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Dr Stephen O’Brien is the Dean for the Faculty of Health and Society at the University of Northampton
The country is in the middle of “World Cup Fever”. At the time of writing, England play Sweden in a quarter final match tomorrow that if successful would see them through to a World Cup semi-final for the first time since Italia 90. We all know what happened next; the so called Gazza semi-final ending in tears. There is a large caveat though to this current wave of football fever. I suspect my friends north of the border are not sharing this fever in the way people are in England given the historic rivalry associated with one of the oldest international contests on a football pitch. That set aside, which is difficult when one is married to a Scot, as a dedicated football supporter the World Cup in Russia has, thus far, been a roaring success. It is probably the best tournament that I can remember watching for all sorts of reasons. Established football nations with a pedigree such as Holland and Italy failed to qualify and the so called “lesser” nations have been punching above their football weight in knocking out pre-tournament favourites Germany and Argentina. It is according to the vast majority of media reports a fantastic spectacle. Everyone seems to have forgotten the political disquiet about awarding the tournament to Russia in the first place with on-going concerns about their recent sporting track record and their place generally on the world’s political stage. I suspect even in Ukraine we are all entranced by the festival unfolding before our very eyes on our television screens each day. Football at Russia 2018 is indeed the beautiful game.
Scratch the surface however and things are perhaps not so beautiful. Any quick google search of the terms football and crime will yield a plethora of news stories, documentaries and other media. The major headline is always hooliganism which has dogged football for years. At its height in the UK in the 1970s the establishment response to this was robust with reference to legislative change, new criminal offences and the re-construction of football grounds to be hooligan proof. Hillsborough changed all that. Not immediately because the hooligan narrative was pervasive throughout the initial reporting, police response, subsequent enquiries and reports. A future blog will explore Hillsborough and the fall out in much more detail. For now let’s return to the World Cup. The hooligan narrative was certainly played out in the run up to the tournament with media reports of the dangers posed by staging it in Russia. By and large this has not materialised, but it must be clear that hooliganism and violence are never far away when passions run high but let’s hope it stays away. The other term which crops up in the google search is corruption and FIFA as the lead organisation has over the past years never been too far away from claims and counter claims about corruption linked to financial irregularity, bribing of officials in an attempt to win the right to stage the tournament, tax issues and ticket touting. Indeed the evidence suggests that financial irregularity appears to be rife from the top to the bottom of the football organisational structure. This has affected clubs as diverse as Juventus, Leeds United, Hartlepool and Glasgow Rangers. Football is a global business and the financial rewards are immense. The consequences are far reaching for clubs, organisations and the very game itself. I would argue that negativity around the financial implications of football has driven a wedge between club, country and the ordinary fan. Many have become disillusioned with the game.
However, despite the concerns about Russia 2018 and Qatar 2020 something about the actual tournament, the teams competing and the players themselves has changed in many peoples’ minds over the past three weeks. It looks like the ordinary fan is reconnecting. The England team, young and inexperienced they may be but they are social media savvy and have shown that they are also fans of the game and not aloof from the rest of us who marvel at how they and others play. I have even heard die hard Scottish fans remark that they are finding it hard to dislike the England team. Now that is a turn up for the books. The beautiful game may well be a terrible beauty to quote to W. B. Yeats but let’s revel in the current beauty. If anyone is in doubt about the game’s beauty take a look at Brazil’s fourth goal in the 1970 final against Italy. Scored by Carlos Alberta but crafted like a fine poem by the rest of the team. It is magical and my personal World Cup favourite moment.
So as we venture into the final rounds of this year’s World Cup we can all enjoy this international festival of football and hope that things are genuinely starting to change. Success on the pitch means everything and has such an impact on the country as a whole. By the time you read this that fever I mentioned at the start might have been ratcheted up or indeed may have dissipated. As a confessed Republic of Ireland fan I have to admit I’m quietly enjoying England’s success to date and secretly wish them well.