The imagination is always at the end of an era.
In the spring of 2006 I was working on the Observer when, one quiet afternoon, the editor, Roger Alton, called out to me across the newsroom: “Jase, d’you fancy going to the World Cup?” This was a question to which, if you liked football, the answer could not be “no”. Alton was an inspirational editor. He combined charm with just a hint of menace. He was menacing because capricious and unpredictable. But it was his very unpredictability that made him such a good editor – this and his high intelligence, which he tried to disguise by speaking in a kind of hectic demotic. The writer Geoff Dyer once described him to me, accurately enough, as being like a “cross between an Oxford don and a London cabbie”.
There was no budget for me to go to the World Cup in Germany but Alton sent me all the same for five thrilling weeks. I’m pretty sure, in retrospect, that the amiable sports editor, Brian Oliver, whom Alton affectionately called the Gaffer, had no idea what to do with me, yet he took my being crashed into his team of reporters with grace and good humour.
This was perhaps one of the last assignments of its kind there was to be on a British Sunday newspaper. I was not required to blog or tweet or write daily reports for the website. (Nowadays I’d be told to live-blog every England press conference, or something to that effect.) Rather, my only responsibility was to write a weekly essay, travel the country (all accredited journalists were provided with a complimentary first-class rail pass) and watch football matches. My sense of good fortune was heightened by the extraordinarily warm and settled weather in Germany during those weeks of the tournament.
I rented a small apartment in Berlin, in a building just off Pariser Platz and a short walk from the Brandenburg Gate. My apartment was directly opposite the Hotel Adlon, where Fifa’s blazered officials were holed up for the duration of the tournament in five-star luxury. This was also the hotel from a high window of which Michael Jackson, in an act of demented exhibitionism, precariously dangled one of his baby children, for the amusement of himself and the world’s media. From the window of my flat, I could see Peter Eisenman’s Holocaust Memorial, a forbidding grid of grey, coffin-like concrete slabs, or stelae, occupying a five-acre site, reminding all visitors to the city of the traumas of the German past.
Each morning, if I was not travelling, I bought a selection of newspapers and international magazines from the nearby Hauptbahnhof, the magnificent redevelopment of which had been completed to coincide with the start of the World Cup. Then I’d buy a coffee from the café of a local art gallery and sit on the pavement terrace and watch football fans of all nationalities idle and loiter – you could tell which team was in town that day by the colour of the replica football shirts being worn.
It was obvious that the World Cup was having a transformative effect on Germany. A large screen, on which matches were broadcast live, was positioned near the Brandenburg Gate, the main attraction of the Berlin Fan Fest. There were public viewing areas such as this in cities across the country and they proved to be enormously popular. By the end of the tournament hundreds of thousands were gathering at the Berlin Fan Fest for Germany matches.
Yet the mood inside the country at the outset of the tournament was one of anxious self-scrutiny. Franz “the Kaiser” Beckenbauer, Germany’s greatest player and the chair of the World Cup 2006 organising committee, had spoken of how football “makes a better world, it’s a game that brings tribes together. It is our historic opportunity here now in Germany to be good hosts, to show the world who we are.” He could have added, though the subtext was obvious, “and how we have changed”.
His optimism was not altogether widely shared. Germans are understandably unsettled by ostentatious displays of patriotism. When I arrived in Munich, just before the opening game between the hosts and Costa Rica at the Allianz Arena, I was struck by the absence of German flags on public display. By contrast, in England that World Cup summer, with expectations of success inflated by the promise of Sven’s so-called golden generation of players, the flag of St George was ubiquitous.
There was also the small matter of Jürgen Klinsmann, the German national team coach, who was being caricatured as the “reviled reformer”. The son of a baker, Klinsmann is a Swabian, but rather than live in Germany he was stubbornly resident in California (he is married to an American). He had enjoyed a distinguished and itinerant playing career, in Stuttgart, Milan, Monaco, London and Munich, and spoke fluent English with a North Atlantic accent. He had the calm and good manners of an experienced airline pilot. The German press didn’t like or trust him: he was too cosmopolitan, too committed to a culture of change, too confident in his own certainties.
