MessiConsidering the nature of events over the past two or three years, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to find ourselves in a time when the World Cup Final is staged seven days before Christmas Day; the topsy-turvy, upside-down nature of where we are now expects nothing less – ditto the fact that (against all odds) a tournament rightly mired in controversy from the off climaxes with a match that ends up being one of the most edge-of-the-seat contests anyone can ever remember, one that also confirms a 35-year-old is officially acknowledged as the planet’s finest footballer. After all, the natural order was shown the door when this dismal decade was no more than a couple of months old, and ever since then we appear to have been living through a strange age when anything that had previously been logically written-off as fringe lunacy now goes – an era in which double-speak, thought-crime and 2+2=5 are the new normal; and questioning this trend is verboten in polite society. Not that Lionel Messi will be complaining; he’s finally got his hands on the one trophy that has always eluded him in a professional career that began as far back as his league debut for Barcelona in 2004. A lot of the talk over the past month has been focused on ending that career on a high, but there are a small handful of precedents should he care to dip into the history books.

The legendary Stanley Matthews played his last game for England at the age of 42 in 1957 – 23 years after his international debut; the fact he didn’t retire from football altogether until the age of 50 in 1965 is all the more amazing when one remembers he belonged to a generation of players whose careers were interrupted by six years of World War; moreover, he was unfortunate to be playing at a time when England’s performances at the World Cup never matched up to pre-tournament expectations. Lionel Messi has himself experienced many occasions during his five World Cups when the hopes of a nation have rested on his shoulders, shoulders weighed down by the burden of carrying average talents unworthy of his boots; but soldiering on eventually paid off. Due to his quiet, unassuming manner, Messi’s fame within the game has never really transcended football in the way of his flamboyant contemporary Cristiano Renaldo – nor indeed the ghost who haunts Argentina’s international side, Diego Maradona. But perhaps the additional crowning glory to Messi’s career has been to finally achieve global pop cultural status.

On Sunday’s field of play, Messi’s reputation was up against a young contender in the shape of his Paris Saint-Germain teammate, Kylian Mbappé of France. The other 20+ men on display almost seemed superfluous next to the God-like genius present in the feet of these two, certainly if pre-match hype was to be believed; but it was Messi who lived up to that hype in the first half, scoring the opening goal from the penalty spot and inspiring his side to a 2-0 lead that appeared unassailable to the lacklustre defending champions. France’s unexpected comeback towards the end of the game, levelling things at 2-2 and coming close to a shock victory in the dying light of normal time, revived a match that looked to be smoothly careering towards a preordained conclusion. But, as with the late West Germany equaliser that enabled 1966 to loom so large in the collective memory of all Englishmen, extra-time proved to be the making of the 2022 Final; and a game that seemed to contain everything had other echoes of 1966 too. There was Messi’s second goal (making the score 3-2) momentarily disputed at having crossed the line, and there was Geoff Hurst’s 56-year-old record finally being equalled as Mbappé scored a hat-trick, with a late penalty bringing the score to 3-3.

Okay, so it was eventually decided on penalties; but this wasn’t the contrived climax to one of those drab, fun-free Finals of recent years (1994 and 2006 spring to mind) – instead, it served as the only fitting icing to a nail-biting drama unparalleled in the footballing memories of most watching. And, whilst there may have been an interminable wait between the winning penalty and Messi being handed the trophy by a FIFA President who clearly didn’t want to let go of it (not to mention the player of the tournament being inexplicably draped in what resembled a see-through negligee from a 70s sex comedy), in the end the script penned by celestial hands was upheld and Argentina were recognised as world champions for a third time. A month ago, such an outcome had seemed pretty unimaginable, not least due to the fact Argentina had begun their campaign humiliated by the first of many upsets the contest produced, losing 2-1 to Saudi Arabia. Gianni Infantino, the same FIFA President who evidently wanted to bask in Messi’s magic glow on the podium, had opened proceedings with a bizarre press conference in which he responded to justifiable criticisms of the Qatar setting by declaring, ‘Today I feel Qatari; today I feel Arab; today I feel African; today I feel gay; today I feel disabled; today I feel a migrant worker.’ He didn’t add, ‘Today I feel President of an institutionally corrupt organisation that will bend over for any country with enough cash to roger it senseless and drag the sport through the mud.’ But you can’t have everything.

