As the world continues its Trumpian turn away from soft power towards the colder comforts of hard power, some moments now look like straws in the wind. In late November 2010 the English FA sent David Cameron, Prince William and David Beckham to Fifa headquarters in Zurich to lobby on its behalf before the vote for the right to host the 2018 World Cup. Two old Etonians and an alumnus of Chingford County High School: the sight of these three men larking about in their identikit blazers was the very embodiment of English soft power. For years Britons travelling the globe had found that sticky situations in foreign lands could be remedied with the two magic words ‘David Beckham’, which invariably brought grins and handshakes. William, recently engaged to be married and still in possession of most of his hair, was another magic charm. Cameron, barely six months into his premiership, added ruddy-cheeked bonhomie to the party. Only if the FA had sent deputy PM Nick Clegg in his place could it have signalled more clearly that it believed hard political choices could be alleviated with some honeyed words and a shy smile.
The previous day, England’s cause had been gravely damaged by the broadcast of a BBC Panorama report alleging wrongdoing and corruption at the heart of the bidding process. The fear was that Fifa would shoot the messenger. The goal of the FA mission was to spread sufficient stardust over the occasion that delegates with swing votes would grant them an audience, at which point more substantial favours could be put on the table. It didn’t work. When decision day arrived England’s bid was the first to be knocked out, securing a measly two votes out of a possible 24 (one of those came from the FA’s own representative on the committee, so in the end all that glamour delivered just a single vote). Russia comfortably won the right to host the 2018 World Cup, and the tiny Gulf state of Qatar was chosen for 2022.
This humiliation was compounded in 2017 when an official Fifa report into the voting process singled out the English delegation as having compromised its integrity. It noted that at least three members of the executive committee responsible for awarding the World Cup ‘made improper requests for support or favours towards the England 2018 bid team and/or the FA’. It went on: ‘With regard to at least two of these committee members, England 2018 accommodated, or at least attempted to satisfy, the improper requests.’ One man they tried to satisfy was Jack Warner, who as president of Concacaf (the football association of North and Central America and the Caribbean) was in control of three crucial votes. Warner wanted money to support grassroots football in his home country of Trinidad, which meant cash paid into the coffers of the team he owned there, the happily named Joe Public Football Club. The FA also sponsored a gala dinner in Trinidad hosted by Warner to the tune of $50,000. At the time of the 2010 vote, Warner got a thirty-minute sit-down with Cameron. Afterwards, he told reporters: ‘I was pleased with the talks. They were very constructive. Mr Cameron is a knowledgeable man. He knows about football, but not only that he knows about the bidding process as well.’ Well, yes and no. Warner had always indicated that he would support the English bid, which was how he was able to keep extracting more concessions. In the end, he voted for Russia.
The FA’s approach – star power plus a few sweeteners on the side – was exactly the wrong way to go. The stars had little to offer that the Fifa delegates hadn’t heard many times before: they were used to being fawned over. In 2004, when trying to secure its bid for the 2010 World Cup, the South African FA sent the 85-year-old Nelson Mandela, already frail and in poor health, on a 17-hour trip to Trinidad to meet Warner in a final attempt to secure his precious three votes. In the end, South Africa won the final bidding round 14-10, so we may infer that the trip was a success. But subsequent rumours that $10 million also found its way from South Africa to Trinidad may have had something to do with it. As David Conn writes in his exemplary history of recent high football politics, ‘To see the image of a man as distinguished as Mandela forced to abase himself this much, towards the end of his hard and exemplary life, before corrupt thieves like … Warner … is repugnant now.’ It is also revealing: the English just weren’t trying hard enough.
At the same time, the titbits the FA were dangling in 2010 were just the right size to provide Fifa with cover when it came to producing its own report on what had gone wrong with the bidding process. Big enough to be noticeable but small enough to be negligible, they allowed Fifa to suggest that the system was relatively untainted by this sort of corruption because it had made so little difference. That was laughable, but it was also true: English attempts to sway votes had shown that members of the Fifa committee were extremely hard to buy. The Argentinian representative, Julio Grondona, whose iron control of his country’s FA dated back to the days of the junta, later said that he had been open to voting for England, but his price would have been the return of the Falkland Islands. The official figure put on the cost of the FA bid was £21 million, which seemed an outrageous sum to squander on such a futile endeavour. Small change in the world of professional football, it would have been a very significant sum to have invested in the grassroots of the sport to which the FA also had a responsibility. What made it such a waste was that it delivered nothing at all.
While Cameron was dangling dinner expenses in front of Warner, his French counterpart was playing a very different game. Michel Platini, the deputy head of Fifa, attended a lunch at the Elysée Palace with President Sarkozy and representatives of the Qatari royal family in the run-up to the 2010 vote. Sarkozy let the Qataris know that the price of Platini’s vote would include support for his local team, Paris Saint-Germain, then in financial difficulties. In due course the Qataris bought the club and invested hundreds of millions into it (including the £200 million it cost to buy Neymar, the world’s most expensive player). Qatar also bought the TV rights to France’s Ligue 1 games for more than £500 million a year, and Qatar Airways ordered fifty A320 planes made by Airbus at Toulouse. The value of that deal alone for the French economy was in the region of £15 billion.