Klinsmann wanted Germany to play in an entirely new way: a much more expansive, high-energy, attacking game. He and his assistant Joachim Löw (who succeeded Klinsmann as coach in July 2006), had spent time together in London studying Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal, the fast-paced, highly technical multinational team of many talents, the team of Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pirès and Patrick Vieira. They wanted to emulate the style of Wenger’s Arsenal, and would do so with a new generation of players, many drawn from immigrant families. “We need to question every single ritual and habit,” Klinsmann said on becoming national coach. “And we need to do it continuously – and not just in football . . . Reforms don’t happen in phases. They need to be part of an ongoing process, one that doesn’t stop when the World Cup is over.”
Germany had hosted great international sporting events before – the World Cup in 1974, the Olympic Games twice – but never fully successfully. The tournament of 1974 was played in a country divided between a free west and a communist east. Indeed, the old German Democratic Republic surprisingly beat West Germany 1-0 after they were drawn together in the same group. It was the first and only occasion the two Germanys contested an international football match. The game itself was played in Hamburg in torrential rain and it was as if that night even the gods were weeping for the divided nation.
Two years earlier, Munich had been the host city of the 1972 Olympics. But these Games will be for ever remembered for the so-called Munich Massacre, the kidnap and subsequent murder of 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team after a raid on the athletes’ village by the Palestinian militants of Black September. Once again Jews were being terrorised and murdered on German soil as the world looked on and recoiled. Before that, in 1936, the Berlin Olympics were scarred by Nazi propaganda and the grotesque posturing of Hitler.
The mood was so different in 2006. During the weeks of the tournament, as Klinsmann’s attack-minded team progressed to the semi-finals, and as the sun continued to shine and people, bashfully at first but then with much more confidence and obvious joy, began to drape themselves in the German flag, and as more and more Germans and overseas visitors began to gather each day at the Fan Fests to drink beer and watch the games in a spirit of mutual celebration, and as a sceptical press stopped worrying and began to declare the tournament a resounding success, something changed inside Germany. It was as if a nation no longer felt ashamed and suddenly began to experience a kind of relaxed patriotism. The world was watching Germany and the world liked what it saw: a tolerant country, welcoming to outsiders, and one that had become a model of benign liberal democracy. And the trains still ran on time.
By the end of the tournament – Germany were beaten 2-0 in the semi-finals by Italy, the eventual winners, in an enthralling game at Borussia Dortmund’s 80,000-capacity Westfalenstadion that I attended – Angela Merkel was pleading publicly with Klinsmann to renew his contract as coach. She understood what the World Cup had done for her country and how it had brought people together and lifted their spirits. True to his restless nature, Klinsmann accepted the applause and his nation’s gratitude, and promptly returned to America. Job done.
The Netherlands manager gives his players a pep talk in Brazil ahead of this year's World Cup. Photo: Getty
When Franz Beckenbauer spoke of football’s potential to unite and inspire and to bring tribes together he was surely right. Talk to any Nigerian, for instance, about Nigeria, an unstable post-colonial construct of multiple rivalrous ethnic groups and more than 500 languages, and you will be told that one of the few things that can unite Africa’s most populous nation – perhaps the only thing – is the national football team, the Super Eagles. Even in a more mature democracy such as England, where some of us mourn the passing of anything resembling a common culture, football can create a sense of unity and fellow feeling of a kind that has all but disappeared from daily life in an era of zero-hour contracts, virtual friendships, declining newspaper sales and multi-channel
television: something we can all share in and talk about. This sense of togetherness, of an enlarged and enraptured imaginary community, feels never more palpable than during a World Cup summer, when it can sometimes seem as if every second person you meet is preoccupied by the football. “The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of 11 named people,” as Eric Hobsbawm wrote.