Opening in a key so low only Paul Robeson had previously been there, the 2022 World Cup prompted a generous amount of somewhat belated questions on the part of mainstream TV presenters and pundits from their executive boxes in stadiums built by slave labour prior to a ball being kicked; once the football actually began, anticipation over which players would choose to stage a protest was as widely discussed as any proposed performance on the pitch. As has been said before, however, there was always the 1978 example of the great Johan Cruyff, who opted out of that year’s World Cup in Argentina on account of refusing to condone the country’s ruling military junta – though none of today’s soccer superstars decided to follow suit. Despite rumours that the England team would honour their manager’s Woke credentials once again by running on the field bedecked in rainbow armbands, they restricted themselves to the jaded knee-taking ritual; that this virtue-signalling ceremony is well past its sell-by date was highlighted in an amusingly ludicrous manner when England played the USA, and the American players – who had started the whole thing in the first place – remained standing whilst the England team knelt before them; one could almost see it as a metaphor for the ‘Special Relationship’.

Sure, the German players added to the checklist of virtuous signals by indulging in a spot of pre-match mouth-covering before another embarrassing exit at the group stage, but the one visual statement made by a team that represented genuine bravery rather than the superficial ‘stunning and brave’ accolade routinely awarded to millionaires making a token gesture to ensure they remain on the Right Side of History was made by the Iran team. Their incredibly courageous decision to remain mute during the playing of the Iranian national anthem took balls, especially when one considers their families back home risked reprisals from the powers-that-be, let alone what might await the players themselves upon their return. In some respects, this memorable moment couldn’t be topped, and the focus more or less settled on the sport itself thereafter. And there were various surprises along the way, none more so than Morocco’s remarkable progress to the Semi-final, disposing of favourites such as Belgium, Spain and Portugal en route.

But, of course, whatever sour taste so much of this World Cup leaves in the mouth, at least it enabled Lionel Messi to fulfil his destiny; and I suspect that incredible Final will be the lingering memory of a tournament that should never have happened yet eventually served as a novel distraction from all the other cheery issues of the moment that are bringing so much joy into our lives. And all will recommence again three-and-a-half years from now in North Korea…er…sorry, North America. Well, you never know with FIFA…

© The Editor





World CupAlas poor Mick – the former Southampton centre forward named Channon was one of the few permanent fixtures of the unstable era in English international football that constituted the sad decline and fall of Sir Alf Ramsey as well as the inconsistent tenure of Don Revie. Mick Channon made his England debut in 1972 and played his final game for his country in 1977. At a time when England were incapable of finding a settled side and rarely played the same line-up two games running, Channon’s name was one of the few automatic choices on the team-sheet, and he collected a total of 46 caps, scoring 21 goals over five years. Yet he remains the most-capped Englishman never to have played in a World Cup or European Championships tournament, for he was prominent amongst a generation of great English footballers that also included the likes of Tony Currie, Gerry Francis, Roy McFarland and Malcolm Macdonald – men who unfortunately missed out on the kind of international competition today’s players take for granted because they were playing at the wrong time.

The 1970s was a curious period, almost reminiscent of that pre-war era of international football, when the England team effectively opted-out of the World Cup, regarding the newfangled tournament as being somehow beneath them; at least the team tried to qualify during the 70s rather than declining to participate, but they still failed to do so. The blow to national morale that came with the fatal draw against Poland at Wembley in October 1973 meant that, for the first time since their inaugural entry in 1950, England wouldn’t be going to the World Cup Finals. To add insult to injury, Scotland had qualified, and the tournament would be held in the backyard of another old enemy, West Germany; oh, and the Germans ended up winning it as well. 1974 could have been written off as an unpleasant blip for English football, but it happened again four years later.

After having to pretend to support Scotland at the 1978 World Cup (something that didn’t stretch much beyond the lacklustre draw with Iran), it was a relief that England finally qualified for the 1982 tournament; for my generation, it was the first time we’d been able to cheer on our own country in the contest, and the excitement in the build-up – along with familiar, misplaced optimism – was something that has become mandatory ever since; well, until this year. Indeed, given the uniquely low-key overture to the 2022 World Cup, you’d be forgiven for not knowing it kicks-off this coming Sunday. I’ve never previously experienced such muted hyperbole preceding the World Cup before, especially with England participating; and, for once, England go into a tournament having performed exceptionally well at the previous two – semi-finalists in the 2018 World Cup and runners-up at Euro 2020. However, there are reasons for this noticeable dearth of enthusiasm, and it says a great deal about the multi-million dollar business the beautiful game has become in recent years.