As Conn notes, Platini has always insisted that he did not vote for Qatar because Sarkozy told him to. Nonetheless, something happened to persuade him to drop his earlier support for the US as hosts in 2022 and to plump instead for a country with no football infrastructure, no international profile in the game to speak of, and a climate that meant a summer tournament would have to be played in temperatures as high as 50 degrees. What was it about the small, barren, dusty, repressive, oil-rich state that first attracted him? Afterwards, Platini spoke about the exciting opportunities a World Cup in Qatar would bring, taking football to new territories and opening it up to different cultures. He soon speculated about the chance to turn it into a winter tournament, since the summer would clearly be far too hot. Yet the Qatari bid was for a summer tournament, and though it might be possible to keep the stadiums air-conditioned, the conditions for anyone outside, including the workers who had to build the stadiums, would be brutal. Just as England’s attempts to sway the votes of the committee were too petty to be meaningful, the Qatari inducements were so enormous that it was hard to know how to respond. After all, there was no possible other reason to host the tournament there, so what did that leave to be investigated?
In the fallout from the 2010 bidding round, the Qataris complained that they were taking the heat for a process that had also rewarded Putin and his kleptocratic regime. Why weren’t the Russians the ones in the firing line? Part of Qatar’s problem was that the Americans, from whom they had effectively stolen the tournament, began shortly afterwards to look into Fifa’s finances. A US Department of Justice inquiry into Warner, which ended up charging him with ‘wire fraud, racketeering and money laundering’, triggered the exposure of a whole raft of dodgy practices, including a proposed payment of $2 million from Fifa’s chairman, Sepp Blatter, to his deputy and anointed successor, Platini, which eventually led to the resignation of both men. Blatter blamed Platini for switching his vote to Qatar, thereby exposing their organisation to the piqued wrath of the US authorities. Blatter had long entertained a very different idea of how his time in office was meant to end. He seems to have genuinely believed that he was destined to win the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to use football as a healer of international divisions. After his downfall, Blatter told Conn that he had a vision of how it should have happened: if Russia and the US were in the same tournament, ‘it would be good for these two countries, these powerhouses; they don’t like each other – then with football they can make a handshake for peace.’ He went on to emphasise this was not about him, it was about the game. ‘What I was asking, really asking, was for the Nobel Prize: for football, not for a man. It is the movement, for Fifa, what Fifa has done in the world, not for a man.’
It didn’t turn out like that. The Americans failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, after a disastrous campaign in which their team finished fifth out of six in its qualifying group, culminating in a humiliating 2-1 defeat to Warner’s home side of Trinidad and Tobago. Meanwhile, Russia’s record since being awarded the tournament in 2010 (for which they automatically qualify as hosts) is not going to win them any favours with the Nobel Prize committee. In the last four years we’ve had the invasion of Crimea, a proxy war in Ukraine, sabre-rattling in the Balkans, apparent election interference around the world, the political murder of journalists and dissidents, and the continued persecution of minorities, including the LGBT community. The evidence for Blatter’s basic premise that international sport spreads peace and goodwill has always been fairly thin: every major tournament is dressed up that way but the legacy is more often mothballed stadiums and simmering resentment, as was the case after South Africa 2010 and Brazil 2014. Rarely, though, has a regime so brazenly signalled its indifference to the niceties of international sport, which require at least the pretence that bad behaviour gets put on hold. As the saying goes, hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue, and this is the currency in which Fifa likes to trade. But Putin isn’t having any of it. He seems to have treated the award of the tournament as a licence to try his luck.
At a meeting of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee following the attempted murder of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury earlier this year, the Labour MP Ian Austin called for England to withdraw from the World Cup in Russia on the grounds that ‘Putin is going to use it in the way that Hitler used the 1936 Olympics.’ In response, Boris Johnson said: ‘I think the comparison with 1936 is certainly right. It is an emetic prospect to think of Putin glorying in this sporting event.’ However, Johnson stopped short of calling for England to pull out. He merely advised English fans to think twice about travelling to Russia, especially given the risks they ran if they got caught up in hooliganism and found themselves at the mercy of the Russian security services. The idea of a wider boycott of this summer’s tournament was never really an option. This is partly because too many countries have divided loyalties. The World Cup is heavily skewed towards European representation – almost half the 32 nations taking part are European – and much of the continent is torn between its fear of Russia and its dependence on Russian energy supplies. In a few cases – notably that of the new Italian government – this dependence is supplemented by open admiration for some of Putin’s methods, including his habit of thumbing his nose at the EU and the US. In a time of brazen populism, pulling out of this particular World Cup was never going to be popular.
