Bottled off to the highest bidder

Observations on the World Cup

The first World Cup I saw was held in Mexico in 1970 - and was played late at night for a small boy, watching the classic team of Pele, Jairzinho and Revelino on TV. It was the ultimate football experience, the hum of the crowd fizzing into our living-room. You could feel the passion, and nothing would ever be the same again.

And the first time I followed England away was to the 1982 World Cup in Spain, with the Falklands war in the news and the Spanish out on the streets. The hostel was £2 a night, the beer and wine pennies, and £3 got you a match ticket - the electric truncheons of the Madrid police and running battles with the local fascists thrown in for free. They were rough and ready tournaments in passionate countries, to which you didn't need to be a millionaire to travel, everyone into the football. It was exciting - the people's game.

If football mirrors society, then the 2002 World Cup shows that passion has become a commodity, something to be controlled and channelled towards a profit. The media's build-up was relatively low key - Japanese riot police abseiling from the rafters of a designer stadium as they practised for the arrival of those famous English football hooligans, a high-tech mob run by top faces Bin Laden and Mullah Omar. Or you could watch Frank Skinner tucking into freshly killed, still-moving chunks of octopus, before moving on to cooked dog, a big smile on his face as he marvelled at South Korean civilisation - slow strangulation and a tenderising death by blowtorch. And back home, the BBC redrew Gary Lineker and Alan Hansen as some sort of manga cartoon strip, the big link with reality the arrival of Gazza over on ITV - funny, smart, human.

This World Cup emphasises just how much money dominates the modern game - the fans forgotten years ago in the rush to give the event to the country with the best telecommunications industry, rather than the most passionate supporters. Holding the 1994 World Cup in the US started the trend and coincided with New Football in England - squeaky-clean business replacing an exciting terrace culture, a sad new world where nobody is allowed to swear, away travel is discouraged, and time and money are better spent in the club megastore.

Built on television cash, the Premiership has seen good football played in front of docile crowds, ranks of New Fans munching Roy Keane's famous prawn sandwiches in the heart of the once-respected Stretford End, franchised clones with no shred of skinhead, boot boy or casual independence. Football's roots have been well and truly poisoned, with the decision by the FA to allow Wimbledon's move to Milton Keynes finally killing off the idea of football as community. And in this new-model World Cup, you can see the same thing happening on the international stage.

The competition has traditionally switched between Europe and South America, a fair- enough arrangement, seeing as those were the two continents most in love with the game. If that was going to change, then the competition should have gone to one of the African nations, but the likes of Cameroon and Nigeria are considered too poor, never mind that the people there are football mad. But if you look at the success of the two World Cups held in Mexico in 1970 and 1986, the poverty argument doesn't really work. Just as the European Cup has been reinvented as a league for the rich and powerful, so the World Cup is suffering from an obsession with finance and presentation. The quiet, Space Age stadiums, expensive tickets and shiny empty seats are a sad replacement for the passion of Argentina, Italy, England. Money is being raked in as never before, yet financial clouds seem to be hovering over Fifa, grim times are predicted in England now TV is losing interest, and the FA still hasn't rebuilt Wembley.

The build-up to the World Cup was predictable in that Japan got most of the coverage, with South Korea tagged on at the end. There was no mention of Japan's racism towards the Koreans, the new humble Japanese stereotype a long way from Japan's refusal to confront their wartime treatment of the Chinese or their crimes against the so-called comfort women. The spirit of Basil Fawlty goose-steps past, screaming: "Don't mention the war", as Fifa counts the dollars. Just as we're now told that the Second World War was actually fought against the Nazis rather than the Germans, history is easily rewritten. The outrage that narrators dub over a crowd of England fans singing "two world wars and one World Cup" at a Sieg-Heiling German mob and "if it wasn't for the English you'd be Krauts" at the Belgian riot police, as they uncork the tear-gas, is unbelievable. No sense of humour and no pride. Fawlty did mention the war, but Tony Blair thinks we got away with it.

One good thing, though, has been the silence of the fashion fans within the trendy media. They read Fever Pitch and they bought their season ticket, but now they're a little bit bored with it all. By pure chance, this boredom comes at a time when the money is starting to dry up. They were, after all, responsible for rising standards of play and crowd behaviour, just as they are responsible for everything else they consider positive in society. So it isn't hard to guess the reasons for their disenchantment, which they will soon be spouting: football isn't what it used to be and those awful hooligans are back on the television screen, and I'm sure I heard someone somewhere mumble a sexist/ racist/homophobic word at a match the other day, darling.

Probably the best moment of the recent documentary series Hooligans on BBC2 was one of Chelsea's finest pointing out how glad he was that England had not been awarded the 2006 World Cup. Because that's what people feel. Euro 96 was a joke, the tickets overpriced and the grounds packed with thousands of leeches clutching hospitality tickets. Euro 96 also saw the cross of St George replace the Union Jack, a sign of how successful the EU has been in destroying British identity, narrowing people's horizons inside a backward-looking EuroLand theme park. Talk to anyone who is not ethnically English, and most will tell you that being British feels more inclusive than being English. But, to the chatterers living in their own twilight zone, where arrogance means they only have to say something for it to become truth, the Union Jack represents the Empire, slavery, a right-wing establishment - yet for most people with lives outside the textbooks and lecture theatres, it is just their flag.

The World Cup shows how far globalisation and its destruction of individual cultures have gone. The African nations have lost their sparkle, as they look to be more professional and employ European coaches; the English try to play like Continentals; and even the Brazilians have to overcome the pressures of sponsorship, rather than the poverty of the barrios.

Focusing through the eyes of the cameras, the locals shout with plastic passion, unsure how to behave, dressed in the colours of Argentina, Ireland, Turkey, looking at what their neighbours are doing. Sense of place and cultural identity is fading and the merchandisers laughing all the way to an offshore account.

The football will shine through: it always does. But this is a virtual World Cup, the off-field carnival sanitised, passion crushed and bottled and sold off to the highest bidder.

John King is the author of The Football Factory

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