The world cup – the greatest and most popular sporting event that exists is starting, but no one seems that excited about it this time. Which is strange. There are a few factors as to why though, and it all starts with the organising body.
You don’t have to follow the news closely to know that FIFA is pretty corrupt. There have been numerous scandals over the years, and an incredible amount of vote buying and bribery. But at the very least, the places where the tournament was hosted generally made sense, so we all collectively swept it under the rug. 1994 was in the US, a growing market for football / soccer and a place with numerous stadiums fit for World Cup matches, a safe place with a decent time zone for Europe and South America, the heart lands of football. France 1998 made sense because France is in Europe, the home of football, where all the best leagues are, and again has a lot of stadiums and a love for football. France even won the event, proving that it was a worthy place to host it with a burgeoning team of insane talent (peaking with Zinadine Zidane a player for the ages). 2002 in Japan and Korea was a little weird, but football is pretty big in those countries and trying to make football a more ‘world game’ by heading to two of the most populous countries in Asia that are first world and have the right kind of facilities made sense. Football in Asia makes sense. 2006 was back to Europe and Germany, their first major global event since the fall of the Berlin Wall, a reward for a unified country and again the heartland of Europe with bevvy of worthy stadiums and a local team loaded with talent.
2010 was when it started to get a little more sketchy (literally). South Africa. But the arguments for South Africa made some sense – football is huge in Africa and it seemed timely to reward the continent with a major event like this. South Africa is one of the more developed countries in Africa (which helped it’s cause), and Nelson Mandela was around and about, which made their bid fairly influential and acceptable for the global stage. The time zone was very friendly to European audiences and it helped the game feel like it was truly global. The event was a bit of a sham (who can forget those brutal trumpet things), with a lot of money spent on stadiums that were questionably built, with money that probably could have been spent on better things. Generally, it feels a bit weird having these types of events in countries where a lot of people live below the poverty line. Sure, you can say that most stadiums anywhere are a bit of a waste of public money (even in the US), but it is particularly true in places where there are high levels of poverty and the juxtaposition of very rich players and fans from rich countries flying in to first class stadiums for a few games and then leaving again, all whilst the people continue to live in poverty, is a bit jarring. Which takes us on to FIFA’s 2014 decision to go with Brazil.
Brazil made a lot sense on the surface – they have won the cup (albeit the trophy is not literally a cup) 5 times, South America is the other home of football apart from Europe, and Brazil is not known as a poor country (it’s part of the what was a cool acronym of “BRIC” countries that were once all rapidly rising). But it turns out the government is super corrupt (no wonder they got along with FIFA), and there was (again) a lot of money spent on barely used stadiums that will never be used again. Little did we know, that whilst Brazil “made sense” based on the above criteria, what really made sense about it was that the Brazilian government lined the pockets of FIFA to get the deal done. So this built on the South Africa problem – another country that is not quite first world spending a lot of money on stadiums to house rich fans for a few games, whilst people live in poverty. Not ideal. If you are counting at home, we now have Brazil and South Africa, both have stadiums that now lie dormant, because they are built in locations that have no requirements for 40,000 person plus stadiums, whilst the countries are mired in poverty and corruption. Brazil had the double whammy of useless stadiums for the World Cup and then more useless stadiums for the Olympics two years later. What a time to be a Brazilian. They even lost 7-1 to Germany to top of the high of the World Cup hosting.
So the FIFA decision trends were not good (I’ll save the thousands of words on corruption, that story has been written), and then they announced before the 2014 World Cup that the 2018 bid would go to Russia (over England, Spain and others), and the 2022 bid would go to Qatar (over the USA, Australia and others). Two countries with low football history, autocracies or other problematic “governments”, issues with human rights violations and a history of trying to pay their way into positive global recognition. More on this later (eg. like Qatar is in the desert and its 45 degrees all the time), but needless to say, the enjoyment of an event that makes FIFA money is starting to feel directly like helping them be corrupt and helping people like Vladimir Putin profit more from it. We can’t even pretend anymore. This is not a great vibe.