Qatar is a country that has never qualified for the World Cup and has no footballing pedigree whatsoever. It had no notable stadia when winning the right to host the tournament, so embarked upon an intensive building programme thereafter, undertaken by cheap migrant labour; many of the exploited labourers died during the construction of this stadia, though estimates vary as to the numbers. Mind you, considering summer temperatures in the country can reach up to 113º Fahrenheit, it’s probably fair to say hard labour in such conditions isn’t recommended. The searing heat is utterly unsuitable for running around a football pitch for 90 minutes, which is why a sacred tradition has been broken to accommodate the fact and this World Cup has been put back to the end of the year. Of course, this has meant the suspension of domestic league programmes, smack bang in the middle of the season; league football is the weekly bread-and-butter of the football fan, and the majority would rather see their own club win the title or the cup than have their international team do well instead. World Cups and Euros have increasingly become a summer side-dish to the main course of club football – the snack between meals you can eat without ruining your appetite; the prospect of a season being interrupted just so the World Cup can be held in an appalling autocracy where being gay means a prison sentence and women are second-class citizens frankly stinks. Sure, countries with dubious human rights records have held global sporting events before – the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the 1978 Argentina World Cup, the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and indeed the very last World Cup, which was held in bloody Russia. But this feels even worse.

The awarding of the World Cup to Qatar back in 2010 embodies everything that is ugly, obscene and unedifying about football today. 11 of the 22 members of FIFA’s Executive Committee who gave the vote to Qatar twelve years ago have subsequently been suspended, indicted, banned or fined; two were excluded from the decision-making process even before it took place due to allegations they’d offered to sell their votes; a year after the right to host was won by Qatar, the Sunday Times alleged two other committee members had each been paid one and-a-half million dollars to vote the right way. The stench of bribery, corruption and brown paper bags has not cleared since the disgraced voting of 2010; anybody with half-a-brain knows the sole reason the World Cup went to a footballing backwater like Qatar was that Qatar bought the tournament. And this blatant truism has definitely filtered through to the TV stations, presenters and pundits, who are conspicuously quieter than usual. One gets the feeling that even the overenthusiastic cheerleaders for the competition are ashamed, toning down their normal giddiness at the prospect of the World Cup being just days away.

Unsurprisingly, some in the game have echoed FIFA’a scruples by taking the money and running with it, struggling to uphold their routine Woke posturing in the face of hilarious hypocrisy. Just a couple of months on from winning plaudits after choosing to queue-up to see Her Majesty’s coffin at Westminster Hall rather than using his celebrity status to jump that queue, David Beckham’s reputation is in the gutter following revelations of a handsome gratuity from his Qatari paymasters; similarly, infuriatingly right-on pundit Gary Neville – the arch-advocate of taking the knee – has decided not to boycott the World Cup and will instead be covering the contest on site, for a mouth-watering fee. It was almost a throwback to the glory days of ‘Have I Got News for You’ when Ian Hislop ripped into Neville a couple of weeks back, and he was as deserving of it as Matt Hancock is of being showered in koala crap on his own primetime reality show. But the hypocrisy doesn’t end there. After two years of bombarding football fans with nothing but political issues and slogans, the football authorities are now claiming politics has no place in the sport and supporters should concentrate on the games instead of questioning the ethics of holding the World Cup in a country like Qatar. You couldn’t make it up.

When the MSM has cautiously touched upon those ethics, the focus has predictably been the threat to travelling members of the ‘LGBTXYZ Community’, something a Qatari World Cup Ambassador provided ammunition for by stating, ‘Homosexuality is damage in the mind’. But as football isn’t primarily regarded as a particularly ‘gay’ sport, the impact of such prejudice is probably more minimal than some of the other unsavoury elements surrounding the whole atrocious circus. Like most, I’ll no doubt tune in to see how England fare, but I won’t be especially annoyed if they fail to make it out of the group stages this time round. The sooner the team are jetting home to prepare for the recommencement of the domestic season, the better. Qatar bought the tournament, so Qatar may as well buy the bloody trophy; let them have it. Any other winner would only be tainted by association.

