FIFA President Gianni Infantino with Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Amir of Qatar (Photo by Marcio Machado/Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images)

Tarnished beauty

FIFA is mistreating football

Artillery Row

As a football fan, you don’t know whether to laugh or cry when you see old FIFA boss Sepp Blatter come out of retirement and say this World Cup in Qatar is all a “mistake”. Quite what the mistake is, he doesn’t say. But let’s see.

Maybe it was handing — sorry, selling — the world’s number one sports tournament to a tiny, inhumane yet filthy rich kingdom? Or is it the madness of watching the planet’s best football leagues halt all games mid-season to travel to the desert at the only time of year when the temperature allows players and fans to gather without serious danger to health? 

As for the abuse — death in some cases — of migrant workers who have built stadiums, and the new city that will host the final, well, Blatter doesn’t mention that. “A bad choice,” he concludes, blaming others for Qatar, as always casting himself as an innocent. The fellow knows no shame, seeing as his dynasty masterminded the scandalous process that had “the beautiful game” become the propaganda plaything of Qatar’s ruler, Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa.

I covered three World cups as a correspondent: Spain 1982, USA 1994, Brazil 2014. I can remember “o jogo bonito”, as Brazilians term soccer’s beauty. The memory bank is rich: Italy beating a wonderful Brazil team, led by a maestro called Socrates, in Barcelona, 1982. Bulgaria taking out mighty Germany in New York 1994, with a goal that spelled magic. Little Uruguay, twice champions, always punching much above their weight, killing off England in Sao Paulo 2014. 

When and how did the game lose that beauty?

One of my favourite Latino writers, Eduardo Galeano, put it best. “I go about the world, hand outstretched, and in stadiums, I plead: a pretty move, for the love of God,” he wrote. “And when good soccer happens, I give thanks for the miracle! And I don’t give a damn which country or team produces it!”

When and how did the game lose that beauty, indeed lose its way, to become the vehicle of geostrategic realpolitik for dictators and murderers (remember Vladimir Putin hosted the 2018 tournament)? To my mind, it happened at USA ’94, a tournament so well organised and executed that some veteran soccer correspondents wrote that the game should go to the United States every four years, and have done with the increasingly corrupt bidding wars to stage the World Cup.

I remember thinking back then as we watched games under cover, inside the Silverdome in Detroit or the amphitheatre at Soldier Field in Chicago (where, unforgettably, President Bill Clinton left the opening game at half-time, bored by it all). Then seeing the final at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California — where Whitney Houston’s performance before kick-off was arguably more memorable than a dull goalless game that went to penalties. Yes, Italy’s heartthrob Roberto Baggio missed, lest we fans forget another indelible moment.

The old world encountered the New, with a capital N, that summer of 1994, on a very different playing field. Sheffield Wednesday, Blackburn Rovers, West Bromwich Albion (what names of yesteryear) saw Madison Avenue, J.Walter Thompson and Prime Time. The game of Pele, Bobby Charlton and Franz Beckenbauer met Hollywood. 

Blatter’s FIFA took control of local hotels and their prices

David Beckham didn’t feature that year, and England didn’t qualify. But consider how his career represents the metamorphosis. From an Essex lad who could cross a soccer ball brilliantly for Manchester United, to international mega-star, living in Hollywood Hills, a billionaire in the making, selling everything from perfume to underwear, whilst being a special representative for the United Nations and the childrens’ organisation UNICEF. Today Becks is an Ambassador for the Qatar World Cup, ducking questions about why his new client outlaws homosexuality.

It took spending an otherwise delightful month at Brazil 2014 for me to learn how scandalous and greedy the FIFA operation, and hence the game’s future, had become since World Cup USA. The result? A brazen monopoly devoted to preserving its power and absolute control of the global game, with extraordinary muscle ready to be sold to the highest bidder.

We saw in Brazil how FIFA’s money spigot never stopped. Staying at a pleasant but hardly luxurious beach hotel in Rio de Janeiro, we discovered that Blatter’s FIFA took control of such hotels and their prices when awarding the tournament to Brazil. It then placed FIFA sponsors in them on its terms.

Take the sponsor given to our hotel. On top of its 80 million dollar patronage — the ticket to appear alongside Coca-Cola, and Visa, and Adidas — the company was paying FIFA room rates 40-50 per cent higher to house its staff, special clients and most importantly the children that walked out onto the field with players before every game. 

Then we bumped into, via some German colleagues, the chef taking care of the 60-strong Germany team and entourage, placed at a better Rio hotel. Manfred the chef brought in from abroad, and bought locally, all his own ingredients, to ensure strict diets. Yet FIFA charged the German Football Association for three meals a day. Prosaic maybe, small beer, yes, compared to the corporate gravy train, but so reflective of the FIFA way. 

To this spectator, given a seat across the decades, the sick business of the beautiful game means a small dictatorial kingdom washes its reputation via the sport in 2022, just as Vladmir Putin’s ruthless Russia did four years ago. The sport’s governing body looks away — whilst profiting from it.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover