ON THIS occasion, Bill Shankly is right. Football is a matter of life and death. Normally, a World Cup is brought to you by its official beverage providers. Qatar 2022 was brought to you on the backs of dead migrant workers.
Before a ball has been kicked, the tournament has already morphed into that unspeakable family tragedy, the one avoided at all gatherings. It’s there, always, in the room, but the weight is too much, so we turn to the superficial and trivial instead. Isn’t the food nice? Apparently, the spice market is fabulous. Aren’t the stadiums pretty? How many people actually died building them?
And the illusion is shattered once more. Another article has popped up on the news feed, another documentary on Netflix, reminding us, condemning us, for taking a cursory interest in meaningless numbers. Will Harry Kane overtake Gary Lineker’s scoring record with England? Will Lionel Messi knock in more than Cristiano Ronaldo? How many of those Three Lions supporters are actually real?
And we’ve done it again, bursting more bubbles than jaded West Ham supporters, slipping into a narrative we’re eager to avoid for the next month or so, the one labelled, ‘REALITY’, in bold, black letters. We’ve just about had it with reality. Reality has intruded upon our every waking moment since someone coughed in a Wuhan market and a dictator decided that the concept of Mother Russia could become his reality.
The World Cup’s job – its only job, really – is to pull us away from that reality, for 90 minutes, for the group matches, the knockout stages, whatever. The timeframe is irrelevant. The job description is all that matters.
The World Cup distracts from news headlines. It shouldn’t become them, not in a negative sense anyway. That’s the tacit agreement. Those headlines are reserved for illegal invasions, supply chain breakdowns and whatever else can be currently filed under “polycrisis”.
The World Cup is supposed to be an escape pod from all that. Diego Maradona dazzled at Mexico ’86, just a few years after the Falklands War and Italia ’90 allowed England to temporarily forget that hooligans had taken over their terraces. They were smokescreens, sure, but those tournaments served their brief purpose, as did others, offering respite from the daily grind of crapness.
But Qatar 2022 has merged the two. The escape pod is also the towering inferno, forcing us to leap out of the frying pan and into a fire of greed, corruption, human rights abuses. Why did there have to be so many deaths? Why can’t we just fret about the usual Great White Saviour in an England jersey – it was going to be Jack Grealish, it’ll probably be James Maddison now – and forget the global misery for an hour and a half?
Perhaps that’s the unforeseen mistake the Qatari planners made, back in 2010, when they paid millions, allegedly, to Fifa voters, allegedly (always allegedly). And those Fifa members voted for a tournament with no football infrastructure or culture because they believed that a new and authentic fanbase had a right to be paraded in a Qatari town square to explain why “David Becker” is their favourite England player.
The Qatari organisers didn’t anticipate the collusion between real-world events and World Cup events, facilitated by social media and amplified to an apathetic audience. Familiarity breeds contempt. Everyone is familiar with Fifa corruption, sportswashing and the dangers of global grandstanding now. We don’t want to think about these things whilst watching the opener between Qatar and Ecuador, but ignorance and denial are no longer options.
The negativity washes over us in waves, absorbing our Twitter feeds and chat groups. Even my mother is aware of the death toll in Qatar and she hasn’t shown any interest in football since Charlie George played for Arsenal. (Look him up. He played in a quaint era when dictators still bought the World Cup to wash reputations, it’s just that there were no online platforms for the atrocities of Argentina ’78 to go viral.)
Russia 2018 felt like the turning point, for all of us. Having successfully invaded Crimea and hosted a popular World Cup – the best ever according to Fifa president Gianni Infantino – Vladimir Putin felt emboldened. The World Cup had done its job. The rest is bloody history.
Eriksen symbolises hope in football
Our naivety then is our indignation now. Qatar 2022 feels like the last straw. The tournament has become a life and death issue and our willingness, or reluctance, to acknowledge this unpalatable reality will say as much about us as it does the World Cup.
Of course, we’ll still watch it. And we will enjoy moments of joyful spontaneity, which may prove a strange emotion, like laughing at a funeral. Should we be entertained?
Yes we should, to a degree. Those moments must remind Fifa, future host nations, advertisers, players and managers and most of all us – it must remind us - why we still watch this infuriating, intoxicating spectacle in the first place.
At the risk of sounding like a Netflix Christmas movie, the football can still celebrate life, just the simplest pleasure of being a part of something bigger, a communal experience that remains unrivalled. Broadly speaking, two things unite people: grief and joy. Football delivers both.
But Qatar 2022 may go even further.
During a Euro 2020 game between Denmark and Finland, Christian Eriksen suffered a cardiac arrest. Only immediate, pitch-side medical assistance stopped him from dying. Football had literally saved his life.
Miraculously, the Danish midfielder has since made a full recovery and will step out for his country against Tunisia in their Group D opener. The ovation he receives must be the loudest heard at Qatar 2022. One of the worst moments involving a player on the pitch should be replaced with one of the best.
But Eriksen’s collapse was an obvious reminder of football’s standing in the natural order. It is just a game, a wonderfully absorbing, polarising and excruciating game, but a game nonetheless. At that moment, nothing mattered beyond Eriksen’s survival. His appearance at Qatar 2022 offers not only a lovely redemptive epilogue for a compelling personal story, but a reminder of the World Cup’s underlying function.
It exists to bring a bit of hope. Make us smile, pull our hair out and kick the coffee table. We’ll wake the neighbours, sleep less, eat more, gain weight, lose the plot and do all of the things that carry us through a heightened state of reality for a month.
We watch football to forget, not to remember.
But it’s going to be hard, isn’t it? There will be more miserable stories concerning exploitation, corruption and censorship. For every Eriksen fairytale and Messi goal and Ronaldo celebration, there’s going to be that Shankly quote, said in jest by a Liverpool legend, but made real by a World Cup travesty.
Qatar 2022 has made football a matter of life and death. And that cannot be forgotten. Or forgiven.
For every Eriksen fairytale and Messi goal and Ronaldo celebration, there’s going to be that Shankly quote, said in jest by a Liverpool legend, but made real by a World Cup travesty.
Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.
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