In a normal year, in the time-served tradition of football’s four-year cycle, the latest incarnation of the greatest celebration of the sport would be starting some time around now.
Early to mid-June is usually when the men’s World Cup dawns. Many of those of us who love the game have measured out our lives in the anticipation of those glorious summers with the tournament at their heart.
Not this year. Not this year the gilded afternoons and evenings spent in the pub garden or in the pavilion at the cricket club, or at home with friends, watching the game. Not this year the packed summer where the World Cup jostles happily with the other staples of our June and July calendar, Wimbledon and a Test series. This year, the jewel of our summer has been stolen from us.
Not this year, the summer pilgrimage for England fans to follow their team abroad. Not this year, the carefree sunshine holiday where supporters can treat themselves to the trip of a lifetime without worrying about whether they will be punished because their choice of partner marks them out as a criminal. Not this year.
The tradition of hosting a World Cup in the summer every four years has been taken from fans
A general view of Lusail National Stadium which will host the 2022 World Cup final this year
This year, there is a blank where the World Cup should be because, more than a decade ago, in one of the most cursed and risible and dubious sporting decisions in history, a 22-man FIFA executive committee riddled with corruption, awarded their most prized possession to the repressive regime of the desert emirate of Qatar, where the average daily summer temperature is about 40C.
The decision felt like a bad joke then. It feels even worse now. Back then, of course, Qatar insisted it would host the tournament in the summer. The promise was part of its bid, a promise designed to defuse some of the incredulity at the idea of the World Cup being awarded to a nation roughly the size of Yorkshire.
The bid blinded us with science about how the heat would not be a problem because of high-tech air-conditioning.
‘Each of the stadia,’ Qatar’s bid document said, ‘will harness the power of the sun’s rays to provide a cool environment for players and fans by converting solar energy into electricity that will then be used to cool both fans and players at the stadia.’
The promise of playing in June and July was garbage, of course. The tournament was won dishonestly on a whole series of different levels.
Five years later, to no one’s great surprise, it was announced that it had been decided it would not be possible to host the 2022 tournament in the northern hemisphere summer after all and that it would take place in November and December instead.
Four years ago at this time, football fans saw France lift the World Cup trophy in Russia
It is the world’s tournament and so the issue is not that the World Cup should always fit around the European game. The issue is more that not only was the bid besieged by allegations of corruption but it was also won on a false premise. Maybe even that is flawed logic: there are many who believe Qatar would have won even if they said they would play games on the moon. The FIFA of that era was the most venal sporting body on earth. Money was all that mattered.
The absence of the tournament this summer will provide another unwelcome reminder that the disease of sportswashing is accelerating its spread through so much of what we hold dear in our sporting lives.
Qatar, the UAE and, of course, Saudi Arabia, use sport to distract and the method is proving so successful that it is proliferating.
The World Cup – like Newcastle United, like world title fights, like Dustin Johnson – has become a useful device to legitimise and cleanse the unpalatable acts and policies of authoritarian regimes. Russia did it with the Sochi Winter Olympics and the 2018 World Cup and this year it is Qatar’s turn to come to the fore by presenting a tournament in stadiums built by modern-day slaves.
Last week it emerged that Anthony Joshua’s rematch with Oleksandr Usyk is likely to take place in Jeddah this summer. This week, the Saudi-bankrolled LIV golf league will stage their inaugural event at the Centurion Club in St Albans, with Johnson paid a rumoured £100million to be its marquee signing and the sport shaping to tear itself apart.
Anthony Joshua’s (right) rematch with Oleksandr Usyk (left) is set to be held in Jeddah
Golf’s outrage at the incursion of the Saudis on its pristine turf is slightly harder to sympathise with given that the then European Tour sanctioned the Saudi International for three years. Golf’s outrage is centred on a threat to its business model, not concerns about the policies of a brutal, murderous regime.
There are F1 races in Jeddah and Abu Dhabi, too, of course, both places where homosexuality is illegal and democracy is suppressed.
Perhaps the most successful sportswashing project of all is at Newcastle United, once one of our most loved football clubs, but now a vassal state of Saudi Arabia, a club that will play some of its matches next season in the colours of a kingdom that murders journalists and imprisons opponents and persecutes gay men and women.
The club have become a sportswashing model, their owners idolised by supporters, many of whom refuse to countenance any criticism of the Saudi state and act as its obedient defenders. In that world, disquiet about a Premier League club being owned by the Saudi state is misinterpreted as jealousy. Their sale and the way it was waved through was the saddest story of last season.
One consolation in the loss of the men’s summer World Cup this year is that it will increase the profile of the Women’s Euros, held in England between July 6 and July 31. The women’s game is on the rise again. It knows all about playing in the shadow of repression: a century ago, the old boys at the FA banned it for 50 years.
Newcastle United are under Saudi-led ownership having been sold by ex-chief Mike Ashley
PARIS NIGHT SESSIONS NEED WORK
The French Open men’s singles quarter-final between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic was a wonder to watch from the warmth of the sofa but I couldn’t help noticing that the spectators at the night session on Court Philippe-Chatrier were wrapped in so many blankets they looked more like they were bivouacking on Mount Everest than watching a game of tennis.
Roland Garros is a magical place to watch sport but this is the first year they have experimented with night sessions at the tournament and the plunging temperatures they can bring. That is before we start to discuss matches ending after public transport has closed down.
It would be fair to say the new format needs work.
Many spectators watching Novak Djokovic against Rafael Nadal needed to wrap up in blankets
UEFA APOLOGY FALLS WAY SHORT
UEFA’s apology to Liverpool and Real Madrid fans for the ‘frightening and distressing events’ they were dragged into at the Stade de France last Saturday night was a start but it did not address the blame game European football’s governing body initiated before, during and after the Champions League final.
Confronted by a horror-show of dangerously inept policing around the match, UEFA and the French authorities made up more stories than Hans Christian Andersen.
So often, the worst of an event like that is in the cover-up that follows it and the aftermath of what happened in Paris was no different.
How sad that UEFA’s first instinct was to try to pin responsibility for what happened on fans arriving late. And how sad that UEFA, whose president Aleksander Ceferin said he was grateful to English supporters in particular for the movement that helped thwart the European Super League, should reveal so cynically that, actually, fans are just an inconvenience to them.
Mayhem outside the Stade de France saw fans with tickets having to wait in huge queues