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Hold the World Cup in Qatar? You'd be better playing it on an iceberg

By Mark Steel

Published 06/06/2015

New heights: David Cameron (right) was full of praise for Sepp Blatter when they met in 2010
New heights: David Cameron (right) was full of praise for Sepp Blatter when they met in 2010

The marvellous achievement of Fifa is that every day it manages to appear even more corrupt than the day before. By the weekend the FBI will announce “three Fifa officials have confessed to backing a World Cup bid from south London, in return for helping to organise the Hatton Garden heist.

"The Caribbean delegate Jack Warner said they couldn’t have pulled it off without Big Nobby’s masonry drill, so in return it was only fair to stage the 2026 final in a warehouse in Bermondsey, owned by Nobby’s cousin ‘Diamond Necklace’ Ted.”

Then it will emerge that Fifa was about to declare itself a country, called Blatterstan, and Vladimir Putin had already handed it a nuclear submarine in exchange for the 2018 World Cup.

epp Blatter was so jolly about rejecting all the allegations, the FBI must have even more on him than we realise to force him to resign. He could have been filmed being fellated by Kim Jong-Un in return for guaranteeing Norwich City play all their home matches in North Korea, and he’d merrily announce: “This is all part of expanding the global Fifa family. I am the person best placed to investigate whether there has been any wrongdoing, but in the meantime let me say ‘there’s not much wrong with your north and south Mister Jong-Un’.”

To most people it seemed obvious that Fifa wasn’t entirely honourable, from the moment the World Cup was awarded to Qatar. Because either this decision was corrupt, or officials rationally chose to hold a football tournament in the spot on the planet most unsuitable for football. It would have made more sense to hold it on an iceberg, with polar bears as goalposts, or hold it upside-down, or in a tank of piranhas, or on a cloud.

But whatever problems unexpectedly popped up, they’ve been brushed aside. To start with, scientists discovered that an Arabian desert in summer is a bit on the warm side. But Fifa dismissed this, and it wouldn’t have been surprising if Blatter announced it was getting round these worries by having all the matches played by camels.

Eventually they agreed to hold it in the Qatari winter, when human skin only boils and evaporates up to nine o’clock at night. But they may make one more concession – that if the ball melts, the players are allowed to suck the puddle into their opponent’s goal with a huge straw, as long as they’re not offside.

But the true genius of Blatter is that he ended up in an election, in which his opponent was Prince Ali bin Hussein, third son of King Hussein of Jordan, and the Prince was the democratic candidate. Because whatever else you say about an exalted magisterial highness of hereditary magnificence, at least he’s not as much of a despot as Sepp Blatter.

There’s something else classical about Blatter’s rule, which is that, like any ruler who everyone agrees must be despised, not long ago he was revered as marvellous by many people who now scream about him the most.

David Cameron, for example, who now insists Blatter is filthy and corrupt, greeted him in 2010 with the words “Mr President, you have done a huge amount for football during your whole life. The decisions you have made have been instrumental in taking the game to new heights.”

FIFA President Sepp Blatter holding up the name of Qatar during the official announcement of the 2022 World Cup
FIFA President Sepp Blatter holding up the name of Qatar during the official announcement of the 2022 World Cup

The British establishment was so gushing in praise it’s hard to tell whether they were talking to Blatter or President Assad of Syria. And it probably will turn out that we sold him a tank.

When a BBC Panorama programme revealed some of the corruption that Blatter and Fifa appeared to be involved in, Cameron said he was “furious”, and then Andy Anson, who ran the bid to bring the World Cup to England, said the BBC was “unpatriotic” by broadcasting the allegations at all.

This is a novel definition of patriotism, but should be taken up by everyone else. So the Scouts should rewrite their promise to begin “I promise to do my duty to God and the Queen, and ignore bribes worth tens of millions of dollars by executives who put on sporting events, and only watch Sky News and to keep the Scout Law.”

The Sun newspaper, to its credit, took a different line, as they decided Cameron wasn’t fawning enough. So it announced “Today The Sun makes this plea to Mr Blatter and Fifa. Don’t be put off by the BBC re-hashing ancient history. Despite BBC muck-raking, The Sun trusts Fifa to put football first.”

This must be why the FBI made its arrests, it’s concerned that Fifa executives are so determined to put football first, they’re not leaving any time for themselves at all and need to have a day off. This is especially true of Jack Warner, who pocketed millions of dollars, presumably to improve the goalkeeping skills of schoolboys in South America, without a thought for himself, as usual.

But now Cameron has changed his mind about Fifa, possibly because back then the corruption had only been going on for 12 years, which we can all agree is perfectly reasonable, but when it gets to 13 it really winds him up.

So Fifa has created a model lesson for governments, which is the art of how long to admire a dictator. There must be a handbook for this, which is why we sold weapons to Gaddafi and Saddam and Assad and all the people we later decided were evil tyrants, and why there must be a photo somewhere of Blatter smiling with his arm round Tony Blair.

The immediate problem, of what to do with the World Cup in Qatar, is easier to solve. It should still go ahead, but instead of football it should be a corruption World Cup. So the draw will take place with commentators whispering “Number nine, the Saudi arms industry, will play number seven, JP Morgan Chase, what an opener for the giants of the game. Next, number 11, the MPs who fiddled their expenses, will play number six, the Russian Police, what a tricky fixture for the plucky politicians from Westminster...”

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