The Ugly Game

I believe that at the time of publication, we will be on day 4 of the football World Cup. I’m sure that for those who follow it, it will simply be known as “the World Cup”. But as there have been, within the past few weeks, a women’s World Cup in rugby union, a men’s Twenty-20 cricket World Cup, not to mention analogous tournaments in men’s rugby league, both for able-bodied players, and teams of wheelchair users, the sport in question does need to be clarified.

Anyone who knows me will be aware that I don’t like football, or as our transatlantic cousins would have it, soccer. I can’t stand it. The beauty of “the beautiful game” is, quite frankly, lost on me. So you won’t be surprised, dear reader, to know that the current kick-about carnival doesn’t fill me with what the late Queen might have described as “undiluted pleasure”.

This doesn’t mean that I’m anti sport. Far from it. I love cricket, and enjoy a number of other sports. I even have medals for rifle shooting. Indeed, I was a British champion once. Not a bad achievement for a blind man, but that’s a story for another time.

Normally, there are two things that irritate me about world cups. One of them is the blanket media coverage – even beyond normal sports output. Not only do we have endless analysis and speculation, but earnest radio presenters will ask their listeners such profound questions as “where did you watch the match last night?”, and have them all on air to discuss the relative merits of watching it in the pub, or at home, or in a church. But, I suppose that it does fill time easily, so nobody has to do any thinking.

The other source of irritation is the pretend fan. You know the sort of person. They blithely tell us that they hate sport in all its forms, until the World Cup comes around. Then, they suddenly know all there is to know about football. They cheer, with needless exuberance, those wins that the experts declare mere formalities. They publicly berate referees for adjudicating on technical points which they, the pretend fans, don’t understand. Then, if they are pretend England fans, they will sing, or at least intone, endless choruses of Football’s Coming Home, overlooking the fact that England is the home of the Premier League, which is the most watched football league in the world, thus meaning that football hasn’t yet left home. As I said, you know the sort. You might even be the sort, in which case, consider yourself properly chastised.

This year’s iteration of the Bonanza of Boredom, though, has a third form of irritation for me. Along with the wall-to-wall tedium of the media coverage, and the hysterical, nationwide fake orgasm of the pseudofans, there is virtue signalling. People, many of whom are actual football fans, have just noticed that the World Cup is being held in Qatar, a country with an appalling human rights record. They seem utterly amazed by this, even though it was announced twelve years ago that Qatar would be the hosts. Why the surprise? And why all the declarations by fans that they will boycott the tournament? Apart from salving their consciences, what good does it do? The Qatari government has made its money back.

Equally ridiculously, however, other people, including some of the players, are offering the bizarre defence of the tournament, that it will help bring about change in Qatar. This is utter nonsense. If there were any sense in that line of thinking, those sports teams which toured South Africa in the 1980s would have brought about the end of that truly disgusting doctrine, Apartheid, rather than becoming pariahs. And surely we want our sportsmen and women to play their respective games, and to play them well, rather than to be latter-day missionaries?

The other thing that shocks the fans is that money was cut a motivating factor. Money has always been a factor in sport. People have been betting on horse races since time immemorial. Boxers began to be awarded cash prizes, thus becoming known as “prize fighters”. English rugby was rocked in the 1890s by a group of clubs, mostly in the north, breaking away to form a professional rugby league. The cricketing world was riven by Kerry Packer’s World Series in the 1970s, which paid players more money. Golf is currently experiencing a similar schism owing to the Saudi-backed LIV tour. Money talks, and fans of the richest sport in the world shouldn’t be surprised.

So, you may ask, am I suggesting that the fans are wrong to be unhappy about the choice of host country for this tedious tournament? No, not at all. Naive, perhaps, but not wrong. After all, a world cup does imply that any country in the world can enter, whether we in the West like their political regime or not. If all sporting bodies thought the same, the England cricket team wouldn’t be touring Pakistan next month, where criminals can still be executed. Nor would future tours to India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the West Indies take place, for the same reason.

Fans are, however, wrong to be surprised. They are also wrong to be surprised by the venality of the men at the top. After all, football is an example of global capitalism, not an engine for social good, despite the apparently aspiring missionary tendencies of some of the players.

Football fans must accept that the “beautiful game” has an ugly side. It may be possible to reform things so that it becomes more like a game again, and less like big business, if enough fans can come together, and somehow usurp power. But that seems highly unlikely. And so, the sport they love, will continue to be an amalgamation of beauty and the beast. Although from my perspective, the beast was, is, and will always remain, the dominant constituent.

One response to “The Ugly Game”

  1. Very well put, thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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