The other reason we were unlikely to see a repeat of 1980, when the US led many countries to boycott the Moscow Olympics, is that international sport has lost much of its symbolic political value. When England’s bid to host this summer’s tournament crashed and burned back in 2010, Richard Scudamore, executive chairman of the Premier League, responded by pointing out that for almost the whole world English football meant the Premier League, which would continue to thrive regardless. He was simultaneously saying the unsayable and stating the obvious: for most fans, club football is what matters, and the national team is just a sideshow. In the end, club football is where the real politics happens too. Real Madrid v. Barcelona counts for much more than the fate of the Spanish national team. The British government’s most direct response to Putin’s recent provocations has been to deny the Chelsea owner, Roman Abramovich, a visa to continue to work in this country. As a result, Abramovich has announced that he is putting his £1 billion planned investment in the redevelopment of Chelsea’s stadium on hold. He has also taken out Israeli citizenship. The stakes in this game of tit-for-tat – for Chelsea, for Abramovich, for the UK government, for Israel, for Putin – are far higher than anything that might happen during the World Cup. Abramovich was Putin’s envoy to Fifa in 2010 – a more low-key and far more effective ambassador than the glitzy English delegation – but this is not England’s revenge for that. It is the politics of now, and international football barely features.
So here is a prediction for this summer’s tournament: the most contentious moments won’t involve high politics, or corrupt money trails, but new technology. What makes Russia 2018 truly different from recent World Cups is the introduction of the VAR system, which allows refereeing assistants watching the games on TV to identify ‘clearly wrong’ decisions and to invite the match referee to review them using a monitor at the side of the pitch. VAR has been trialled in various tournaments around the world with mixed results: some obvious injustices have been overturned, but a number of games have been reduced to near farce, with long delays and extended periods of confusion as players, managers, spectators and commentators struggle to work out what is going on.
The refereeing at any World Cup is always a bit of a lottery. The usual political horse-trading precedes the selection of the officials, who tend to vary in their competence and experience; language barriers and cultural misunderstandings get in the way; and all the while the world is watching. Of course, the point of this new system is to minimise mistakes. But you don’t have to be a cynic to suppose that its likely effect will be to increase the variety of mistakes that can now be made: what counts as ‘clearly wrong’ in football is no clearer than what counts as nearly right. VAR brings more individual judgments into play, and that means, at a tournament where the referees come from 33 different countries (one more than the number of teams), far greater scope for misunderstanding. The VAR officials themselves are a more select bunch: there are just 13, of whom nine come from Europe (including three from Italy, where VAR was used in Serie A last season). The experienced people running the system will be working alongside a larger group of referees who have little idea of how it’s meant to work. What could possibly go wrong?
We are at a curious point in the evolution of the new technology: while we wait for the machines to take away our jobs they seem to be creating more work for everyone to do. When something contentious happens in this summer’s tournament, the swarm of humanity on the sidelines will be something to see: the referees, their conventional assistants and their video assistants, along with the coaches and their staff, including their resident technologists, all straining for a look. And then there will be the TV commentators, with their specialist refereeing analysts, and the thousands of journalists and millions of armchair critics, online and off, analysing and re-analysing the most controversial moments. No one is master of this domain. The 1974 World Cup final, which was pitted as Cruyff v. Beckenbauer, ended up being largely decided by the English referee Jack Taylor, who gave two penalties, unaided by anyone else and seemingly untroubled by doubt. Football was a different game then. It was more of a sport, and less a subset of the entertainment industry.
Yet Russia 2018 is just a stepping stone on the way to Qatar 2022, which remains the great scandal to come out of the 2010 bidding process. Fifa are now planning to stage it as a winter tournament, as Platini suggested, though it has yet to be explained how this will fit in with the rest of the footballing calendar. Winter or summer, any Qatari World Cup – with the players bused from air-conditioned compounds to guarded training sessions to sealed stadiums, all the undesirables kept out along with the heat, everything looking sharp and shimmery in next-next-gen 4D Ultra HD, the matches continuously streamed and permanently rewatchable in a multitude of formats, and all the contentious refereeing decisions replayed in real time by machines that finally get them right – will be quite the spectacle. Fifa are also talking about expanding the number of teams in the finals to 48, which if it happened in 2022 would mean some matches being held outside Qatar, where there aren’t enough stadiums, even with the eight new ones under construction. Conversations are already underway with the UAE and Saudi Arabia about colocation. Given the total disconnect between what is proposed for this tournament and the practical demands of the sport, it is hard to know if anyone outside the Gulf would even notice. Won’t all the purpose-built stadiums, inside their elaborate, artificial bubbles, look and feel the same anyway? Perhaps this summer’s World Cup won’t be the last tournament when we are able to tell the difference between an international football match and a video game. But it might be the last one when we still care.