© The Editor





77I’m probably not the first person to point out the irony in Wales taking on Northern Ireland in football’s European Championships yesterday, just 48 hours after the EU Referendum in which the former voted Brexit and the latter voted Remain. When England took on Wales in the group stages, it was the first time two of the four home nations had played each other in a major tournament since England played Scotland in Euro 96, but for anyone over a certain age it inadvertently revived memories of the days when such a fixture took place every season, when it formed part of the oldest international football competition, an annual contest that predated the World Cup by 47 years and spanned a century.

Following on from the first ever international football fixture between England and Scotland in 1872, the two founding nations of Association Football only had each other to play until the Welsh national side was formed and played its inaugural fixture against the Scots in 1876, taking on England for the first time three years later. The Irish national side completed the quartet with its 1882 debut, and though the formation of the English Football League was still a good five years away – with the FA Cup being the sole measure of domestic success – the four national sides decided to instigate a league-based competition. What became known as the British or Home Championship began in January 1884, the world’s first competitive league tournament for a sport that had sprung from the playing fields of the public schools and was now the passion of the working man; the first winners were Scotland, ending the campaign with a 4-1 win over Wales in Glasgow.

As Britain’s soccer missionaries spread the game in Europe and South America, the Home Championship was widely regarded as the world’s pre-eminent international football competition, and the increasing popularity of the sport saw the fixtures attract huge crowds in the decades leading up to the First World War. In less safety-conscious days, this often ran the risk of tragedy. In April 1902, Scotland were playing England at Glasgow Rangers’ Ibrox ground when a newly built wooden stand with a steel girder frame collapsed, sending hundreds of fans falling forty feet to the ground, injuring over 500 and killing 25.

When the competition began again in 1919, the tradition of the final fixture being between England and Scotland had already become established, and this tended to be the highest-attended and most eagerly awaited game of the whole contest. In fact, at one time the England Vs Scotland game was one of only three football matches allowed to be screened live on TV every season – the other two being the FA Cup Final and the European Cup Final. Imagine that. No wonder it continued to attract such fervent attention well into the 1970s.

The Home Nations always had a troubled relationship with FIFA, the world governing body formed in 1904. Although England joined the new organisation in 1905, swiftly followed by the other three British national sides, all left and then rejoined FIFA in the early 20s before leaving again in 1928; not returning to the FIFA fold until after the Second World War meant the four founding nations of international football didn’t participate in the first three World Cup tournaments. When qualifying for the 1950 World Cup in Brazil was inaugurated, FIFA decided the Home Championship would serve as a convenient qualifying group, a role it also performed for the 1954 World Cup.

In the immediate post-war era, the competition retained its reputation in an era of limited exposure to international football and scarce availability of television; by the time the World Cup was held in England in 1966, however, the Home Championship had been usurped by the upstart FIFA contest and embarked upon a long slow slide towards eventual abolition. The end-of-season England Vs Scotland game, alternating every year between English and Scottish soil, overshadowed other fixtures in the contest, though the infamous pitch invasion at Wembley by Scots supporters in 1977 gave the impression that the tournament was more trouble than it was worth. When the 1980-81 Home Championship was abandoned halfway through due to the Northern Ireland Troubles – taking place as it did at the height of the IRA Hunger Strikes – it was effectively the beginning of the end.

For generations of British footballers, club loyalties were put to one side whenever domestic team-mates took on each other in national colours and the fixtures were regarded almost as a rites-of-passage event, shaping national identity within the British Isles in the process. But by the early 1980s, international rivalries (such as England and West Germany) had superseded the old British rivalries, and the World Cup and European Championships were taking precedence. Coupled with falling attendances, hooliganism, and the expanding European club fixtures of English and Scottish league teams, the Home Championship seemed to have become an anachronistic encumbrance and the decision was made to end a hundred years of history in 1984, with Northern Ireland claiming the last title.

Only when the Home Nations have occasionally been drawn against each other in either World Cup or European Championship qualifying groups have memories of the Home Championship been subsequently revived; and the undoubted excitement these games have provoked have led to periodical calls for the contest to be restarted, possibly as a summer competition staged every couple of years. Alas, such calls have been met with a lukewarm response by the FA and the other British football governing bodies; and now that the UK seems poised on the precipice of extinction courtesy of political machinations, the likelihood of what for many fans and players was a highlight of each season being revived seems about as odds-on as the UK applying to rejoin the EU. The past was not just another country; it was four.

