The Fifa World Cup is an extravagant symbol of so much that is wrong with this world.
But let’s not kid ourselves: we are going to watch it anyway.
The tournament is run by an organisation that appears to be fantastically corrupt. Top Fifa officials, including former president Sepp Blatter, have been implicated in the theft of hundreds of millions of dollars from the coffers of the organisation. Plus, the decisions to award the 2018 and 2022 World Cup tournaments to Russia and Qatar respectively were allegedly secured with the help of millions of dollars worth of bribes. These are just the latest in a string of corruption allegations that date back decades.
The showpiece competition is brazenly used by dictators and autocrats to launder their reputations, to distract us from the routine abuses that occur on their watch. This year we are looking at you, Mr Putin, who this week had the gall to actually thank Fifa for keeping politics out of sport. In 2022, Qatar’s Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani will oversee the festivities, in stadiums built on the bones of exploited migrant workers. In 2026, when that iconic gold trophy lands in North America, it may well be Donald Trump basking in the attention of a global audience.
In South Africa, we could also ask ourselves whether our World Cup contributed to Jacob Zuma’s longevity in office and whether, once the foreign fans had gone home, the billions of rands spent on hosting them had really been worth it.
The football is just a backdrop to a shameless festival of capitalism, the on-pitch action little more than a ruse to capture our attention for 90 minutes at a time while we are subjected to a whirling, nonstop parade of technicolour advertising for global multinationals that are often doing terrible things to the environment, to labour rights and to our own health.
All this we know and yet we are still going to switch on in our billions, enchanted by the thrill of the spectacle, captivated by the skill and the storylines. Even for those of us who should know better, the World Cup exercises an appeal so powerful that we temporarily set aside our objections, that we forget our politics and our principles while we focus on what’s happening on the pitch.
The despots of ancient Rome had a phrase for this: bread and circuses (panem et circenses). That’s what you give the masses to keep them entertained, and to distract them from the injustices and inequalities of everyday life. It’s a powerful form of control, one that has been tweaked and perfected over millennia until we have this: the biggest, most spectacular circus the world has ever seen, escapism broadcast to the global masses in high definition.
Indisputably, the World Cup is the greatest show on earth. To our shame, we can’t help ourselves: the football has our full attention. So let the games begin, and we’ll return to all the world’s problems in a month’s time.