Which brings us nicely to the focus on this World Cup’s host nation. Russia is a dictatorship, led by a guy who may or may not have helped rig the US election that gave us Trump, who is helping the world and the environment come apart at the seams. In Russia, he has turned a promising democracy into an autocracy where it seems he can stay in power forever. Maybe he could be a benevolent dictator? Apparently not. He has likely embezzled loads of money for himself, helped a bunch of his mates get rich, and continues to do things like take over parts of other countries and claim them as Russia, kill people in other countries with poison, and support rebels who shoot down commercial airlines. By all accounts not a great bloke.
Russia as a location is also not a great scene either. Sure the architecture looks cool, but unfortunately Russia has a hooligan problem. In Russia, people go to games just to fight, and they are brutal fighters. This has happened and will continue to happen. At the Euro 2016 this was demonstrated after the England Russia game. Everyone collectively shat themselves knowing that Russia 2018 was on the agenda next. And here we are.
Russia is also a bit racist. Danny Rose, an English player (who is black) has said he will not take his family for concerns about that. It is also wildly homophobic, and although no players are openly gay, the stats say that a bunch of them would be, so they are going to a place where their natural orientation would get them beaten up and worse. If you are a gay person and happen to like football, there is little chance you would make the effort to head over there. Further hanging over all of this is that Russian law is pretty sketchy, and if you get in trouble there, you are probably pretty screwed as there is no semblance of fairness, (and the if you are from a rich country that can afford to go there, you government is likely not friendly with the host nation).
Some of that is hearsay (although not that much of it), but one Russian story that is not hearsay at all – Russia has just been caught in one of the biggest state sponsored doping scandals in memory. It all came out at the Sochi Olympics (another event sketchily “acquired” by Putin’s Russia), where it was found that there was a state sponsored effort to switch urine and blood samples and get around a lot of the drug laws. All in the name of restoring Russian prowess on the sporting field. So, if you are counting at home, it seems like we might have problems with homophobic racist fighters who cheat. Luckily Russia has mismanaged the football team so badly that they would have to have the the Walter White of sports doping on their side just to win a game, let alone win the World Cup, so we are safe there.
Finally, it just sucks to support an event which will be a propaganda event for Putin’s Russia. Propaganda is rubbish, and lies, and its easy to switch our brain off. And that is what Putin wants. For us all to watch the World Cup and think “this is normal and good”. And the football probably will be. So it will be easy to fall into normalising Russia and autocracies and all the above problems. But that is bad. Russia is a bad system that is destabilizing the world. We should not reward this by giving these countries world sports events.
It hurts my head to think about how to enjoy the World Cup whilst rejecting Russia, which is exactly why the World Cup just doesn’t seem that fun.
Looming over all of this is World Cup 2022 in Qatar. This remains confusing. Even when South Africa was a bit weird, it was easy to think, “well, the next one is in Brazil, which is pretty sweet” (at the time we didn’t know that was like looking forward to 2016 election being over). If you thought Japan and Korea was a bit odd, at least you could think “well Germany 2006 is next”. But Russia is a bit of a problem as previously stated. And when you think well, Qatar is next, then everything gets worse. Qatar is in the desert, and it is over 40 every day in “summer”. Of course this means that the World Cup must be held in Qatar’s “winter”, disrupting every domestic football season in existence (except Qatar’s, because they don’t have one). So the World Cup will be in November / December, which is weird. So much for that summer event.
Of course Qatar gets worse in many ways. It seems like the people building the stadiums might be slaves, or at the very least wildly underpaid semi slaves with no legal working status who commit suicide flat out. I wish that was a joke. FIFA has outdone themselves again. Qatar is also involved in a proxy war at the moment with Saudi Arabia and others that might turn hot at anytime. Sure, Saudi Arabia are the ones being the real jerks, but it is not ideal that there are missiles potentially flying across the border (Middle Eastern disputes don’t have the history of being sorted out nicely and efficiently). It just makes no sense the World Cup being in Qatar – Russia looks like a natural place for a World Cup in comparison.
