Sunday night in Doha and the anticipation will be mighty.
The World Cup holders, France, against the legend that is Argentina. Kylian Mbappé versus Lionel Messi, colour in the packed stands and a potential classic on the pitch.
Watching from the armchairs will be Gianni Infantino, the Qatari hierarchy, a few legends and maybe a president. Some great lads altogether. It should be grand.
Just before we start, though, a word on Vaclav Havel.
December 18th marks the passing of the Czech poet and politician. Havel died aged 75 just over a decade ago and as Infantino, various high-ranking Qataris and Arsène Wenger have stated politics and football should not mix, Havel would surely reply that all he ever wanted for Christmas was a Dukla Prague away kit.
That and an end to Soviet jackboot rule.
Sunday nights in Doha: they have brought us entertainment. And when the games have finished and the Japanese have tidied up, BBC2 has brought us more. The coincidence of Simon Schama’s series, History of Now, airing during this anomalous tournament has been as illuminating as the connections made in each programme.
Admittedly, while the story of modern political history is told through paintings, literature, music and film – art, not football – the game is present via a tangential attachment.
In the first episode when discussing Havel and Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution, Schama interviews Nadya Tolokonnikova. We all need reminders and Tolokonnikova is a member of Pussy Riot. She is one brave young woman, like those from Iran.
With the individual courage to take the ball in a tight area – no, sorry, to take on Vladimir Putin on his doorstep, two of the Pussy Riot collective charged on to the pitch in Moscow at the 2018 World Cup final, one of them high-fiving Mbappé.
It was designed to embarrass, to expose a corrupt regime, which it did, and in the context of December 2022, it is telling one of the pair said afterwards: “Throughout the World Cup, which I really enjoyed, there wasn’t a word of political criticism.”
The protest in Russia against Putin’s version of Russia came five years after three of Pussy Riot were imprisoned for “blasphemy”.
Tolokonnikova was sent to Penal Colony IK14, to a long stretch of forced labour. Someone sympathetic smuggled in an essay begun in the summer of 1978 during the Argentina World Cup – of course, no junta politics there. It was published (illegally) later that year and reading it inspired and sustained Tolokonnikova. It was written by Vaclav Havel.
Schama reads a passage: “Because the regime is captive to its own lies, it must falsify everything. It falsifies the past. It falsifies the present, and it falsifies the future. It falsifies statistics . . . It pretends to respect human rights . . . It pretends to pretend nothing.”
At these truths, Tolokonnikova nods knowingly.
What is false and what is true: these are matters of such scale it is sometimes easier to ask why Harry Kane just didn’t sidefoot it. But Fifa, in dealing with authoritarian regimes, forces these issues upon us and football, then sulks angrily when questioned.
On a minor level, the falsification of statistics at this World Cup has come in the form of attendances. Some matches have had more fans than the stadium can hold. ‘Tis truly a marvel. Wenger, whose Arsenal were pioneers in this at their Emirates stadium, may too have nodded knowingly.
On a major level, however, the falsification of statistics at this World Cup concerns the dead. A fortnight ago, Hassan Al-Thawadi of the ‘Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy’, estimated that “between 400 and 500″ foreign workers had died during the construction of Doha’s venues. Previously the statistic Qatar peddled was three or four.
Last week when news emerged of another worker dying due to a stadium accident, Nasser al-Khater, the tournament’s chief executive, turned menacingly on reporters and said: “Death is a natural part of life.”
The worker was unavailable for comment; they all are.
Look over there! Messi’s dribbling and it’s on TikTok.
Who could say something so unreal? It turns out an answer is: administrators. We could call this bureaucratic class represented by the likes of Infantino and John Delaney “new”, but then you read Paul Hayward’s biography of the England team, published recently to mark its 150th anniversary.
Hayward returns to Berlin in 1938 and to the prominent reporter covering England games then, Henry Rose.
Rose, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants who was killed in the Munich air crash 20 years later, wrote disdainfully of “the higher-ups of the Football Association”. While ordering England’s players to give a Nazi salute before kick-off against Germany, these administrators simultaneously, and without irony, insisted “sport had nothing to with politics”.
It should be no surprise then when the current English FA, and its Welsh counterpart, back down on gay rights when threatened with a yellow card by Fifa.
The rainbow armband gesture – fine in itself, if not quite Tolokonnikova – had not been thought through. So when challenged, was it realistic to expect Gareth Bale to begin the opening game on a booking? It took Wales 64 years to reach a World Cup and Bale had been a Welsh international since 2006. He could have been a martyr but he wanted to be a World Cup footballer.
As it happened, he was booked 40 minutes in, so would have been sent off, then missed the next game suspended. It was Fifa in 2010, not Wales in 2022, who caused this.
Germany’s players were then criticised for their cupped-hand gesture. At least they did something. Fifa and Qatar fumed, but maybe not for long. Germany’s action was on November 23rd; on the 29th this headline appeared: ‘Germany agrees 15-year liquid gas supply with Qatar’.
Realpolitik 1 Gesture politics 0. Look at those European hypocrites.
What can you do? The title of Havel’s smuggled essay is: The Power of the Powerless, and powerless and peripheral is how we can feel, mocked as legacy fans.
But we understand, we remember. We remember how we got here and that should provide guidance for a Fifa exit strategy. We remember Sepp Blatter last month calling Qatar’s 2010 award “a mistake”. We remember him blaming Nicolas Sarkozy and Michel Platini. We remember: “Of course it was also about money. Six months later Qatar bought fighter jets from the French for 14.6 billion dollars.”
France’s influence – banlieue/Elysee – will be one of the conclusions drawn from this World Cup. Others will involve the calendar and player freshness, light-touch refereeing (intentional or not) and so on. The most pressing should be the status of Fifa itself.
Have a great final.