The game of football has become the lingua franca of our globalisation. It is one of the supreme instruments of soft power, hence the desire of nations to host World Cups and of oligarchs and plutocrats to own great football clubs, the “superbrands” of international sport, as we have been coerced into calling them.
The top European leagues, especially the English Premier League, operate a rapacious winner-takes-all capitalism: the richest are getting richer and the rest can merely dream of catching up or go to hell. The game’s greatest players – Ronaldo, Messi, Ibrahimovic – are some of the most photographed, idolised and imitated people on the planet, their talent remarkable, their wealth stupendous, their influence reaching even into the world’s remotest towns and villages.
Absurd it may sound, but some of the most intense and emotionally draining experiences of my life have come from watching football. Even today, nearly 24 years later, I cannot think of England’s loss to West Germany in the 1990 World Cup semi-final at the Stadio delle Alpi in Turin, following an anguished penalty shoot-out, without feeling a sense of deep regret. Partly, of course, I’m mourning the person I used to be, the lost time and the lived experience that can never be recovered. I was only a year out of university back then and giddy with hope at what the future might hold but also unsettled by what seemed to me to be the sheer strangeness and wonder of the world – its randomness, its infinite variety, its essential mystery. There I was that night, a long way from Italy, gathered with friends around a television set in a rented house in the north London suburbs, watching as England tried and failed, so gloriously, to reach what would have been only their second World Cup final.
Italia ’90 – Gazza’s tears, Pavarotti’s “Nessun Dorma”, Roger Milla’s dance – was when many people in England, those who had been so repelled by the violence and the hooliganism and the stadium disasters of the1980s, succumbed and began to fall in love with football again. They dared to believe that the game, so undermined by racism and the brutality of terrace culture, could be beautiful once more – something that appealed to all classes, to men and women, boys and girls: indeed, just as it does today.
The moneymen sensed the zeitgeist and seized their opportunity. Within two years the Premier League had been launched, after the leading clubs broke away from the old Football League. The new league would be bankrolled by Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Television and marketed as a “whole new ball game”. The fans were described as a “captive market”: it was correctly calculated that they would be willing to pay for satellite television subscriptions and, if the best players began playing in England, for high ticket prices, because they had no choice but to pay, prisoners of their own desires and fantasies.
There is something fundamentally irrational about fandom, about committing yourself so completely to something over which you have no control. The true fan makes that bond of allegiance to club and country in early childhood and it can never really be broken, no matter how helpless you feel or how unhappy or irritated being a supporter makes you. How to account for this? How to account for the hold sport has on the collective imagination?
An estimated 715 million people watched the 2006 World Cup final between Italy and France in Berlin, and South Africa 2010 was broadcast to 204 countries. Fifa has sold the worldwide television rights for Brazil 2014 for $1.7bn; the tournament is expected to generate $4bn in total revenue for football’s governing body. Does any other event have such global appeal?
By the time you read this, the 20th World Cup in Brazil will have begun. But it takes place in the shadow of the corruption allegations over the decision to award the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to, respectively, Putin’s Russia (whose national football league is blighted by rumours of match-fixing) and the repressive pseudo-state of Qatar. Even before the Sunday Times reported the extent of the alleged bribes and bungs used to win the vote for Qatar – such an eminently sensible choice, when you think about it, with its 50° summer temperatures and its hatred of homosexuals, alcohol and liberated women – the stench of corruption hung over Fifa. We should not forget that David (Lord) Triesman was forced to resign as chairman of the Football Association and of the England 2018 World Cup bid team for stating the obvious: the right to host the World Cup can be bought.
