A kind of betrayal? ‘Come on guys. Even Gary’s on board now’
This is a man who chose to project himself so recently as the public hammer of Fifa
Gary Lineker will front Friday’s World Cup draw. Photograph: Ian Walton/Getty Images
As the days ticked down you kept thinking he might still have something up his sleeve. Maybe this is a brilliantly orchestrated inside job. Maybe halfway through the World Cup draw in Moscow, as the balls are divvied up and shark-like Fifa men with faces as blank as the polished granite interior of a Panamanian bank vault yawn behind their hands, Gary Lineker will wink at the camera, drop the mask of sickly corporate piety and get on with trashing the place.
This is how it might have gone down. Swiping the autocue to one side, Lineker wrenches the World Cup ball machine from its dais, whirling it above his head as the world’s elite football nations are disgorged from its plastic sphincter and sent spinning across the marbled floors. Bulky men with earpieces begin to surge through the crowds. On stage Lineker shouts “death to all dictators” and rips off his shirt to reveal the words End Slavery carved with a scalpel across his chest.
As the cameras zoom in for a final close-up Lineker leaps across the benches, seizes a quivering, weeping Gianni Infantino in an unbreakable headlock, pulls out a permanent marker and daubs the words “end the corporate pillage of global sport also don’t bother with VAR it’s far too much trouble” across the Fifa president’s gleaming pate.
At which point the first taser bolt sinks into the side of Lineker’s neck. His face sags, his legs crumple, his bowels evacuate spectacularly as the TV feed cuts out. His work is done though. Around the world crowds spill on to the street in exultation. And in that moment the first flames of revolution, of a genuine, lasting rejection of Fifa-led corporate corruption are kindled.
It probably won’t work out like that. Indeed if you’re reading this after the World Cup draw there’s a fair chance you’ll have noticed most of the above didn’t happen. A raised eyebrow, some mild self-ironising – “Me? In Russia? Plugging Fifa?” – is probably the extent of what we can expect.
Which is a genuine shame because Lineker presiding over the Russia 2018 World Cup draw is one of the more baffling spectacles you’re likely to come across, even in an industry where the phrase “complete moral volte-face” tends to draw blank looks for more reasons than one.
This is of course the same Lineker who has been one of Fifa’s most visceral critics. The same Lineker who three years ago said Fifa’s “nauseating” corruption made him “feel sick”. Who advised all “clean” countries to boycott the World Cup. And who has in the last few years made great personal capital out of his emergence as a lucid high-profile voice kicking against the pricks – as one of us, not one of them, unafraid to call out the goons and vested interests.
At which point, fire up the band and wheel out the vast groaning buffet table. Gary’s here! This same Lineker will now be standing there at the executive plinth, fondling Fifa’s velveteen ball sack and essentially legitimising the entire enterprise with his presence, transformed now into the friendly public face of World Cup Russia 2018.
This comes at a time when Russia is still suspected of a mass state-imposed doping programme, and when Fifa is still in effect on trial in a New York court for mind-boggling and indeed blood-stained acts of corruption and gangsterism. Although in fairness they did give Gary a birthday cake on Thursday. So there is that.
It would be easy to be hard on Lineker here, to recall the words of the comedian Bill Hicks on bands who abandon their resistance to the Man and become “just another whore at the capitalist gang bang”. “Everything you say is suspect and every word that comes out of your mouth is now like a turd falling into my drink,” Hicks suggested, which is perhaps a bit strong in this case.
Lineker has at least explained his slightly startling change of mind. Firstly, he is confident there is now a new Fifa guard in place. He sees only “good football people” like Marco van Basten, Zvonimir Boban and er, Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa of good old Bahrain. And secondly he believes fronting up Fifa’s World Cup draw for a global audience having relentlessly criticised its structures and governance “is not political”.
All of which is a bit of a shame, because it is basically nonsense. The idea Fifa is cleansed, that all is now well certainly goes against the view of the departing members of Fifa’s own governance committee. The former UN high commissioner for human rights Navi Pillay has described Infantino’s Fifa as “an institution whose officials violate the norms and standards of good conduct” with a “deeply embedded” culture of finagling and grey areas. This was two months ago. But, you know, Van Basten is on the phone so it’s probably all fine.
Most unhelpful is the effect Lineker’s approval will have on those still committed to scrutinising football’s governing body and calling it to account, who are instantly made to look troublesome and ridiculous. Clearly Fifa is aware of this too, luxuriating in the cloak of legitimacy provided by parading Lineker as its star guest. Come on guys. Even Gary’s on board now!
Most baffling of all is the idea offering approval to a corrupt global organisation you previously eviscerated has nothing to do with politics. Politics isn’t just protest. It exists even more powerfully in acquiescence too. Doing nothing is a political act. Going with the flow, refusing to rock the boat, consorting with Qatar – like Pep, like Zinedine Zidane, like Bayern Munich – is also a powerful political statement: a statement that says, this is fine, I endorse it, I will not dissent.
None of us are perfect. There are degrees to which we are able to resist, on a personal level, even something we know to be wrong. But on a scale of one-to-Colin Kaepernick, agreeing to preside over Fifa’s prize draw puts you squarely at one end, decisively and publicly in the camp of the largely unexamined status quo.
And so Gary will not be overturning the tables, or cleansing the temple, or shooing the usurers from his father’s house. He will instead be smiling at his plinth, making untranslatable dad jokes and dispensing his legitimising charm in a global TV role last filled by Jérôme Valcke, who is currently banned from football for 10 years over assorted corruption allegations.
The journey through the next two tarnished, Sepp Blatter-stinking World Cups begins here. It was always likely to be complex and compromised, with a temptation to blur the lines, to be drawn along by the same old tenacious hidden interests. Small details matter. For a man who chose to project himself so recently as the public hammer of Fifa this feels like a mistake, and in its own way a kind of betrayal.