Letter from London: World Cup Blues

It was like a dream. The first proper soccer match I watched in London was at Wembley. It was for the Charity Shield between Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur. This was in August 1982. I’d never seen the capital — 82,500 people were in attendance — in such raucous form before. I was fascinated and intimidated. I loved the generous reds of the Liverpool fans and the dark-blues and whites of Spurs. For any soccer aficionados out there, I also saw both Kenny Dalglish and Glenn Hoddle play that day. Of course, our soccer ball-shaped world has received quite a kicking since then — if it’s rounded it’s pounded, it seems — and now the World Cup in Qatar can also feel the laces of the boot. I know soccer in the United States doesn’t resonate to quite the same degree as it does in the rest in the world, but the present tournament will still be felt from sea to shining sea. In fact the USA team are in the same group as both England and Wales, and all three as a result face Iran, also in the group, in what for a variety of reasons — not all of them footballing — are much anticipated encounters. Will there be non-Iranian protests against Iran’s attack-drone support of Russia — Russia has been suspended from participating in the World Cup — or will it be the fact Iran’s fans are famously outspoken about the regime that will resonate most? This at a time incidentally when the head of MI5 here in London claimed only last week that Iran had plotted to assassinate or kidnap at least 10 UK residents, including journalists, said to be ‘enemies of the regime’.

How will this competition play out in the end? That’s what I want to know. The World Cup will have lasted four weeks by the end of the competition on December 18 by which time 32 teams will have competed across 64 matches. Children will be glued to their phone screens or on the edges of seats. Older fans may celebrate with a slice of Dundee cake. Excited truck drivers will pound their wheels at traffic lights. Women, as ever, will be better informed than men. Despite the fact the Qataris, very last minute, 48 hours before the tournament began in fact, were demanding FIFA remove sales of alcohol from actual stadiums, lakes of the stuff will have been consumed, if people can afford it, in the vast specialist Qatari tents — oceans, elsewhere in the world.

So why are some of us who truly love the sport — football, as we of course call it here, footie, the beautiful game, call it what we will — not happy? I would have thought the reason for the magic and excitement and thrill of this world-unifying event feeling so tarnished was obvious by now. So many lives have been lost building the infrastructure — The Guardian was reporting last year that more than 6,500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka had died since Qatar won the right to host the event in 2010. Obviously the figure will be larger now. Also, the human rights record of Qatar when it comes to LGBTQ+ is atrocious — basically homosexuality is illegal in Qatar and punishable by imprisonment. A new Human Rights Watch (HRW) report has documented alleged cases of beatings and sexual harassment. Annoying many here are the likes of former England player David Beckham receiving a reported £10 million to act as a Qatar World Cup ambassador in the face of such abuses.

You would be forgiven for thinking every other World Cup has been problem-free, which of course is not the case, by comparison. Maybe some of us are just better at not deluding ourselves anymore. And not just in terms of how both Russia — the previous host — and Qatar actually won their bids. England may have invented soccer but the world long ago invented corruption. Ever since former FIFA head Jose Havelange brought in Sepp Blatter and with him an avalanche of sponsorship deals, it seems the World Cup governing body has been a troubled space. The 1978 World Cup in what was then fascist Argentina with 30,000 people already ‘disappeared’ was a case in point. Ever since, FIFA has never seemed a commendable international governing body, except for that look on the faces of those FIFA fat cats who so clearly got the cream, initially centring around votes for the FIFA leadership but followed in quick succession by the choice of which nation to award World Cups to. Adidas’ former owner Horst Dassler joined the party and got into some pretty serious rights-buying. This and marketing with ISL. This type of thing all came to a heavy head some years later with the arrests in 2015 of FIFA officials in Zurich in what became known as ‘The World Cup of Fraud.’ At the same time, US authorities had to sift through Miami’s Concacaf HQ — the FIFA confederation for North and Central America and the Caribbean — as part of investigations. The ball was being kicked around so much it was a wonder people were able to keep up. I saw a good friend in Kings Cross in London last week wittily derisive of the fact Blatter had recently told a Swiss newspaper that ‘Qatar was a mistake’ as if that somehow forgave everyone. ‘Are they going to say that about Brexit?’ complained my friend, placing down his perfectly poured cup of tea: ‘“Brexit is a mistake”,’ he aped with smile: ‘That’ll be right. Don’t worry. All is forgiven. Just a mistake was it?’ It’s also popularly believed that had the affable Swede Lennart Johansson not lost the 1998 FIFA leadership election instead of Sepp Blatter, we may not have seen any of this.

Despite all this, with confrontations such as the aforementioned Iran playing the USA on November 29, what better way to deal with tightly-constructed geopolitical differences than equal-sided challenges such as exist on grass in a game of soccer? I have long believed in a ‘Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines’ approach to dealing with international disputes. This is what makes everything so maddening, as well as tragic, here. Sport is superior to World War Three. Set a gainful and skilful task outside the realms of killing one another — or selling weapons to one another to kill one another — and see who comes first. As former Liverpool manager Bill Shankly once said, ‘Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.’ Put another way, playful competition far outshines bloody conflict — surely. Even if you don’t like it, at least experience a useful level of demystification about your so-called foe. We are all, after all, only human.