So if you are tracking at home, we are going from an incredibly corrupt World Cup (Brazil 2014), to a country that is completely corrupt with a dictator (Russia 2018), to a country that is run by a Royal Family built on oil money that pays workers nothing and is having a border skirmish with the largest military in the Middle East (Qatar 2022). What is even weirder is that it is hard to know if the US getting 2026 World Cup (along with Mexico and Canada, countries they are openly feuding with) will be a relief from this trend or a continuation. What is there to look forward to in national team football?
Next off the rank is VAR. What is VAR? Video Assistant Refereeing. It seems logical, there are always bad decisions in football games, and why not make it more likely to get the decision right by having the ability to check decisions on replay and then make the right one? Well it turns out, it doesn’t make sense at all. A few leagues have started using it this past season, Germany and Italy and also in the FA Cup in England, and it has not been good at all. Here and here and here are some examples and there are plenty of others if you go looking. Not only have the time delays been brutal, disrupting the flow of the game – but the referees have not understood when to call for VAR and the VAR has often got the decision wrong and made everyone more angry. Not great. This is the first world cup it has been used, and a lot of the referees have no experience with it at all. This will definitely cause a bunch of controversy during the tournament, let’s just hope it doesn’t happen in the biggest games (although it is bound to).
Finally, and what should be most importantly (but isn’t as demonstrated above)), we get to the teams. You can read better football previews everywhere, this is a broad summary of the problems. In World Cups there are usually tiers of teams – the teams that can win, the teams that might make it out of the group stage and cause some trouble, and the teams that are trash and are just there for the party, (and because FIFA rewards being global more than being good). This is true this year as of any year.
The difference this year, is that the teams on the top tier just seem so much better than the mid-tier teams that it legitimately seems like only 3-4 teams can win it. That is unusually low. I can hear you saying that Portugal won the Euro’s and Chile won the most recent Copa de America. But still, this is different. The last time there was a first time winner was 1998, and that was a France team loaded with talent led by Zinadine Zidane with guys like Thierry Henry and Patrick Viera milling around. In Russia, it really seems like it is down to Spain, Germany, Brazil and maybe France (even though the coach is questionable). Even among that group, Spain just bizarrely fired their coach. But after that, there are a myriad of problems with the other potential contenders.
Argentina, who still have the best player in the world (Messi) lose to crappy teams a lot and never quite seem right (they barely qualified) and are completely reliant on Messi going nuts (not impossible but unlikely). Belgium is the hot “outsider” pick, but they are not deep enough, their coach is a bit of a spud and would have to get pretty lucky (plus their goalie slept with their star players Mrs. once). Also they had a team selection controversy that was nicknamed “mattressgate” because the coach hadn’t selected the team yet, but 23 mattresses were delivered each with players names on them. Weird (for interest – it turns out the mattress names didn’t match the team selected in the end). Portugal won the Euro’s but Ronaldo is older still, and they are just not as deep as the others (their keeper is Rui Patricia, hardly a household name). England are too young and not that good, and always seem to struggle at major tournaments (although it hard to deny there is a better vibe around this team with Harry Kane leading the way). Uruguay are good up front (Suarez, Cavani) but don’t have much else (I have not heard of their goal keeper). Italy didn’t even make it, nor did Holland. Egypt were not that great, but were exciting at least with Mo Salah (he is so popular is Egypt that he got 1 million presidential votes), but now he is injured and questionable. Columbia are the one team that aren’t quite in that top tier that seem ok, but they are relying on James (“Hamez”) Rodriguez a lot, and have Arsenal’s backup goal keeper as their starter (it’s not like Arsenal were a powerhouse of defence this year). It going to be one of the four, and likely one of the three.
So we have a lot of games that are likely a supporting act to a four team race for the World Cup in a dictatorship with corruption, racism and fighting issues looming, drug issues swirling, not to mention the next World Cup in the desert. Bring it on.