It’s All Over

John Lanchester

Small boys of all ages and both genders look forward to World Cups. Perhaps nobody, though, looks forward to it more than actual small boys. I’ve been looking forward to them ever since my first, in 1970 – the best, I still think. The thing I remember almost as well as the drama and excitement of the football was my incredulous horror at the thought that I would be 12 before this thing came round again. How could it possibly be four years until the next one? Not even adults, surely, could be so recklessly stupid as to make everybody wait four years for the next example of something so wonderful? Four years: that was literally for ever. I remember running through the years of future World Cups in my head: 1974, 1978, 1982, 1986, 1990; the sequence stretched into the inconceivably far distance. It was great to have something to look forward to, but did it have to be the case that you had to look forward so far?

Of course, when you get older, four years starts to feel a lot more like four minutes. The World Cups stop stretching out in front of you and accumulate in the past, the gaps between them seeming narrower and narrower as the years zoom by. The time England pissed away a one-goal lead and a one-man advantage over Brazil – which one was that? The one where Beckham got sent off – was that the same one or the one before? The one where England’s overpaid, overhyped, chronically underperforming alleged ‘golden generation’ chronically underperformed – was that 2002, 2006 or 2010? Oh no, wait, that’s easy: it was all of them.

That 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea was the one where, in retrospect, the whole thing began to die. For me, anyway. Not because of England’s performance – that had the usual tragicomic aspect. (Though my favourite England bit remains the 1996 Euro tournament, where the prelude saw some of the highly trained athletes, on the eve of the ‘most important tournament of their lives’, taking the opportunity to stay up into the small hours chugging Flaming Lamborghinis in a Hong Kong bar. Good times.) No, the thing that started to kill it for me was the refereeing.

We have to be very careful here. The laws of libel might have been specifically designed to prevent a person from telling the truth, or the truth as one sees it, about World Cups and about Fifa, the organisation that runs them. Suffice it to say that a lot of very fishy things happened on the field in 2002. I remember at the time arguing that the World Cup was just too public an event to be prone to corruption in the refereeing. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and World Cup matches are very brightly lit. I even argued that errors in games such as Italy’s defeat by South Korea – the Korean hosts benefited from several flagrant howlers – were genuine mistakes. Looking back, I think it’s pretty funny I ever thought that. The Ecuadorian referee of that match, Byron Moreno, was suspended the following year for adding 13 minutes of extra time to a league game in his home country. The home team won after equalising in the 99th minute and going ahead in the 101st. Moreno retired from refereeing not long after. It’s difficult to quash a genuinely entrepreneurial spirit, though, and he soon began another career as a drug mule. He was arrested at JFK in 2010 carrying six kilos of heroin, and spent 26 months in jail. And that wasn’t even the worst refereed game of the 2002 tournament.

Even here, at a stretch, you can just about see the funny side. Lousy refereeing, inadvertently amusing commentary, bad hairstyles, exotic names, migraine-inducing vuvuzelas: all part of the World Cup’s rich tapestry. It helps that the beautiful game is more beautiful than ever. Unlike in some sports, where increased athleticism has led to a narrow emphasis on power and muscle at the expense of skill – rugby, I’m looking at you – in football, the players are quicker and more skilful than ever, and the game is better as a result. At the top level, the skill and speed are astonishing. Tweaks to the rules, especially the offside rule, have made football a more attacking game, and a much more appealing one. Increased protection for talented forwards has made a huge difference too. It’s all good. Unfortunately, the organisation that runs the game at the highest international level is fundamentally rotten. The thing that has killed the romance of the World Cup can be put in one word: Qatar.

It’s a widely held view that Fifa is a corrupt organisation. This matters because Fifa has full control and full ownership of the main global football tournaments, which will give it a revenue of around $4 billion from this year’s World Cup. The decision to hand the 2022 World Cup to Qatar has taken this from a reluctantly acknowledged fact about the world’s favourite game and made it something that can’t be ignored. The admirable Sunday Times investigation into the bribery and corruption surrounding Qatar’s bid is providing evidence about how this shameful decision was made. It makes no sense to stage the summer tournament of an aerobically active game in a country where the temperature hits 50°C in the shade and there is little history of football, no infrastructure and a tiny population. Compare the circumstances of the country that lost out in the voting at the relevant Fifa committee, the US. You could just about – just, just about – see this decision as part of the general grotesquerie surrounding World Cups, if it weren’t for the fact that hundreds of migrant workers have died already in the construction of stadiums in Qatar. The best estimate of the current death toll comes from the International Trade Union Confederation, and stands at 1200 Indian, Nepalese and Bangladeshi construction workers. The projected death toll is four thousand by 2022. This horror has arisen as a direct consequence of the decision to award the World Cup to Qatar. It can’t be rationalised, can’t be justified, can’t be excused or explained away. What this looks like is hundreds of poor people dying because Fifa’s bidding process is corrupt.

Perhaps one day we’ll get football back from its rulers and the World Cup can again become something small boys can look forward to, however old they are and however many Cups they can remember. In the meantime, I’m giving it a miss. The International Olympic Committee was once in a state very similar to Fifa, until the gigantic scandal around the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, and the fact that it happened in a country with vigorous anti-corruption laws forced it to clean up. Let’s hope the scandal around Qatar turns out to be Fifa’s Salt Lake City moment.