Maybe soccer in other regards has also also been extreme. I remember the evening of 29 May 1985. This was when I lived in New York and was seated at the copper-topped bar of Drake’s Drum, an English-style establishment on Second Avenue and 90th Street, to watch the European Cup Final between Liverpool and Italian club Juventus in a match taking place at Heysel Stadium in Brussels. I had been quietly looking forward to it all day as I knew so few people to talk soccer with in the city. (This was a few years before I discovered a rich seam of interest in the game among the hispanic community; finding a bar or restaurant in Manhattan showing live Premier League matches these days is a piece of cake.) Through one of those time-zone anomalies, the match had already taken place. We didn’t have social media back then so it was easy not to know a score. The way it worked was that someone in the Caribbean recorded matches on a VHS tape then flew the tape up to New York. What no one knew at the time was that just before kick-off a large group of Liverpool fans and large group of Juventus fans had clashed. Suddenly we were watching all this play out right before our eyes. A wall or barrier between the two sets of fans had been breached. Of those fleeing, thirty-nine — mostly Italian — fans died. Approximately six hundred others were injured. I couldn’t take another second of it and left. Even worse, the match authorities in Brussels had decided to play on and some people at the bar apparently watched all of it.

Maybe it is the crazy and sometimes sick and often euphoric unpredictabilities of the game that keep us all so gripped. Like Dickens, it has all of life in it. There are so many highs and lows in a single match that it’s rather like watching heaven and hell play out. Another thing: a gifted soccer player can rise to the surface in society in a manner few other sports enjoy. All you need is an able body and round ball filled with air to develop your skills, then you can find yourself a few seasons later playing at the highest level. The grass roots — or desert scrubs — of the game certainly have none of the expensive elitisms of some other sports. I remember flying into Ghana from the Ivory Coast one time for a film being made on murdered British aid worker Sean Devereux. I was listening to a story about a green mamba snake attacking and killing a galloping horse from a stationary position when a young Ghanaian boy nudged me and asked if Bobby Charlton had really been knighted. I told the boy that Bobby Charlton was from Ashington in Northumberland not so far from where I was born. I said he was one of the great gentlemen of the game and a personal hero of mine. Yes, he had been knighted, I told him. The young Ghanaian’s interest had been piqued not by the concept of royalty bestowing such an honour on Charlton so much as the former player having recently taught soccer in his country to so many children that he actually knew some of them himself. ‘I hear he is a very, very, very good man,’ said the boy, generously.

As it happened, I lived from a very early age with my grandmother and aunt in both Northumberland and Scotland. Because I didn’t have parents bringing me up — this was before I was lucky enough to make lots of friends — my grandmother sometimes took it upon herself to play soccer with me. One afternoon out in the garden in a cool sea breeze she booted the ball so hard she fell over and cracked one of her ribs. In my eyes, she was brave doing that. As I saw it, she had done it for me and as a result was my heroine. (I did help her up, by the way.) From that day forward, I don’t think I ever considered men to be more courageous than women. Today, I like to think she would have enjoyed the fact women in the past few years have taken so much of the soccer high ground in this country, most notably with the England women’s national team — the ‘Lionesses’ — winning Euro 2022 by beating Germany in the final at Wembley.

Furthermore, I actually enjoyed what was probably one of my most surreal soccer experiences in that same north-east of England. It was while working on what became known as the ‘Goal!’ film trilogy when I had the joy of taking a wonderful team of visual effects experts from London — London has the best in this field and has also launched the international careers of the best — to St James’ Park, Newcastle United’s legendary football stadium. (Controversially, 80% of the club is now owned by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund.) We were there to demonstrate through high-end digital effects that we could ‘fill’ an entirely empty stadium with ‘people’, plus develop one or two ‘tweaks’ with the moving direction of a football. During one well-earned break in filming, we set up and shot a mock post-match interview spoken in finest Geordie — the local dialect — by a full-screen wall of sponsors’ logos. ‘It’s a game of two halves’ or ‘he gave it 110 per cent’ were some of the replies. (Soccer, like other sports, is full of clichés.) There was also a party afterwards I remember in a large slick rooftop flat close to the river Tyne where I met actor Alessandro Nivola, now married to Emily Mortimer, who has in fact recently become an honorary member of a Scots youth team. He told me how much he loved the game and we also discussed the late Robert Duval and his labour-of-love movie ‘A Shot at Glory’. More recently, of course, we have had Apple’s popular comedy soccer series ‘Ted Lasso’ set in London and this year’s documentary series ‘Welcome to Wrexham’ with Ryan Reynolds. Everyone, it seems, is at it.

If only this story could be one of warm and summery anecdotes. But the bigger themes keep returning, like vultures hovering above the pitch, their shadows making us distracted and uneasy. With every World Cup we can measure our time on earth, I was thinking. I will always remember for example watching Argentina play England in the 1986 Mexico World Cup at the restaurant I Tre Merli on West Broadway in New York. If we are lucky, one human being can in one lifetime live through 20 World Cups. Not so — and this remains our story — for those thousands of migrant workers who died building all this money-no-object stadia and infrastructure. Not so, also, if you are gay in Qatar and punished with imprisonment or worse — though London’s very own Harry Kane as England captain will be wearing an anti-discrimination armband in support of the admirable OneLove campaign during all of England’s matches. Finally, let us not forget that all this bad blood is because of what initially should have been obvious — the entire unsuitability of a World Cup in the desert. (They even had to bulldoze through Europe’s soccer seasons to put it on during so-called cooler months.) We know that none of this is the fault of the actual players running on the spot and stretching while lining up for their national anthems before each game. We also know that there will be many Qatari people looking on with a genuine sense of hospitality. In the first instance, this is the fault of FIFA. And because someone has now meddled with our dream, we must promise to never let it happen again.

Peter Bach lives in London.