© The Editor


OlympicsWhat became known as ‘The Austerity Olympics’ were held in 1948, with a still Blitz-scarred London the host city; they were they first Olympic Games staged since the notorious Nazi propaganda-fest of Berlin in 1936 and the amateur age of athletics was more evident than ever, with male competitors housed in RAF and Army camps while female competitors made do with ladies’ colleges, and both sexes were restricted to a diet of rations; there was no room for millionaire prima-donnas in 1948. No new venues were built to hold the 19 sport disciplines in the schedule, but the capital could boast the likes of Wembley Stadium, the Empire Pool, Earls Court and various football grounds. Cost-cutting was paramount, though from all accounts it was a successful tournament and a positive return to sporting normality after the war years.

The 1948 London Olympics was the fourteenth modern tournament since the event’s official revival fifty-two years previously, and like many of the great global events that continue to the present day it had relatively humble beginnings. The football World Cup, inaugurated in Uruguay in 1930, was similarly small-scale with many of the leading European nations – including England – failing to participate. One only has to consider the length of time it took to travel from Europe to South America by sea in 1930 to understand the reluctance of the FA to take part in what many regarded as a minor tournament that would probably end up as a quickly-forgotten one-off. Television, let alone satellite technology, was in its experimental infancy, so looking ahead to a future whereby events in every corner of the planet could be beamed into living rooms around the world was pure sci-fi.

The first Eurovision Song Contest was held in Switzerland in 1956, the debut venture into Europe-wide broadcasting attempted at a time when the continent was bitterly divided and lingered in the shadow of the Second World War. Just seven nations participated in what became an annual event rather than the four-year schedule of the Olympics and World Cup, and although the number of competing countries fluctuated for the first thirty years of its existence, the line-up averaged no more than 20-21 nations until the collapse of the Eastern Bloc saw a sudden increase in the amount of participants during the early 1990s.

Like the Olympics and World Cup, the Eurovision Song Contest has swollen way beyond its initial origins and the cost of staging a competition with such a huge worldwide television audience and the need for it now to be held in a massive venue capable of holding thousands rather than the old theatres has presented many host nations with a financial headache. Identical problems on an even bigger scale have afflicted those cities selected to host the Olympics, with Rio the latest host city to find itself confronting difficulties as a result of winning the bidding process.

A serious economic crisis is facing the Brazilian State of Rio de Janeiro, with the Governor declaring a financial emergency at the weekend. Coming at a time when this summer’s Olympics are less than fifty days from opening, the denials that this calamity will affect Rio’s ability to host the contest suggests there has been a good deal of head-burying on Copacabana beach. Coupled with concerns over the Zika virus, the last thing Brazil really needs at this moment is an influx of upwards of 500,000 visitors expecting a grandiose festival of sport when the future of Rio’s public services is balanced on a perilous knife-edge.

There is an argument that an Olympics or a World Cup brings in corporate investment and raises the morale of the nation, but it’s rare for financial benefits to filter down to the masses, and Brazil in particular has long had an infamous problem with poverty that it’s hard to see being solved by hosting its second major sporting event in two years (the World Cup was held there, of course, in 2014). Commercial pressures and the increasing power of sponsorship on the part of multi-national brands marketing each competition with tie-ins and cash-ins that saturate coverage are a long way from the amateur ethos of 1896. Even the money spent on merely the opening ceremony is staggering – an alleged $100 million for Beijing in 2008. In the same way that a so-called musical event like Glastonbury has become just another corporate carnival a long way from the purpose behind its distant founding, the Olympics appear to have little to do with Pierre de Coubertin’s vision anymore.

One has to ask if such major mega-events that have outgrown their original remit are worth the expense and the crippling cost of their aftermath when they last no more than three weeks at the most. Also, considering the recent corruption revelations of football’s world governing body FIFA and not dissimilar accusations being levelled at the Olympics’ equivalent the IOC, the question arises as to whether or not they need to go back to basics and simply start afresh on a more affordable scale than they have gradually acquired, though with the obscene amounts of money invested in them, it’s difficult to envisage that ever happening.

The modern Olympic Games have now reached the ripe old age of 120; the World Cup 86; the Eurovision 60; and even a relative newcomer such as football’s European Championships tournament is 56 years old. It’s horrific to imagine how much bigger they can become, though will anybody even be able to afford staging any of them fifty years from now – and is it really worth it?

© The Editor