Orange squash: Ron Vlaar and Andrés Guardado during the Netherlands v Mexico match, 29 June. Photo: Getty
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This is Fifa-land: colourful, attractive spectators in team shirts playing by the rules

There is a set way to behave. Team shirts and face paint have become de rigueur, while Mexican waves now interrupt the view of anybody trying to watch the football with irritating regularity. 

On Sunday, waiting for a flight to São Paulo, I watched the Netherlands’ last-16 match against Mexico at Santos Dumont Airport in Rio de Janeiro. It felt like the archetypal moment of a modern World Cup. There were people in the shirts of Uruguay, France, Belgium, Russia, Colombia and Argentina, as well as Mexicans (who presumably hadn’t counted on making it through the group) and Brazilians (many of whom seem, for the duration of the tournament, to wear the national uniform of Nike yellow at all times). There was at least one television commentary team, children, old people, men, women; the world uniting on a bland, brightly lit food court to stare at a big screen, sponsored by Budweiser. They drank Coke and ate undercooked wedges of pizza – “American pizza, Italian flavour”, the outlet boasted, whatever that means.

The scene was eerily Ballardian, although this was a lounge stripped of the sense of possibility with which J G Ballard would have imbued it. Fifa, you suspect, would like the World Cup to become something similar: safe, antiseptic, anaesthetised, with difference expressed by nothing more than colour of shirt, as everybody shells out for the global brands with which it has signed sponsorship deals.

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With the street protests here muted, the only anti-Fifa note has been struck by the nation of Uruguay and its all but uncon­ditional support of Luis Suárez after he was given a four-month ban for biting Giorgio Chiellini. In the fog of denial, Suárez ludicrously claimed he had lost his balance and fallen into the Italy defender, something that caused him “a strong pain in the teeth”.

There is a legitimate question to be asked about why football punishes biting so much more severely than flailing elbows or bad tackles, which can cause injuries far more severe than a few marks on the shoulder – and you wonder why Neymar, Kyle Beckerman and Mamadou Sakho have escaped investigation for apparent elbows in the World Cup – but having already been banned for a total of 17 games for two biting offences, Suárez can hardly claim he didn’t know how gravely the offence is considered. Equally, there seems to be something a little draconian about the four-month ban, which is not just from playing but from all “football-related activity”. That means he had to leave Uruguay’s team hotel, will not be able to train with Liverpool, his club (for now), and can’t even appear in their team photograph.

Uruguay’s manager, Óscar Tabárez, usually the most thoughtful of men, hinted at those concerns but ended up blaming the “English-speaking” media for asking a series of questions about the bite, and thus forcing Fifa to act. The chutzpah was staggering – Fifa, after all, has spent much of the past decade decrying the English-speaking media for making allegations of corruption within the organisation on an almost weekly basis. The idea that Fifa could be influenced by them is laughable – and ignores the blanket coverage given to the Suárez bite in Brazil and elsewhere.

At least Tabárez had the excuse that he was fostering a siege mentality to try to stiffen the Uruguayans’ resolve ahead of their game against Colombia, which was lost. José Mujica, the president of Uruguay, was presumably speaking from the heart when he denounced the punishment as “a fascist ban” and called Fifa “a bunch of old sons of bitches”. All of this righteous anger was somewhat undermined when, on 30 June, Suárez apologised, “having had the opportunity to regain [his] calm”. It was almost as though somebody had read the explanation for the sanction issued by Fifa, had seen the condemnation of Suárez’s lack of contrition and had recognised an apology was a necessary first step in appealing to reduce the ban. But surely Suárez, who didn’t consult Liverpool before making his statement, couldn’t have been acting under instruction from Barcelona, who are desperate to sign him, despite it all? Because if that were the case, it might make the great Uruguayan martyr seem just a little venal.

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Although there has been the occasional fracas in the stadiums – the incident in which one England fan bit the ear of another, for instance, or when Chilean fans without tickets invaded the media centre at the Maracanã and were chased by security, who were themselves chased by men with cameras, just a lingerie-clad model from being a Benny Hill sketch – this has been another tournament in which fans have become almost part of a Fifa-sanctioned backdrop. There is a set way to behave. Team shirts (great for the manufacturers) and face paint have become de rigueur, while Mexican waves, once a sign of boredom, now interrupt the view of anybody trying to watch the football with irritating regularity. It’s as if fans have become complicit in their reduction to bovinity.

Most inexplicable of all, though, is the reaction of fans who see themselves on the big screen. Even at the height of the tension in the shoot-out between Brazil and Chile, a game in which it seemed a nation was holding its breath, fans had the same Pavlovian response. As Neymar stepped up to take his penalty with the scores level, the camera focused on a pair of young women in Brazil shirts and face paint. They looked terrified, hands to cheeks. Then they caught sight of themselves on the big screen and responded as they were supposed to, smiling and waving, jumping up and down. How tense could they have been a second earlier? Which was the artificial emotion? This is Fifa-land: colourful, attractive people, behaving exactly as they’re supposed to.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, After God Again

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories