Levelling the playing field
What (not) to expect from the 2018 Russia World Cup
The FM did some (crystal) ball-gazing about the Fifa World Cup. Here’s what we hope won’t be in the starting line-up
Even football addicts may feel oddly unenthused at the prospect of the Fifa World Cup, which runs from this week, June 14, to July 15. Fans look forward to scintillating, fair football in a carnival atmosphere, but the game has increasingly become tainted by riches and polluted by politics, and Russia 2018 seems doomed to disappoint. The FM compiled a list of the 11 things we hope won’t blight this year’s celebration of the Beautiful Game.
Opening ceremonies bore real fans. The high-gloss sentimentality, token pop music and faux cultural snapshots gnaw annoyingly and drag on achingly before the opening-match kickoff. This year it’s Vladimir Putin’s to milk, and it will probably be the most self-aggrandising, politicised start to a sporting tournament since the 1992 Moscow Olympics.
A horrible vision involves the toxic mix of political interference and doping, and results in a mediocre Russian team rising to implausible heights.
Enter Russia’s deputy prime minister, Vitaly Mutko, until recently also chief of the Russian football federation and the World Cup organising committee. He quit those positions only reluctantly, after the World Anti-Doping Agency ruled that, as sports minister until late-2016, he oversaw a systemised doping programme. The International Olympic Committee has banned him for life — but Fifa still holds him dearly within its "football family".
It’s odd that Russia have been drawn in the easiest of groups. Let’s hope that’s where the skulduggery ends and there is no repeat of 1978, when hosts Argentina triumphed in no small part through coercive assistance from military dictator Gen Jorge Rafael Videla, desperate to glorify his authoritarian regime. Of this schemozzle, one of Argentina’s goal-scoring heroes, Leopoldo Luque, admitted years later: "With what I know now, I can’t say I’m proud of my victory. In hindsight, we should never have played that World Cup."
Football remains blemished by the mayhem of lunatics who cannot be called fans. Alarmingly, as part of a right-wing nationalist agenda, for many years Russian ultras have been nurtured by government. The French riot squads were unprepared two years ago during Euro 2016, but surely Russian thugs will not be allowed to wreak havoc at their own tournament?
Players should remember they are not gladiators.
We hope there is no repeat of the assault committed by West German goalkeeper Harald "Toni" Schumacher in the 1982 semifinal. He battered into Patrick Battiston, knocking out three of the French forward’s teeth and rendering him unconscious. Astoundingly, France didn’t get a penalty. Schumacher remained on the pitch and, in the cruellest of twists, he was the hero in the penalty shootout.
A more sustained brutality permeated the 1960s tournaments. Pelé played almost no part in either the 1962 or 1966 events; unprotected by abysmal refereeing, he was unceremoniously hacked and badly injured.
Indeed, the most infamous World Cup match was the 1962 "Battle of Santiago" between Italy and hosts Chile. Football degenerated into fighting, and police had to go onto the pitch four times. The incompetent English referee, Ken Aston, sent two players off, but match reports expressed astonishment that four or five from each team were not expelled. In acknowledgment, perhaps, of his failure and the inadequacy of on-field disciplinary protocols, Aston was inspired to invent yellow and red cards.
The best officials are barely noticed. But too often even experienced referees seem to succumb to dramatic or overly fussy flourishes.
This year, referees will be assisted by a video assistant referee (VAR), to be used if necessary for decisions involving goals, penalties, red cards and mistaken identity. The system is supposed to clarify and overrule only "clear errors".
Unfortunately, VAR is still experimental, and it has generated major controversies of its own making. It transpires that interpretation is still paramount: the slowest of replays are often unhelpful in 50-50 decisions.
VAR may yet offer the solution to injustices, but what fans really want is for referees to use common sense to avoid crazy controversy. And to step away from the limelight.
Aficionados appreciate the defensive tactics and battles within a game as well as the offensive patterns — both contribute to imprinting a game’s quality.
But we don’t want to see the triumph of derivative forms of the catenaccio defence system. Sublime skills, wondrous strikes and wizardly play must prevail. Otherwise we will endure a repeat of Italy 1990, which featured the lowest per-match goal ratio and has been branded the poorest of post-War World Cups.
Winning with class and verve is important.
Here we come to the appalling escalation of cheating. In the cauldron of competition even the prodigiously talented bare their souls. Maradona’s "Hand of God" goal in 1986 lives in infamy, or — from Argentina’s perspective — in gilded beauty.
VAR will attend to these moments of crisis, but it can’t solve the slow-burn annoyance of cursory shirt-grabbing, robust obstruction at corners, or time-wasting. Worst of all, players feign facial injury and collapse theatrically in apparent agony even for minor contact marginally higher than midriff. Teammates surge, surrounding the referee in an outraged, intimidating melee. This is professionalism of the most antagonistic sort, intended to falsely induce a card or expulsion. Officials must wise up to minimise the creep of infantile antics and gamesmanship into uglier forms and distasteful outcomes.
Fans want the purity of competition, the best against the best. It’s sad that we won’t see Brazil’s Dani Alves rampaging forward on the right, or Dimitri Payet’s sublime skills in midfield for France. Both have been ruled out by cruelly inopportune injuries — and Egyptian magician Mo Salah may only be available for his country’s last group game, if at all.
World Cup immortality is just seven matches away, but after arduous domestic seasons all players face increased risk of injury. It would be unfortunate if irreplaceable talents like Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar or Kane became unavailable at crucial phases of their team’s progression due to injury. Or, worse, a silly suspension.
Elite players talk of the tunnel vision necessary to focus during matches. But after 120 minutes of tightrope tension even the world’s best lose concentration, and for one doomed player, fatigue and nerves will topple his skill. In Naples in 1990 the ironically named Italian, Aldo Serena, could not keep his calm; his weak penalty was saved, sending Argentina to the final, 60,000 stadium fans into unabashed tearfulness, and the host nation into mourning.
Four years later Italy suffered again, but this time it was even worse. Roberto Baggio — the world’s best player, his Buddhist serenity and on-field artistry earning him the moniker of Divine Ponytail — missed a penalty, forfeiting the final to Brazil.
Shootouts bring thrilling finality but, in the manner of Russian roulette, they are ghastly to watch.
That English band
The drone of the vuvuzelas blunted the atmosphere during the 2010 tournament in SA. But many of the home fans loved them. The England band — bizarrely, officially affiliated to the team — irks almost everyone, including millennial England followers who dislike the hypnotic honking and piercing and its puerile patriotism.
They play only two songs, and Rule, Britannia! is a middle finger to post-colonialism. Here’s hoping that Russian security fulfils its promise to ban instruments from match venues, citing terrorism fears.
The same winners — yet again?
The soccer gods have come close to blessing small nations in just two World Cups. In 1994 Bulgaria and Sweden made it to the semifinals, as did Turkey and South Korea in 2002.
This year Brazil and Germany — always these two — tower as near-certain bankers. If it must be yet another Brazil-Germany match in the final, it’s surely too optimistic to expect something resembling 2014, when Brazil’s inexorable, triumphant destiny on home soil was shattered in World Cup history’s most surreal semifinal: Brazil 1, Germany 7. In football, as in life, dreams can dissolve into nightmares.
The next one is already a crisis
The gentrification and pollution of the world’s beautiful game is hardest to take when its pinnacle, the World Cup, is captured. O jogo bonito did not die with Brazil’s wonderful but unrewarded 1982 team, whose elimination jolted Brazil into a realisation that beauty is entirely beatable and triggered a disillusioned volte-face from romance to pragmatism in that country’s football philosophy.
Instead, it died in 2010 when Fifa awarded the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. The tragedy of Fifa’s decision has materialised into confirmation that some things are more important than sport: 1,200-plus construction workers, toiling in 50°C temperatures, have died so far in building stadiums doomed to be white elephants in a desert enclave.
For the next month, let’s suspend anger and disbelief — and hope the 2018 spectacle is an untarnished football festival.