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Michael Walker: In 2021 football fell further into the grip of money and politics

Qatar World Cup looms in 2022 but innocence and optimism still permeates the game

Do you remember Zaki Anwari? Do you recall the footage from Kabul airport in those fraught days in August when the United States chose to leave as the Taliban returned? Do you remember panicked locals chasing a hulking US air force Globemaster down the runway at Kabul airport, clinging onto the metal; then seeing fragments falling from the sky as the carrier took off?

You will, it is one of the scenes of 2021.

Those fragments turned out to be people, one of whom, allegedly, was 17 year old Zaki Anwari.

Amid so much desperation and tragedy in the Afghan capital that week and since, it seems almost inappropriate to select one story from the saddened city. But this is a football column and Zaki Anwari was a footballer.


How good or bad Zaki was is uncertain; it is also irrelevant. He was good enough to be selected for the Afghanistan national team at his age level and we can imagine his dreams of making it were the same as every other teenager’s across the planet. Zaki Anwari understood intuitively that the Taliban are dedicated killers of such dreams and when he saw the exodus at Hamid Karzai airport, he wanted to join it.

At 11am he called his family to say he had scaled the perimeter wall and was expecting to be processed onto a departing plane. But that was optimism beyond reality; and when Zaki saw there was no process for him, he leapt on the outside of the plane. Whether he then fell as it took off is unclear, because there were other reports that when the flight landed, human remains were found in the landing gear.

It is a horror story; not an uplifting way to begin an annual review.

It’s just there was an additional thud when re-reading the reports from August. It came with the destination of the flight from Kabul: Qatar.

Shared our doubts

The plane Zaki Anwari tried to board landed at the Al Udeid air base 20 miles south of Doha. There in the Qatari capital at this time next year they will be digesting the recently staged World Cup. Presumably Zaki would have enjoyed it; he may have had a different, Afghan perspective on the suitability of Qatar for the tournament; he may not have shared our doubts.

We will never find out.

What we know is that the 2022 World Cup final is to be held one week before Christmas, on December 18th, in the newly-constructed Lusail Stadium north of Doha. The stadium architects are Norman Foster & Partners from England.

Across Europe and elsewhere domestic seasons will have paused in November to accommodate this unique ‘winter’ World Cup. If the spoofers at Fifa are lucky, the football will be engrossing and we may still be talking about it as 2023 starts.

But if the tournament is less than that - if the heat is suffocating and the players are exhausted, then the geography and politics of it all will re-surface and the average ‘legacy fan’ will have their scepticism reinforced.

Whether those who run Fifa care is another matter. They don’t: their unwelcome yet unending relationship with money and autocratic power is, unfortunately for us, official, and it will gurgle on.

The game, the game Zaki Anwari loved, will not stop. It never does. The Premier League restarts eight days after the final. But the tensions in football over the sport’s capitulation to wealth, pressure groups, ambitious administrators and governments will continue to ripple and occasionally rupture. This is what we saw in 2021.

There were those three days in April when the European Super League idea came and went in a flurry of authentic bottom-up resentment and top-down complacency. It was an expression of the turnstile fear that ‘Big Football’ has been captured.

This has been around a long time of course, but 2021 with the ESL, the ongoing advance of Qatar, the introduction of Saudi Arabia via Newcastle United and the transfer of an all-time great, Lionel Messi, from a futbol club - Barcelona - to a foreign policy project - PSG - moved things up a level.

And Florentino Perez and his mates, they haven’t gone away, you know? They are still plotting, trying to find a way to maintain their superiority in a shifting era when the sovereign wealth from places such as Qatar has undermined their ability to stay as Europe’s Galacticos.

Real Madrid and Juventus essentially prefer to have a cartel based on historic achievement in order to protect their product from new and future wealth. They may phrase it differently.


At some point they will find agreement from the new in town, because they too like a monopoly.

It is not inspiring and yet it would wrong to characterise 2021 as a wholly negative year. There have been good things: Leicester City won the FA Cup. Manchester City and Liverpool played some beautiful football. Leeds United did too. There has been an upsurge in non-League attendances, which may be some kind of reaction to the ESL types. Everywhere democracy is under attack but the democracy of relegation means major clubs such as Notts County go down but fight back.

There were again over 30,000 at an FAI Cup final. Against Portugal - twice - Irish players showed that Stephen Kenny’s idea is not fantastical, but appropriate to Irish football. Facilities remain problematic but there is an optimism around domestic football that has not been present for some time.

The European Championships delivered some compelling football and drama and helped us through the pandemic. The response to Christian Eriksen was warm.

Italy won. They are not a ‘great’ team, but they have great tournament nous. And they did play with exhilarating energy along the way.

England lost. They are not a great team either, despite what some claim, but they have potential. They could do well in Qatar, where the hooligans who ruined the Euro final will find a different climate.

Gareth Southgate will be in charge. He made one of the interventions of 2021 with his ‘Dear England’ open letter in June, which began: “It has been an extremely difficult year.”

That line referred to the pandemic, but from there Southgate went into modern English nationalism, old English identity and 21st century England. In it, England’s footballers, white and black, take the knee week after week. It is a political act, one deserving of the applause it receives.

It is part of our time. All football is now political, it seems, because all life is political. Governments own football clubs. Their henchmen shape competition. Players make a stance. Zaki Anwari is dead.