TRUE OPINION: Is the world game so truly beautiful that we should overlook the widespread corruption and questionable characters within it, wonders our football-mad correspondent Gary Johnston ahead of the World Cup’s kick-off in Russia.
The legendary manager of Liverpool FC, Bill Shankly – a man so consumed by the game he customarily spent his Sundays playing 19-a-side kickabouts with the street urchins who lived near his unprepossessing home in a city suburb – was famously quotable.
Most celebrated amongst his many assertions was the slightly tongue-in-cheek observation that “football isn’t a matter of life and death; it’s much more important than that”. Of greater significance however, was the grizzled ex-coal miner’s comment on how the game as he perceived it, was a microcosm of a society worth striving for.
“I believe in socialism,” said ‘Shanks’. “Socialism, is everyone working for each other, and everyone having a share of the rewards. That’s the way I see football, the way I see life”.
Shankly died in 1981 and, as the 21st World Cup tournament begins in Russia this week, a FIFA endorsed decision which appears to stand up to no scrutiny whatsoever, perhaps it’s just as well, since such noble, congruous sentiments have as much relevance to the game today as embrocation, hand-held rattles and dodgy, curly perms.
FIFA, of course was ruled for many years by the preposterous Sepp Blatter; a dinosaur- like autocrat so out of touch and seemingly unassailable he made Kim Jong-un look inclusive and open-minded.
In case you’ve forgotten, Blatter’s ideas on making women’s football more accessible included having players dress in skimpy outfits and the bidding process, after which Putin’s Russia was awarded the 2018 tournament, was characterised by alleged corruption, financial irregularities, brown-paper-bag bought votes and general glad-handing.
It was universally regarded as the most unscrupulous in the game’s far from lily-white history.
Though not – unsurprisingly – by FIFA themselves who (eventually) published a 349 page internal review summarily clearing themselves of any serious wrong-doing. The bid stood and Russia won fair and square, the report ludicrously claimed, an insistence only out-rivalled in its implausibility by the subsequent awarding of the World Cup of 2022 to the steadfastly undemocratic, absolute monarchy of oil-rich Qatar.
Devotees of the game however, somewhat reluctantly in my – and most other fan’s minds – will choose to ignore this tainted back story as the tournament kicks off. It’s an event of significant local interest as Australia will be represented, ranked a lowly 28th of the competing 32 teams.
In other words, we – Australia – have no chance and are confidently predicted to be back home licking its wounds before the tournament reaches the halfway stage, never mind the pointy end.
The story of football in Australia, though not at the blatant levels of sleaziness typified by FIFA, where Blatter was eventually overthrown – a six year ban worked up his well-upholstered rear end – is certainly not without its controversies.
This is a nation after all, which habitually refers to the game as ‘wogball’: a racist epithet which is nevertheless preferred by the so-called cognoscenti to ‘soccer’, a term regarded by those ignorant of the sport’s history as being ‘American’ and therefore, utterly illegitimate.
‘Soccer’, (originally ‘Assocer’), an Oxford-er corruption of Association Football, was actually in common use long before it become known as ‘football’. A consequence of how, despite perceptions, football was established as a toff’s game, played by well- heeled English public schoolboys, who in short order, were aghast at how quickly and comprehensively it was commandeered and then mastered by the working man and indeed, woman.
One could imagine the scene in Victorian England: “I say, Smithers, fancy a game of assoccer, what?’ ‘No fear Jonners, too many oiks play assoccer. Let’s play rugger, instead”.
As the pejorative name suggests, ‘wogball’ is a red-necked acknowledgment of how much of Australia still views the game, with most of the current squad of players originating from a Southern Europe background. Their surnames – Rogic, Jedanik and Petratos amongst them – providing evidence, should it be required, of a casual but nonetheless conscious, national put-down.
In a ham-fisted effort to address this assumption of unwanted ethnicity, the Corporation known as Football Australia established in 2005 the A-League, with franchises awarded to conglomerates who subsequently named themselves resolutely vapid, Anglo handles like Sydney United, Adelaide City and the laughable, Western Sydney Wanderers. (Let’s face it, if you took to wandering around parts of Western Sydney you’d be liable to be assaulted or arrested. And possibly, both).
The name choices were studied and deliberate, designed to rid the game of perceived tribal and ethnic affiliations, which, even though they imbued the game with a undoubted passion and atmosphere, were seen to also bring potential problems – stadium disorder, inter-fan violence and the dreaded, but essentially harmless, smoke- bomb flares.
After a promising start, precipitated by Australia’s decent run in the 2006 World Cup, where a team dubbed the Golden Generation, (containing Mark Viduka, Harry Kewell and Scott ‘The Wollongong Dus Driver’ ChipperfieldScott ‘The Wollongong Dus Driver’ Chipperfield), lost out to a dubious penalty in a second round match against eventual champions Italy, the A-League has suffered in recent years with dropping attendances, boring matches and a distinct lack of on field quality.
This is a trend Football Australia hopes will be addressed by an improved performance in this year’s – and subsequent – tournaments and to achieve that aim, the pragmatic but geographically spurious decision was made that Australia enter the Asian Federation of FIFA, despite the undeniable fact that Australia, er, isn’t actually in Asia.
The idea was to provide an easy access to the big dance, a devious ploy which very nearly came unstuck last year when Australia failed to defeat the mighty Thailand and was thus forced to qualify through the back door of third place play-offs, finally overcoming Honduras, a country so bereft of funds, player’s had to buy their own plane tickets to travel to Sydney for the deciding fixture.
None of this really matters to the dedicated band of football fans locally however, of which, due to an upbringing in Celtic and Rangers obsessed Glasgow, I have no choice but to consider myself one. It’s a disease, you see, I’ve got it, and if football, despite its many faults, corruptive practices and myriad levels of impropriety, is your game, then you have it too.
Old Bill Shankly, rightly acclaimed as the man who turned Liverpool FC from a Second Division outfit of also-rans into the world renowned mighty institution they remain to this day, would understand. He wouldn’t like it, but he’d understand.
As ‘Shanks’ put it when questioned on whether, on their honeymoon, he’d taken his wife to a game involving local rivals Everton.
“Of course I didn’t take my wife to see Everton. Would I have got married in the football season? Anyway, it was Everton Reserves.”