Jan Poortvliet heads the ball during the FIFA World Cup final match between Argentina and The Netherlands on June 25, 1978 at the Estadio Monumental Antonio Vespuci at Buenos Aires, Argentina.(Photo by VI Images via Getty Images)

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Football was once a spectacle. The grotesque Qatar World Cup reminds us of all it has become

This article is taken from the December/January 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

My uncle by marriage, Eric Gibson, was as distraught as I was at the accident at Munich airport which took 21 lives, including seven Manchester United players, Busby Babes, and left an eighth, the marvellous Duncan Edwards, in an iron lung for two weeks until he, too, succumbed.

Eric was a Mancunian who had lived all his adult life in Southampton. A treat that he had promised for later in the season was brought forward as a sort of consolation. He took me to The Dell to a Third Division South match between the Saints and the Canaries (Norwich). 

I said “sort of”. I had read accounts of stadium collapses in faraway places such as Bolton and Buenos Aires. The stands were rickety. Eric had lost a leg when the Cunliffe-Owen factory, which manufactured parts for Supermarine Spitfires, was bombed. His agility was something to behold. I recall it and the respectful bonhomie of his friends more than I do the game. The players were blokes and geezers, not “legends”. Many were local. 

The crowd was courteous. No one was obviously drunk, no one was hatless, no one swore. I was initiated into a milieu without realising it. Club is apt, church would do too. To this day I “support” Southampton. The Dell is now architecturally dismal housing. But not much has changed since the move to St Mary’s on the Itchen’s right bank opposite the former Supermarine site. 

The Saints are always close to relegation. They haven’t won anything since the FA Cup in 1976. They sell their best players — currently they have no players who might be called “best”, which suggests unusually crafty management. 

If you own an unreciprocated fondness for such a team then you no doubt deserve lifelong low-level despair. It’s nothing more than despair. It’s certainly not anger, save in bursts when another simple chance is missed or a different class of own goal is scored with a back pass from the halfway line. Different class is classier than world class. Such stratospheric levels are not to be found here. Were they to be found, something would be seriously amiss. 

The pleasure of foisting one’s support on such a club is pusillanimous. The zealous avoidance of excellence raises no hopes. We do not have low expectations. We have no expectations. If you’re a supporter of Real or Liverpool you are forever burdened by past triumphs, by the anticipation that this season’s team will emulate that of players gone to Valhalla and punditry. Disappointment is in direct proportion to the wealth and achievements of a club (measured in “silverware”). 

Less than one per cent of Man Utd supporters can distinguish Oxford Road station from Deansgate station. Southampton is different: 100 per cent of Saints supporters can direct you to Benny Hill’s childhood home, the Marchwood incinerator, Upton’s in Bassett, the shelters on Weston Shore, the cottage on the Common where Ken Russell filmed a vigilant copper who hid in the eaves in the hope of arraigning “them perves”. 

You support a club because you have a connection which goes beyond the laughably named “beautiful game”

You support a club because you have a connection which goes beyond the laughably named “beautiful game”, a connection of a different order to that enjoyed by, say, a Chelsea fan from Yamanashi who has chosen that club with a pin. It is again a different sort of connection from that made with a national team: fans of rival clubs make peace in order to put wind in Ingerlandlandland’s sails — oh blimey O’Reilly the mast has gone and snapped, again.

The evening after the afternoon when England, with help from a veteran of Stalingrad, won the World Cup, I went to a party in west London. There were a few German students there. There was no recrimination or boasting about the match — no one was much interested. The country had not been dominated by football for the previous month. It was emphatically back-page and some years away from becoming fashionable. Football was a spectacle, not a cabby’s lingua franca. The philosophies of managers were not eagerly sought. The two subsequent World Cups were also apolitical. 

1978 was different. FIFA somehow failed to notice that Argentina was a terrorist state. It borrowed from the Berlin Olympics of 1936. As a spectacle it as was as potent as the later Nuremberg rallies. The home side, the team of Mario Kempes, won a corrupt, match-fixed tournament played on pitches smothered with blue and white confetti. 

General Jorge Videla, a skull with a moustache, stared impassively from the presidential box giving a fair impression of the living dead. Nearby the dead dead were piling up. Rumours of disappearances were already getting out. 

Not quite the eternal return … But Qatar will surely triumph. Its victory in the final on 18 December is assured. A fortune has been spent on infrastructure, stadiums, hotels, PR lies, “hospitality” to national federations and FIFA. 

Why leave it at that? The necessary sweeteners to referees, managers and medical staff are small change in comparison.

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