Sitting Out the World Cup

The year 1970 was an important one for me, since it was the year that I first remember engaging with football, setting into stone a life of joy, pain, misery, elation, frustration… well I could go on. Typically, because of the teams I support, it was also born out of failure. My first memory of Leeds United was defeat to Chelsea on the FA Cup Final of that year, a game that has gone down in the annals of the sport as being a bruising encounter between two teams who took no prisoners, and helped to solidify the epithet ‘Dirty Leeds’ that we enjoy to this day.

The other game I still remember was the then World Champions England’s defeat to West Germany, a match which England led 0-2 after 50 minutes only to succumb 3-2 in extra time. I was too young to be utterly crushed by either event but as first memories go these games do seem to have set a path that the subsequent half century plus seems to somehow have continued, with some notable exceptions.

Of course in 1970 there was very little football on TV, so my other fragments of memory from that time revolve around that amazing Brazil side… the team of Jairzinho, Pelé and Rivalino… a team that played in a way that seemed so exotic, even on our black and white TV, at the time. This was the team who arguably made the beautiful game beautiful… after 1970 I was hooked, for all the reasons stated above.

Since then football has become an integral part of my identity… being a Leeds and England fan has been a rollercoaster ever since with memorable highs being quickly followed by sharp plummets into spectacular lows with Leeds starting the 2007/8 season on minus 15 points at the bottom of League 1 only six years after appearing in a Champions League semi-final, and England famously not winning anything after 1966 until the Women’s Team’s victory in the Euros this year.

But despite all this I bloody love football… I love the banter with people of other teams (everyone ‘hates’ Leeds)… I love reminiscing about former players and old games… I love the stats element and remember pouring over that page of the Sunday paper which had all the results and tables… who scored when, what the attendance was, games in hand etc… Then when I started going to games… the crowd… the atmosphere and the intensity was just like nothing else. Now I appreciate that this is all starting to sound like ‘jumpers for goalposts’, but what I’m trying to say is that football is a massive part of my identity… part of who I am and, because I tend to be shy especially in new company, often a way onto social situations where I might otherwise struggle.

Football, then is very important to me, and the World Cup has always been the pinnacle of that for me. Even though England didn’t qualify for the tournaments in 1974 and 1978 (and I think the 1-1 draw against Poland which sealed our fate in 1973 might well be the first time football made me cry) I still have vivid memories of the West Germany come back to beat that great Dutch team in 1974, and the wild ticker tape scenes in Argentina in 1978. Since then then I have impatiently counted the time between World Cups and tried to watch as many games as possible when they came round, the consistent disappointment of England being offset by the occasional amazing victory (that Platt goal against Belgium in 1990) and seeing some of the best matches of my life.

But this time feels different, and not only because it is happening in the middle of a season. That is because everything about this tournament reeks of corruption, oppression and sports-washing. From the moment it was announced, unusually alongside the previous tournament host Russia (which was also problematic, but I chose to ignore that at the time), the Qatar World Cup has always felt different, and as we are now just a week away it feels like a step too far. Part of me wants to just go ahead and watch it, but another part of me just feels revulsion: an added issue being having a 12 year old son who is starting to get quite excited by the prospect of the whole thing… and I know that the 12 year old me would have been too.

And that comes to another part of my identity. My youngest, a football fanatic, was born the day after Leeds finally got promoted from League 1 (I attended both events), is an example of how interwoven I see football as being with my life; and an important part of how we communicate is through football (and on cue he just came in to find out when we’re going out to buy him some new boots), and this is his first really sentient World Cup, and a big part of me doesn’t want to spoil it for him.

When Leeds got promoted back to the Premier League three years ago it felt like a return to the ‘promised land’ yet, now we’re in our third season, it’s beginning to dawn on many of us that it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be. Yes there are exciting matches but, in our absence, like the frog in boiling water, it’s become less and less like the game we grew up with. Now, of course, I’m sure part of that is an ageing man railing against change, and there are elements of football that are so much better… but as ownerships increasingly become more removed from the fans and where top clubs are valued in the billions, and very average players earn seven figure sums per year; it’s becoming harder and harder to relate to, especially during a cost of living crisis.

However, it’s not all negative, and I mentioned the Women’s Euro win earlier. I was very fortunate to go to a number of games, including England’s semi-final win over Sweden. I was struck by the markedly different atmosphere, compared with what I was used to at other games, and certainly in contrast to the embarrassing scenes at the men’s Euro final a year earlier. Sure there was a certain UEFA corporate feel to it, but the fans and players themselves were brilliant and the whole experience somehow felt more healthy. In addition I just love going to watch my son play on a Sunday morning, and probably get more out of that than anything football-wise these days… great banter with other parents and generally exciting game that means so much to those taking part, where the only reward might be a takeaway on the way home.

This tells me that I still love the game of football but that I feel that the game is gradually being taken away from me, at least at the highest level. The power, corruption and lies at the top of the game simply does not marry up with what I think is right. I don’t think it’s right that many migrant workers have died building the infrastructure for this World Cup, many of heart attacks because of the heat they have had to work in… in a country where you can be arrested for having the wrong sexuality or political opinion… and where bribery and corruption was clearly and objectively rife in the acquisition of the tournament. All these things together tell me that to watch it would be to support it, and I simply do not think I can do it… and that makes me feel very very sad.

1 Comment

  1. Absolutely. The only way to put an end to corruption in the sport is if the public vote with their feet. Sadly by the look of the advertising in our local pub you would think its business as usual though football especially England games makes up the majority of a pubs profits and there in lies the problem. Money money money.


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