The President Shows his Worth

Last month, President Sepp Blatter, titular head of one of the world’s most powerful non-nations, proclaimed in front of the watching world that the Chinese had invented football. The remark may or may not be based on fact or truth, but it sent out two messages: first, that the English, football’s ex-motherland, would not be awarded the 2018 World Cup, and, second, that the Chinese, as FIFA’s newly-appointed spiritual birthplace, would certainly be awarded a tournament soon. The President was in philosophical mood, as he handed out the gifts to the thoroughly deserving Russians and Qataris, pointing out that Zurich should be considered as football’s true home, ‘the football city’ as he likes to call it, something to ponder for fans cherishing images and memories of the Camp Nou or Old Trafford, or the San Siro or the Olympic Stadium in Munich or La Maracana or La Bombonera. Most of us have to look up the name of FC Zurich’s tidy little gound, the Letzigrund. President Blatter also sent out a warning, again to the English, that we had to learn to be good losers, a theme he returned to the following week when he remarked that the English were indeed sore losers, judging by the poor grace with which we had accepted our fate as the recipient of a paltry two votes from 22 at the Zurich voting.

The brief ceremony gave much to consider. Zurich does indeed make the perfect home for President Blatter’s vision of football, a city of bankers and secrecy, of hushed deals, clean streets and a massive heroine addiction problem, a city devoid of tourist interest, or football heritage. But I take issue with the President’s criticism of the English as bad losers. Anyone who knows this country knows that we are skillful and pure losers. My favourite newspaper headline of all time was a stupendous Evening Standard banner during an especially poor Olympics: Why Are We So Useless? When Maradona punched the winning goal into the net during a World Cup quarter-final, in a tournament we, incredibly, had the talent to win, there were no riots on the streets of Manchester. When Lampard’s ‘ghost goal’ at 1-2 down against the old enemy Germany is not given despite being a good 3 feet over the line, we simply shrug our shoulders and point out that, as was clear, we deserved to lose anyway. And when we lose spectacularly, we relish it in all its vicious beauty. Newspapers rejoice in headlines such as Swedes 2 Turnips 0 (Sweden 2 England 0). Defeat quickly becomes absorbed into irony, something that the President may struggle to comprehend.

Much of the criticism leveled at FIFA’s recent decisions is misguided. The English bid was rightly rejected because of the dysfunctional workings of the English Football Association and its wonky relations with the all-powerful and anti-FIFA (by being pro-club) Premier League. The English deserved to lose, just as we deserved to lose the vote for the 2006 tournament. We do not understand FIFA. We are Chauncy Gardener sitting around a table of duplicitous thieves. We still, laughably, think the game is honourable and that being good losers somehow has moral value.

We learned to lose many years ago. Whether we can ever learn to win is questionable. Whether it is right to want to is equally so.