I didn’t get much sleep, and like so many bad things from the lack of video replays to the vuvuzela, it’s FIFA’s fault. Last night, I stayed up until the wee hours in the hope of what always looked like an unlikely victory for our World Cup bid. As a teenager, I was at Circular Quay when Juan Antonio Samaranch pulled our name out of that hat, and I was hoping against the odds for a similar memorable, mispronounced moment.
Now, I could have copped a loss to the USA, or perhaps even Japan or Korea. All are far bigger football markets than we are. But when Qatar’s name came out of the envelope, I was incensed. However, now that I’ve slept on it, and had the chance to really mull over whether we were the best choice to host the World Cup in 2022… I’m still incensed.
The choice of Qatar isn’t farcical, but only because farces are supposed to be entertaining. Watching Sepp Blatter award 2018 to Russia and 2022 to Qatar was a bit like that moment in a crime novel when someone notices an unpleasant whiff in the air, and then opens a cupboard to discover a rotting, dismembered corpse. Everyone who follows the game knows that FIFA and corruption allegations go together like Harry Kewell and career-threatening injuries. So let’s just say that in the wake of a massive corruption scandal, the decision to award both cups to oil-rich countries with dubious governments, dodgy human rights records and deeply inhospitable weather conditions was – brave.
And while I’m not saying that the members of FIFA who voted are outright crooks, as opposed to their two colleagues who were suspended while corruption allegations are investigated, FIFA isn’t exactly a meritocracy. If it was, it’d be headed by someone like Franz Beckenbauer, not a guy whose previous claim to fame was running the Swiss Ice Hockey Federation.
Sepp Blatter himself has been dogged by corruption allegations for years. But that’s not the worst thing about him. That same Wikipedia page tells me he “was elected president of the World Society of Friends of Suspenders, an organisation which tried to stop women replacing suspender belts with pantyhose.” All in all, a classy guy.
But Australia wasn’t robbed. Not at all. Because in short, we don’t like football terribly much. We don’t try to host the World Cups for hurling, or badminton, or croquet, or bullfighting, and we shouldn’t be surprised to miss out on the premier trophy in another sport that we don’t have much time for.
What I think happened was that our passion for hosting big tournaments like the Olympics got caught up in our quadrennial vague interest in the Socceroos, and we forgot ourselves. But as David Beckham says when he dons a sarong irrespective of the fact that it looks ridiculous, you have to be true to yourself. And by bidding, we weren’t.
Only once before, when the US hosted it in 1994, has the FIFA World Cup been held in a country in which association football isn’t the biggest sport. But I’d wager that Australia is the only country in the world, host candidate or otherwise, where “soccer” is the fourth most popular professional football code. As Late Show fans will tell you, fourth is a pretty humble position. AFL, league and union all get far bigger crowds and television audiences, and so do cricket, tennis and swimming for that matter. And while the A-League has made great strides forward, it’s still early days. So when we tell FIFA about our massive passion for football, we’re lying.
Of course, hosting the Cup would be a great shot in the arm for the game here. But I think we can forgive FIFA for not prioritising the popularity of football in a nation of 22 million. Maybe when our own domestic league isn’t on the verge of financial collapse, we’ll have a chance of convincing FIFA to trust us with its crown jewel.
Here’s a clue about just how unpopular the game is here. Of the twelve grounds proposed in our bid, only half of them are rectangular. Particularly in the vastness of the MCG, viewing conditions will be far from ideal.
Then there are the problems of distance and timezone and so on. Those shouldn’t be insurmountable barriers, of course, but when the rest of the world watches the Cup obsessively, and games literally stop nations, it seems reasonable that it screen live at a time when they can watch it.
And finally, there was our presentation, which surely only confirmed our perception as a nation that isn’t serious about football. You’d think that after the debacle of our closing ceremony contribution at the Atlanta Games, with those infamous inflatable kangaroos on bicycles, our sports administrators would know that wacky marsupials and sporting credibility do not go well together. But no. Our video featured a cartoon kangaroo stealing the World Cup from FIFA headquarters, only for it to be retrieved by… Paul Hogan, donning his battered Crocodile Dundee hat once again.
Let’s unpack that for a moment. We’ve fought for years against the perception that we’re all just a bunch of convicts. We’ve fought for years to show that we belong in world football legitimately. And we’ve fought for years to disown Paul Hogan. (And the irony of someone who was recently prevented from leaving the country over unpaid taxes enforcing the law against World Cup thieving seems to have been lost on our bid team.) If this is how the rest of the world sees us – and worse, if this is how we ask the rest of the world to see us – then I’m amazed we got even one vote. It was cringe-inducing stuff.
And then, who wants to play nice with FIFA? Maybe they would have backed our bid if, instead of sending Paul Hogan to recover the World Cup, Julia Gillard could have pressured Sepp into swapping the Cup for the hosting rights? That’s the kind of negotiation FIFA understands. And that cheeky kangaroo could have become a FIFA Vice-President, like the guy from Qatar.
The price is high. Just to host the World Cup, we had to promise not only to completely exempt FIFA from tax, but to insulate it against financial losses. And we saw in South Africa that FIFA even expects to be able to circumvent local laws. Then there are the constant dodgy deals, like the massive ticketing contract that was handed last year to a company run by Sepp’s son, Philippe Blatter. Like the North Korean government and Mick Hucknall, FIFA is an institution that one simply shouldn’t get into bed with.
So, it seems fitting that FIFA has endorsed Qatar. A monarchy that oppresses women, bans homosexuality, and has a population that’s largely made up of”guest” construction workers who are forced to work in dreadful conditions. And the climate is so unsuitable for the game that the World Cup stadia those poor migrant workers will now have to build will be air-conditioned – the ultimate climate change fuck-you from a country whose wealth is built on fossil fuels. It’s already a desert, so presumably they don’t care if everywhere else becomes one, too.
The choice of Qatar – and to a lesser extent Russia which is at least vast and football-mad – only confirms perceptions of FIFA as irredeemably dodgy. The game should be controlled by the fans who pump billions into it, not pampered oligarchs in Zurich. But unfortunately football is just too addictive a drug to the rest of the world, who’ll do anything in the hope of winning the carrot dangled out by Sepp and his cronies. FIFA’s control is meekly endorsed, not challenged.
But if we Aussies are honest with ourselves, we can take or leave football and its World Cup. Even bidding for it belittled us, with the tacky handout of those pearl necklaces for the delegates’ wives. And we certainly shouldn’t do the other things it apparently takes to get it.