The whole opaque process by which Fifa’s 24-man politburo selects the host nation is open to continuous abuse and manipulation, and the English FA has not been a blameless bystander. It was all too willing to play the game rather than attempt to rewrite the rules. It was unedifying to witness the elaborate dance of seduction with which the FA and its associates attempted to woo Jack Warner, the now-disgraced Trinidadian politician who was then vice-president of Fifa. David Beckham and Prince William (aka the Duke of Cambridge) were among the useful idiots the FA took to Trinidad in an attempt to secure the support of Warner who, as president of the Concacaf federation, controlled three votes. In the event, England received only two votes, from Japan and the representative of the English FA, and was eliminated in the first round of voting for 2018. It was as if Warner had accepted their hospitality and favours and then spat at them.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to bring the World Cup to the world’s emerging powers – 2010 was a dull tournament but the South Africans were deserving hosts, even if that country of poverty and mass illiteracy paid billions of pounds it could not afford for the “privilege”. Brazil, the self-mythologising samba nation, is reported so far to have spent £11bn on new stadiums and transport infrastructure. But the people are not yet in the mood to party: Brazil has been destabilised by riots, strikes and street protests and just this past week 10,000 marched on Arena Corinthians, the stadium in São Paulo that will be the venue for the opening game between Brazil and Croatia, to protest against World Cup excess and government indifference. Meanwhile, Qatar has said that it would spend more than £200bn on its World Cup project, and so the decadence and extravagance become more extreme with each tournament.
Yet the greater problem resides less with those wishing to act as hosts than with Fifa. Under the long rule of the megalomaniacal Sepp Blatter, football’s governing body has allowed the World Cup to become ever bigger and more bloated, which suits Fifa just fine. For Fifa, the World Cup is a well-oiled engine of cash generation. It brings prestige and the world’s attention to the hosts, for a transient period – but at what ultimate cost, especially when, as in the case of Qatar, the country has no football culture to speak of and impoverished migrant workers are dying needlessly there as they labour in the horrific heat to build Fifa’s air-conditioned stadiums in the desert?
“It’s a money machine, World Cup after World Cup. For them, that’s more important than serious and clean governance,” said Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, chairman of Bayern Munich and the European Club Association, long before the Sunday Times revelations appeared. “I will give them a chance [to clean up] but I’m ready for a revolution.”
Europe’s leading clubs – Bayern, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Juventus, AC Milan – resent having to lend their players to national associations for matches and tournaments, only to have them returned injured or fatigued. The clubs understand that history is moving in their direction; that club football, at the very highest level, is superior to the international game, with its round of meaningless friendlies and tedious, one-sided qualifying matches against the likes of San Marino and Moldova. The clubs naturally despise Blatter and also resent the machinations of Michel Platini, the former player-turned-head of Uefa, which from 2016, in another act of grandiose expansionism, will increase from 16 to 24 the number of countries playing in the finals of the European Championship (the tournament was at its best when the finals comprised just eight nations).
Perhaps only the clubs and the corporate sponsors have the power and the will to blow Fifa apart and effect the necessary change. Led by Sony, five of the six main Fifa sponsors have expressed public concern so far about the Qatar corruption allegations.
On 14 June, England play their opening group game of the World Cup against Italy in Manaus, capital city of the state of Amazonas in northern Brazil. Many millions of us in this country will be watching on television, despite the match kicking off at 11pm BST. For a while at least, we shall forget, or try to forget, all about how football is administered and sold around the world and allow ourselves to become absorbed by what is happening on the field of play, by the drama or otherwise of the game itself.
But this time, for me at least, it feels different. It fells like the end of something. It feels like the end of an era. After Brazil 2014, unless there is urgent and fundamental reform of a kind that would seem unlikely, the tournament is finished. In Vladimir Putin and the secretive autocrats of Qatar, Fifa has the partners it deserves – and the world should turn away in disgust.
Jason Cowley, editor of the New Statesman, is the author of a memoir, “The Last Game: Love, Death and Football” (Simon & Schuster, £7.99)
Now listen to Jason Cowley discussing this article on the New Statesman podcast: