Football’s murky economics, a quiet renationalisation and a fond farewell to a friend

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts column. 

Hard ball: anti-World Cup protests in Sao Paulo on 25 January. Photo: Getty
Hard ball: anti-World Cup protests in Sao Paulo on 25 January. Photo: Getty

The real puzzle about the World Cup is not why football’s governing body Fifa chose to stage the 2022 tournament in a country that has little interest in the game and has temperatures sometimes touching 50°C in summer – see the alleged financial bungs detailed by the Sunday Times – but why any­body wants to host the thing at all. To most inhabitants of countries that bid “successfully”, the World Cup is about as welcome as a plague visitation.

Even in football-mad Brazil, the imminence of this month’s World Cup caused riots on the streets. The Brazilian government has spent £2bn on stadiums alone; they were supposed to cost a quarter of that, with business stumping up most of the money. South Africa, which hosted the 2010 tournament, recouped only a tenth of what it invested. The American host cities for the 1994 tournament lost an estimated $9.26bn (£5.53bn). At least Germany didn’t lose money in 2006 but the boost to the economy was an almost invisible 0.07 per cent, tourist revenue being largely wiped out by Germans fleeing the tournament.

Whether or not money finds its way into the bank accounts of leading football officials – as the Sunday Times alleges – is, in a way, beside the point. International sports tournaments are just machines for transferring resources from taxpayers to multi­national corporations and for allowing officials of sports governing bodies, their relatives and hangers-on to stay in posh hotels and travel in limousines.

Inspectors inspected

You’d need a microscope to find the newspaper reports but Sir Michael Wilshaw, head of Ofsted, has made a highly significant move. Next year, he will sack the private firms that carry out inspections of schools and colleges and instead employ inspectors “in-house”. After 25 years, school inspections have been renationalised.

The three firms being shown the door include Serco, which scoops revenues of more than £4bn a year from running outsourced public services such as prisons, transport, health and waste disposal across the world. In 2011, it made £238m in pre-tax profits and paid its chief executive £1.86m but has since fallen on harder times after various scandals. The third-party firms were accused of making erratic judgements in schools, employing poorly qualified inspectors and failing to follow the latest guidelines.

I doubt most parents realised that schools weren’t checked by the respected HMIs of old; they would have been alarmed to discover that, in one of the dafter manifestations of late Thatcherism’s anti-statism, the job had been privatised. I’d be surprised if Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, approves of Wilshaw’s move. I warned Gove that this man, though traditional in his educational views, would be trouble.

Mind your language

More examples of how, as I wrote a few weeks ago, rows over “inappropriate language” dominate the news: Prince Charles comparing Vladimir Putin to Hitler; male critics calling an opera star “unsightly”; a Labour MP repeating Gordon Brown’s “bigoted woman” description of Gillian Duffy; Joey Barton on BBC1’s Question Time comparing voting Ukip to choosing the best of four ugly girls. I don’t approve of such comments and think it right to hold public figures to high standards of taste and manners. But I can’t help feeling we should perhaps save our anger for other issues. Our rulers in government and the corporate sector must be relieved we don’t.

 

Muscles from Brussels

“Brussels tells UK to increase taxes”, screams the Daily Mail headline, reporting the European Commission’s opinion that the UK should find something less regressive than council tax to control the housing market. Thus is the view subliminally implanted that the commission is an overpowering bossy-boots. The headline should read “Brussels urges UK to increase taxes”.

 

After the storm

My friend Peter Dunn has died at 80. Formerly an Observer, Sunday Times and Independent journalist, he was a frequent contributor to the New Statesman during my editorship. His most memorable piece, in 2003, considered whether there was “something worryingly adrift in the mind of Anthony Charles Lynton Blair” – or, in short, whether the then PM was a psychopath.

Blair’s sanity had already been questioned. But Peter researched it exhaustively, talking to psychologists and psychiatrists, and we made it the cover story. It created a brief storm and the magazine’s then proprietor, Geoffrey Robinson, a close ally of Gordon Brown, was assumed to have instigated it. Robinson was innocent. The idea came entirely from Peter’s fertile and mischievous mind. I shall miss him terribly.

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