Cups with the youthful genius of Pele, and came to England for the 1966 tournament as majestic 5-2 favourites with the British bookies – a shorter price than Brazil are today. But Pele was fouled out of the competition in Liverpool, and Brazil did not make it out of the group stages.
As for home advantage, that too has been a factor in past World Cups, especially when travelling between the two great football continents of South America and Europe was more arduous than it is today. However, only one of the past eight World Cups has been won by the home side. We are (too) often reminded that no European side has ever won in Latin America. Yet until Spain’s 2010 triumph in South Africa, the preferred cliché was that Europeans had never won anywhere at all outside their own continent. Stuff happens, things change, footballers make their own history but not in stadiums of their own choosing. After all, somebody could point out that Brazil have won it only once in South America. They might well win this time, but I for one wouldn’t want to back them at prohibitively short odds, whatever the samba suck-ups might say.
The other thing we hear all the time of course is that ‘England have no chance of winning the World Cup’. Actually, that one is true. Or nearly: the bookies make England around 33-1 shots, giving them something like a three per cent chance of glory. Which is a couple of per cent lower than the strength of the beer we will all be drowning in come the game against Italy on Saturday night.
Let the bullshit end, and the games begin, whatever they might bring! What’s Portuguese for ‘Football, bloody hell’?
Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. His book, There is No Such Thing as a Free Press… And We Need One More Than Ever, is published by Societas. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his website here.