End of the Beautiful Game – Strato Copteros

Brazil both birthed and finally aborted my love of the beautiful game. Ultimately, the recent arrest of FIFA officials and the mounting allegations of deep-seated corruption in everything from the awarding of host-nation bids, to securing corporate sponsorships and broadcasting rights, for me are nails in a coffin already buried under the rubble of forced resettlement and discarded marketing material. My only response to the greed that befalls football, and has for years, is meaningful non-participation. There can be no other way.

“This is the end. Beautiful friend. This is the end. My only friend, the end.” The music drifts like a heavy pall over a decaying battlefield. Jim Morrison’s voice, containing and constraining a serene-sounding mania, begins to fill the fog with a desperately dark, world-weary, unsentimental eeriness that turns into sticky eardrum goo – the opening lyrics to The Doors’ epic song “The End”, released in 1967.

Two years on, Morrison confessed that whenever he heard that song, it meant something different to him: “It started out as a simple good-bye song, probably just to a girl, but I see how it could be a goodbye to a kind of childhood. I really don’t know. I think it’s sufficiently complex and universal in its imagery to be almost anything you want it to be.” Ominous musical accompaniment to the ever-imminent “horror, horror” of the Vietnam classic Apocalypse Now, my inner ear hears it today as news-bombs fall over FIFA.

“I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”

I’d caught the first whiffs while witnessing FIFA 2010 thundering like a helicopter gunship into my country. Documented projections of billions of dollars in business development opportunity for the nation, as well as assurances of astronomical visitor numbers, ricocheting like tracer bullets in the heady days just before and after South Africa won the bid. So it’s no jaw-dropping surprise to read allegations of our World Cup-hosting win being bought for almost a hundred million Rand in South African currency. Based on projected income figures, it was arguably a great investment.

Then the real game kicked off, with the wilful exclusion of all but the connected, corporate and elite from any potential financial gain from the World Cup, in a FIFA copyright and big sponsor take-all invasion. Everything, including World Cup-related hospitality, had to go through FIFA-affiliated organisations. And the intellectual property restrictions were suffocating! As a writer, I was often in the bizarre situation of having to create corporate communication around the World Cup, without being able to legally use the term ‘FIFA Football World Cup 2010’ and all its shortened permutations. T-Shirts with any visible branding other than official sponsors’ were not allowed to be worn to games – even if it was a simple clothing label. Broad exclusion zones were created around stadiums, in which only FIFA licensed operators could do business – even if vendors had been based there for years. And most of the communications work I was doing was for banking and investment groups spending millions on entertaining billionaire private clients with no interest in the game, while those with simple savings accounts who adore football, watched the World Cup in their own country as if it was happening in another world.

The big buck trickle down baloney, lavishly bandied about in the beginning, was never mentioned again – leaving us with some superfluous stadiums, petty pat-on-the-back praises and insipid references to “national pride”, after the banners came down and the real money returned to Switzerland.

“How did hosting the world Cup benefit South Africa?” friends would ask me in Greece.

“How did it benefit Greece to host the Olympics?” I’d reply.

“Ahh,” they responded with a deadening stare coming over their eyes. Yep. That’s how. Not an iota of long-term difference to football or small business development or the participation of the financially excluded that keep the game alive on stony fields, in faded kits, in South Africa. The dusty gravel streets of countless townships, where football is played daily with tatty balls and the glee of a championship final, essentially forgotten in the deafening silence just behind the vuvuzela drone.

Three years after the branded plastic cone buzz of our finals faded, over 100,000 people took to the streets across Brazil in the year before it was to host FIFA 2014. But in the nation where football is lustily adored with carnivalesque frenzy, the samba drums were silent in these nationwide protests against vast government spending on World Cup preparation, while public services and infrastructure crumbled. Local organisations and global NGOs like Amnesty International also widely condemned the relocation of tens of thousands of poor families to various cities’ outskirts to make way for an unsightly-favela-free World Cup 2014 tournament. I switched off then. It’s all over when football begins to destroy the streets in which the game is at its most poignantly beautiful – the low-income neighbourhoods where the glory of Brazil’s footballing legacy is spawned in makeshift balls at kid’s bare feet. Indeed, these last two World Cups have left behind ‘world-class’ stadiums as skyline mantelpiece ornaments, sometimes in towns without professional football sides – in environments with some of the highest economic disparities between rich and poor, where social infrastructure is in dire need of funding. Thank you Sepp Blatter for bringing the finals to the developing world during your reign. Who needs sewage and hospitals when national pride abounds as you globalise?

