Remember those Chilean miners? Remember that devastating earthquake in Haiti, and that big volcanic ash cloud that wreaked havoc in European airspace? Do you know what they all have in common? They took place four years ago. Four long years or merely a heartbeat ago, depending on your perspective and disposition. The Special One was leading Inter to European glory, while the special needs Taoiseach, Brian Cowen was leading Ireland to ruination. Four years ago, when the droning sound of the vuvuzelas drove some viewers to despair, and Barcelona inspired tiki-taka reached its international zenith when Andreas Iniesta scored the winning goal in a brutal encounter with the Netherlands to win the World Cup for Spain. Ancelloti was winning the double for Chelsea, Fergie was still ruling with an iron fist at Old Trafford, while the facts just weren’t adding up for Rafa.
A lot has changed in four years. Another World Cup has come and gone, a wonderful, enjoyable, sometimes utterly thrilling spectacle that has been viewed by an unprecedented amount of people around the world. The tournament surely is one of the few truly global events. The doubts raised concerning social unrest and the threat of disruption before it began proved largely unfounded, in as much as we know or care, and the so-called legacy that hosting the competition will leave behind for the impoverished favela dwelling Brazilians is not something most of us western Europeans will give much thought to. It’s in the past. Germany won, that unforgettable 7-1 annihilation of the hosts, the Messi anti-climax, Suarez the crazy bastard, some brilliant brilliant goals and James Rodriquez, and that’s it. Time to move our attention to the next event, time to make the next set of memories, time to move the bandwagon, the circus, the motley crew of bigwigs, executives, sponsors and leaders of men to the next FIFA staged extravaganza. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Russia 2018, a mere four years away.
Our old history teacher used to quote “that those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it”, with the added implication that we would be back next year to repeat the leaving cert if we didn’t study. So it can be beneficial to examine some World Cups past to see if we can learn any lessons that might make for better tournaments in the future. The 1934 World Cup for example may have one or two things in common with the 2018 tournament. In 1934, Fascist Italy hosted the prestigious international competition. Ruled by ego-maniac, and self-confessed sex addicted totalitarian dictator Benito Mussolini, the World Cup was used as a very effective propaganda tool to boost the international reputation of a country which sought to influence and control the thoughts and actions of its people from the cradle to the grave. So what if Mussolini’s squadrisiti thugs and black-shirted militias struck fear into the hearts of the population in order to gain political control, or that it was around the time of the World Cup that Benito began to adopt some of the policies of his new buddy Adolf in relation to the Jewish population? It doesn’t matter. Italy came from behind to beat Czechoslovakia in the final. Were the Czechs threatened at half-time for having the temerity to take the lead? Mere speculation. Were they given a helping hand by officials slightly favouring the home team? That is by no means exclusive to tournaments held by totalitarian regimes as Brazil can attest to.
A couple of years later Adolf Hitler basked in the somewhat triumphant hosting of the 1936 Olympic Games, when the whole Aryan superiority thing was blown away by Jesse Jackson, but the German organisation of the games was magnificent. Hitler illustrated how effective the propaganda of hosting such events can be when he was named “Time Magazine, Man of the Year”, in 1938, and was perceived by most world leaders at the time as a man of action, and international statesman. So what if he wanted to unite all German speaking people into a single German super-state? Sure it’s only patriotism. Okay, maybe he shouldn’t have annexed Austria and the Czech Sudetenland, but they were German speaking people, weren’t they? Just like those Crimeans are Russian, right?
Forty years later and things hadn’t changed much. The 1978 World Cup in Argentina was memorable for a number of reasons and not all of them footballing ones, for once again the powers-that be opted to award the event to a Fascist totalitarian military junta, who would use the competition to show the world how great they were. It’s not so much the reports of concentration camps, torture chambers, and disappearances that are remembered, but more the humble protests of the mothers of the victims that were beamed around the world, victims who were buried alive, thrown from planes, and savagely mutilated. However, Argentina won their first World Cup, defeating a Dutch team who are now seen to have revolutionised the game with their style of Total Football.
Something else happened around this tournament that should not be forgotten, the fact that the beaten finalists that year were without their best player, for reasons that are still so relevant today. Johan Cruyff was the star of the Dutch team, and one of the most gifted footballers to ever play the game. The way he could control the ball and shape the ebb and flow of a match is only rivalled by an elite few. He wasn’t injured, he wasn’t knackered, he wasn’t throwing the toys from the Sai-pram because the training facilities weren’t up to scratch. He simply asked, “How can you play a soccer match a thousand meters from a torture centre?” Wow. When you think about it, it makes total sense. Would you feel comfortable playing in a stadium in the knowledge that there are people doing unspeakable things to other human beings just a few short meters away? Best not to think about it at all eh?
In four years’ time Russia and Vladimir Putin will host the FIFA World Cup. A country that has, for the last few years, been steadily slipping back into the habits of old regimes. Public demonstrations brutally repressed; politically minded rock bands jailed; political opposition targeted and destroyed; corruption endemic; financial and military support provided for other dictatorships; discriminatory legislation against minorities; sovereign states invaded and annexed; 298 innocent people including 80 children blown out of the sky. There is truth in the words of Irish philosopher Edmund Burke when he said that “All it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing”, and the fact is that most of us are just that, good people who do nothing. For the most part men are sheep and where FIFA leads, fans will follow, players will play and the show will go on.
Johan Cruyff once stood up for what he felt was right, for all that it was worth. Most Dutch people would probably have preferred if he’d played, and won. However, his actions need to be considered today more than ever. Will the Dutch people, in particular the relatives of the 193 Dutch people killed in last week’s atrocity, now consider Cruyffs’ actions more carefully? Will the Dutch FA. contemplate a similar action and refuse the invitation to partake in the Football festivities in four years’ time? Will the British, German, Italian, Australian or Irish football associations consider boycotting a tournament that is sponsored by a regime that displays such little regard for innocent human life? For make no mistake, Putin is the architect of Malaysia Airline flight 17’s destruction, and the responsibility for those images, images of battered bodies, broken toys, and children’s clothes strewn across what seems like a war-ravaged countryside lies squarely at the feet of the most modern of dictators. Yet we persist in justifying and legitimising this regime by charging them with hosting footballs’ supreme spectacle. And let’s not even get started on Qatar.
Football and sport matter. When your club wins, when your county wins and when your country wins the joy is tangible. Events like the World Cup are the same; they create the memories and talking points that build lives. It is vital we share these rare communal moments, the goals, the joy, the victories and the defeats, but it is also important that these moments remain untainted. It is unfair to ask any fan not to follow their team into a tournament, so it is football’s governing bodies that have to lead. It is about time that organisations like FIFA, UEFA, the FA and the rest showed some true leadership and refuse to send the teams that represent their nations to Putin’s Russia in four years’ time. In four years’ time the passenger plane shot down by the Russian sponsored militia last week will, like the Chilean miners and the volcanic ash cloud, be only a hazy memory for most. In four years’ time Football will still matter, let’s hope it can matter even more.
by Paul Cahill