It is a triumph to either the human spirit or man’s capacity for self-delusion that the tournament continues to be the repository of dreams...tune in, tun on and drop out, writes Michael Clifford
TWO days in and nothing of major significance to report. The fare has been a little above average, but standards will only become apparent over the next week. How has it been for you so far?
Yes, the World Cup is upon us. We are in the month during which over three billion people across the planet will tune into at least some of the 64 games being played.
This is, in some ways, a time during which reason takes flight. Half of the world falls into a state of wonder to watch a game that has been corrupted beyond recognition, played by pampered millionaires, some of whom are only average. And all because it holds out the prospects of a fleeting glimpse of football in its purest form here and there.
Football’s world governing body Fifa has waded from swamp to swamp of financial scandal in recent years. Much of this has revolved around the payment of bribes to officials in order to buy votes and influence in attempting to win the competition to host the tournament.
The host country this year is a dictatorship scantily dressed as a democracy.
Concerns have been expressed about trouble that could arise for visiting fans in a country that has a poor record on racism and homophobia. Vladimir Putin will be a winner, irrespective of who picks up the gold trophy and €33m winner’s cheque on July 15.
At Thursday’s opening match between the host country and Saudi Arabia, Putin sat next to crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. In a different context the pair of dictators could have been kicking back and enjoying the game being put on for their pleasure.
Things look even murkier when considering the location for the next tournament, the tiny Middle Eastern country of Qatar, which thrives on oil and the abuse of impoverished foreign workers.
How Qatar managed to win the rights for 2022 remains a matter of intense investigation, which in turn offers the only hope that the madness will not proceed. Should it come to pass, games will be played in intolerable heat.
As such, the small, oil rich dictatorship is the ideal venue for a corrupt business with the game itself completely undermined in pursuit of big bucks.
And yet, despite all that, “the product”, as it is known in some quarters, still manages to carve out a considerable space in the global imagination.
Over the coming weeks, a communion of sorts will take place from the shanty towns of Western Africa to the bustling cities of Brazil and into the steel and glass towers of high finance in the wealthiest enclaves of the world. Everybody will be watching the same thing, saying much the same things, and blaming the ref when things go pearshaped.
We have experienced extended lapses of reason when the national team has put in an appearance. Merely making the finals is usually an excuse to celebrate ourselves and engage in extended discussion about how the tournament impacts on everything from mortgage repayments to marriage breakdown.
Then there is the really serious stuff which the country lived through in 2002.
It’s best not to mention Saipan, that tiny island in the Pacific which saw the nation come closer to civil war than any other time since Mick Collins began shelling the Four Courts.
Suffice to say that prior to that dark period, George Hamilton was wont to declare at big moments that the nation holds its breath. In 2002 it was a case of the nation tearing itself apart.
Other countries get through these heady days with less fuss but no less fun. In 2006, Germany hosted the tournament and used it to celebrate the unification of its country. Nine months later the birth rate in the country spiked.
The Die Zeit newspaper did a survey in April 2007 that showed that in some parts of the country the birthrate was up by almost 30% on the same period the previous year. Quite obviously the thrill of the tournament had prompted many Germans to do their patriotic duty in attacking the nation’s declining birthrate.
The madness has turned tragic in other instances, with suicides in Brazil and some other South American countries not unknown following a poor tournament.
In July 1994, Colombia defender Andres Escobar Saldarriaga was shot dead in the aftermath of the World Cup hosted in the USA. The defender had scored an own goal in a game that saw the team eliminated. That drove somebody to commit an outrage that in some ways sparked more national shame than any other atrocity in a country blighted by the drugs business.
So it is a triumph to either the human spirit or man’s capacity for self-delusion that the tournament continues to be the repository of dreams.
Then there is the romance. This year Iceland is the new Ireland. The tiny country with a population of 350,000 is flying the flag for the outsiders. We can find common cause with this hardy race of people who take pride in their history and isolation and managed to have bankers that were even more greedy and incompetent than ours.
Iceland may even provide one of those World Cup moments that live forever.
Make no mistake. Instances which will flash across the TV screens in the coming days and weeks that will take up residence in the memory of thousands if not millions across the globe. Most of us who have even a passing interest in the game have recourse to such moments, and can even, from decades away, recall where we were when it went down.
I can still see wee Archie Gemmill weaving through a forest of Dutch legs and lifting the ball over the Dutch keeper to score a goal lifted straight from the school playground. Gemmill played for Notts Forest so he was real in a way that the Dutch and Argentinians and Brazilians were exotic and alien.
There are plenty of other memories, too many of which involve pubs from another lifetime in various corners of this country, the UK and USA. All of them are on instant recall, even if some are better left forgotten.
But this year it will be all about the couch. The time has come around once more for an extended break from the real world. Make a mental reservation of the corruption and cynicism. Tune in, turn on and drop out.
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