Some people think football is a matter of life and death…I can assure them it’s much more serious than that. – Bill Shankly, Scottish football player and manager
No one thinks Mr Shankly was joking when he made the assertion. Similarly, David Beckham wasn’t at all offended when English manager Brian Clough made this observation about him.
“Being thick isn’t an affliction if you’re a footballer, because your brains need to be in your feet.”
It isn’t clear, however, what the media thought of this Clough-ism, to explain away an English defeat. “We had a good team on paper,” disclosed the always-inventive manager. “Unfortunately, the game was played on grass.”
No one was in any doubt what Joe Namath, the 1970s quarterback star of the New York Jets, meant when he was asked which he preferred, grass or Astroturf. Broadway Joe didn’t hesitate.
“I’ve never smoked Astroturf,” he replied, deadpan.
For all the hyperbole surrounding American football, there is nothing puny about football, or soccer as the Americans derisively call it. And the World Cup is as big as it gets.
Over half the world’s population, or 3.6 billion people, will watch the 65 games that will be played until the final whistle is blown during the decider in two weeks.
And the money, both spent and made, is prodigious. In 2010, Qatar beat out competing bids from the US, Korea, Japan, and Australia to win the right to host the games this year. It has since spent over US$300 billion to beef up its infrastructure, creating whole new cities in the process.
Fifa, the game’s international governing body is expected to rake in a whopping US7.5 billion from the Cup via advertising and merchandising deals.
That’s RM33 billion, a respectable amount even by Najib Razak standards.
And every team that qualifies for the privilege of playing in the World Cup will go home, pockets jingling.
The winner will jingle all the way with US$42 million, while the runner-up will be consoled by a calming $30 million.
Teams finishing third and fourth will receive $27 million and $25 million, respectively. Those finishing between fifth and eighth will get $17 million, while those finishing between ninth and the 16th spot will be awarded $13 million.
Everyone else – even rank outsiders like Qatar – will get a suitably restorative $9 million. Finally, each of the 35 teams will receive $1.5 million for their pains.
Those pains will include horror stories about worker abuse in Qatar during construction of the various stadia: locations where summer temperatures can exceed a hundred degrees.
The stories also extend to the grasping, avaricious ways of Fifa officials, some of whose antics would make Jho Low blush. OK, maybe not Jho Low but certainly the odd Goldman Sachs banker or two.
It was football’s maestro, Pele, who dubbed it the “beautiful” sport. But even Pele could not have foreseen how big the game has become.
Or how ugly, some of its aspects. Fifa has thought nothing of hosting games in questionable places – from Argentina in the 80s to Russia in 2018. How much of that is due to money is anybody’s guess.
But Pele was also right. At its dizzying finest, football elicits an undisguised admiration: a ballet for the masses; or to paraphrase one of its finest exponents currently, Lionel Messi; “talent and elegance coexisting, simultaneously, with rigour and precision.”