I didn’t watch a single match of FIFA 2014, except for its dreary finale. I’m sorry I missed Germany’s 7:1 decimation of Brazil in the semi. The calamity of losing by the greatest margin in Brazil’s epic footballing history and relinquishing every record – most number of World Cup matches won, most World Cup goals ever scored and top goal-scorer of all time to Germany – is somehow symbolic of the sell-out of the beauty to the branding. But what a shame for the poor of Brazil. Stolen dreams and siphoned off money, while they weep for the one and cry out about the other. Brazil both birthed and finally aborted my love of the beautiful game. The rest’s been Lionel Messi keeping it interesting in highlight snippets glimpsed on TVs in bars, and Liverpool now more a sentimental representation of a never-give-up ideal, than a team I follow actively.

Ultimately, the recent arrest of FIFA officials and the mounting allegations of deep-seated corruption in everything from the awarding of host-nation bids, to securing corporate sponsorships and broadcasting rights, for me are nails in a coffin already buried under the rubble of forced resettlement and discarded marketing material. My only response to the greed that befalls football, and has for years, is meaningful non-participation. There can be no other way. The higher echelons of the big-money game depend on our blindness and our fervour as football fans to fuel the machine. Impassioned by the exquisite beauty of the game at its highest level, we remain obstinately, consciously unconscious of the dreadful back-hand games we know don’t appear on the sponsor-logo’d plasma TVs we’re glued to. Indeed, the most significant football statistics don’t pop-up in a nifty onscreen box; and have myriad more zeroes than any dead-dull goalless draw.

Of course, to believe that the recent arrests of FIFA’s high rankers, and subsequent Blatter’s decision to leave, emanate from some higher ethical denunciation of unsporting behaviour is naïve. It’s a definitive lesson in not peeving the yanks by denying them a World Cup bid when they’re working very hard to build the sport in the US. The battle of the bullies; but it may lead to something astonishing if some in the FIFA team lose the ball and pass the buck, hoping to be selected for the state witness reserve side. My feeling – which I think gnaws in the bellies of many, as denial always does when it can no longer be buttressed by feigned ignorance – is that the iceberg that’s struck the football cash-ship is submerged down to the darkest, coldest, most petrifying levels of the soccer sea. Corruption emerging like a monster of the deep in every aspect of the game.

With the unblinking, zealous focus of a Jack Russell that knows there’s a rat hiding in the hedge, I’ve watched for years, waiting for something to poke its nose out on vested influence over refereeing – and I’ve just seen a whisker. Already there’s talk in European media of high-ranking officials impelling referees to secure wins over Italy and Spain for the co-host South Korea, in the 2002 World Cup Finals – at a time when the game was being strategically developed in the Far East. Truly, the only thing the refs didn’t do is start shooting the Mediterranean players in those two games. Human error indeed! A “football farce” as it was called by several journalists. Disallowed goals, penalties, madness! Unsurprisingly, South Korea’s “miraculous” progression resulted in record sales for FIFA merchandise at that cup. Some Seoul shops sold out completely days before the final match; and the game was now firmly entrenched in a new market. Italy’s and Spain’s were unfortunately already long established. And when this kind of endemic corruption in refereeing definitively emerges, I hope many will turn their backs. At least for a while; because this confirmation of silent suspicion should be heart-breaking – and the mystique of what is truly football to so many of us, will need personal protection from the dollars and the devastatingly disingenuous dirty games in the name of the beautiful one.

Now, in a world society where the football chant has become its own universal genre of music, The Doors provide an eloquent epitaph to that which must end.

“Of our elaborate plans, the end. Of everything that stands, the end. No safety or surprise, the end. I’ll never look into your eyes…again.” Let that be lustily sung by fanatic football fans with scarves aloft.

More than anything, FIFA is a symptom of a professional game that’s forgotten where it comes from and who keeps it alive. And yes, we all know that we’ll lovingly gaze again, just like we’ll “never walk alone” and all the other whole-hearted bumf we can’t help feeling. Not now, though. Not until all the cheesy clichés of our love of the game are met with equally earnest and corny truisms of a game that’s “beautiful both inside and out”. Coming from a poor neighbourhood doesn’t mean the lady is a tramp. So I follow football no more. Not actively. And if ever I want to see the beautiful game at its exquisite best, I watch “Zidane’s Greatest Moments” on YouTube. My smile, even as I write about its global governing body’s fatal flaws, is why football is an emotion dancing in the boots on that man’s feet. And it just might be the reason that the end which I profess may allow for a more candid love later.

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