Two football stories caught my
eye in the press this week – and brought a tear to it. Each tale, almost needless to say, generated
the opprobrium that the sport these days invites with the kind of inevitability
associated with a magnet attracting iron filings.
One tale concerned what, in any
context except football, might be regarded as a trivial, even amusing, incident. The other offered the prospect of a
full-blown international scandal.
The minor incident occurred last
Saturday at Craven Cottage, the modest Thames-side stadium of Fulham, a club
playing in the Premiership, England’s
top league. Fulham’s opponents that day happened to be Cardiff City, which inspired
not only the attention but also the attendance of Lord Kinnock of Bedwellty, the
former leader of the Labour Party, a proud, voluble and, it must be said, rather
excitable Welshman. He was accompanied to
the match by his two grandchildren.
The Lord of Beldwellty’s problem
started when his beloved Cardiff
scored a goal. Lord Kinnock had the gall, the appalling temerity, to stand up
and cheer, arms raised skyward in triumph.
Now that, you might well believe, was a perfectly natural and
inoffensive gesture – but only if you’d forgotten that it was made at an event
in which the supporters of the contesting teams are carefully segregated, and
policed, as a precaution against the kind of mindless violence that are often a
feature of such occasions.
Lord Kinnock was sitting, as
befits his rank, in the ‘posh’ seats’, where the spectators tend to be less
partisan, or at least less vocally so, than they are in the less expensive
parts of the ground. Even so, he was inevitably
surrounded by Fulham supporters, who resented his brief celebration as a grave
affront to their tribal patriotism. He
was booed and jeered. Or, as a Fulham
spokesperson later confirmed: “He caused
some angry responses when he and his family celebrated”. Such an event would not be worthy of further comment,
except in one aspect: such was the potential for boos and jeers escalating into
something worse – or so it was decided by Fulham’s security attendants – that
Mr. Kinnock and the kids were moved, under escort, to a ‘safer’ enclosure,
presumably an area populated by Cardiff supporters (and no doubt for the most
part Labour voters).
Lord Kinnock was, understandably,
said to be irritated. He ought to have
been livid; because one can only suppose that his grandchildren were frightened
by the experience, or at the very least bewildered. Fulham is not one of the fancied teams in the
Premiership, and Craven Cottage (aptly named, perhaps) is not regarded by the
authorities as one of football’s ‘trouble spots’. But so tense with the fear of
imminent eruption is the atmosphere at football matches anywhere these days
that parents or grandparents who take kids to a football match are at grave risk
of being labelled irresponsible.
(I came close to a Kinnock
experience myself a few years ago, at the same ground, when I attended a match –
my first such outing for about 30 years – as the guest of a friend, a Fulham
season-ticket holder. The opponents that
day were Blackburn Rovers. Unthinkingly
– and one needs one’s wits about one in going to a football match these days – I
had showed up wearing a royal blue sweater,
the colour resembling that of the visiting team. No sooner had I entered the ground, when an
official encased in yellow plastic stopped me, apparently for reasons related
to my health and safety, to grill me in a vigorous manner about which team I was
supporting, apparently suspicious that I had wandered into the wrong part of
the stadium, presumably intent on making trouble. Only after the intercession
of my host was I permitted to take my seat.)
The other football story is
datelined Qatar. That desert country is hosting the 2022 World
Cup, an award that generated much controversy when it was announced, and has
done so ever since. As the many critics of FIFA, world football’s governing
body, inconveniently persist in pointing out, Qatar has a population probably no
greater in number than the membership rolls of the Fulham Supporters Club, and suffers
such soaring summer temperatures that visiting football hooligans – even those
brave enough to confront Qatar’s security forces – might not have the energy to
stage a decent riot.
But that is a digression.
The real story is that the Qatari
authorities, anxious to show the world what they can do, and with 100 billion
dollars to spend doing it, and utterly ruthless in pursuit of their objectives,
are charged with fatally neglecting the safety of the workers employed to build
the nine new stadiums required, along with the various ancillary projects of
metro systems, motorways and hotels.
These workers, said to number 1.2
million, are exclusively migrants, mainly from poor Asian countries such as Pakistan and the Philippines. Some, apparently, are from Nepal, where
opportunities for overseas work once resided with the British Army, but which now
find a more lucrative outlet in the expanding construction industries of the
Gulf region. In the unforgiving heat of
the three summer months of this year – from which most wealthy Qataris absent
themselves in favour of more temperate climes – 44 Nepalese workers are said (by
a British newspaper) to have been killed and hundreds seriously injured on
sites being constructed for the World Cup.
government endorsed the probity of the figure by alleging that 70 had died
since early 2012.
An international union
organisation has warned that 4000 workers, of all nationalities, could be
killed before the games start – a toll that would surpass the fatalities from
the attack on the New York
Hugh Robertson, the British
sports minister blandly insisted that “it should be a pre-condition of the
delivery of every major sports event that the very best standards of health and
safety are applied”. What a fatuous
comment. It could only come from someone more used to dealing with bolshie
British unions working on the London Crossrail project.
Qatar does not allow unions. The state is at one with all its Gulf neighbours:
it is governed by a feudal dictatorship, designed to support the lifestyle of
the ruling family, in which matters of social conscience are an inconvenience
to be ignored or, if they find a protesting voice, brutally suppressed. Qatar’s co-villains include, most
notably, FIFA, as corrupt an institution as even the sleazy world of football
has ever contrived to produce, ruled by an octogenarian oligarchy whose constitutional
ideals are largely defined in documents usually delivered in brown envelopes.
Qatar is a grateful beneficiary of
the brown envelope culture. It made no
rational case to support a bid to stage the World Cup, other than the unlimited
resources it could summon to cajole and bribe those whose business is to confer
such rights. FIFA, for all we know, might even now be
contemplating how it might encourage North Korea to put in a bid for
2026. (Imagine, if that came about,
what the casualty rates would be – not that we would ever find out.)
The prospect of 4000 fatalities
in the cause of holding a football tournament is unthinkable, but with each
passing year football dwells, blindly and irrationally, in such fantastic realms. But FIFA’s president, Sepp Blatter, is nothing
if not clever. He operates in a moral
vacuum, a man of extreme pragmatism capable of unearthing any kind of justification,
however pitiful, for anything that helps sustain his sordid regime, and then riding
the most violent whirlwinds in order to achieve his ends.
Qatar will no doubt be a tremendous
organisational success. But will the
human cost have been worth it?
Meanwhile year by shameful year, football
stumbles on, lurching with each headlined step from the ludicrous to the shameful.