IT ALMOST seems like the duty of every football match in the immediate post-Blatter age to be, if not a classic, then certainly a decent contest played in the right spirit.
Keen and fair, sportsmanship well to the fore with no simulation, no refereeing blunders or the whiff of anything more pungent than an almost-beef hot drink refusing to appear out of place on summer’s gentle breezes.
Just a pity, then, that so many games right now are friendlies. Almost beef? That was almost a tackle! But look what’s coming up tonight – Republic of Ireland versus England. These two will fancy they can put on a show, a “British-style” match with its flags a mark of quality. Like a sturdy Irish dresser arranged alongside an equally sturdy English one, they’ll demonstrate all that’s fine and noble and unbending, for these are surely two teams who are rising above the dreadful mess engulfing football right now.
Except what do we have here? A country which accepted a reported £3.6 million of Sepp Blatter blood money to forget all about a piece of cheating which the fans haven’t forgiven and never will – and a country which is clambering over the top of those caught up in the corruption scandal to prove its mildly desperate willingness to host the next World Cup or the one after that or any old tournament, anytime.
Let’s deal first with what’s been called the “Hand of Wad”. In the play-offs for the 2010 World Cup, Thierry Henry handballed in the build-up to France’s winning goal against the Republic of Ireland. The sainted Henry – our favourite Frenchman at the time – actually touched the ball twice. “He dragged it in from going out,” said Robbie Keane with memorable despair. “He nearly caught it and dragged it into the net.”
The Irish team were devastated, the supporters heartbroken, and everyone felt sorry for them because handballs are never usually this clear-cut. The Football Association of Ireland were outraged and intent on legal action. They were after compensation, surely a first in the circumstances, and we wished them well with that – not least after Blatter chortled at Ireland’s misery. Admittedly Ireland had suggested a solution you’d have to say was fairly Irish – that they be allowed to compete in South Africa as the tournament’s 33rd team. Nevertheless, Blatter chose to mock them from a stage and we wondered how a man, who at that time we only thought faintly sleazy and a bit of a buffoon, was going to deal with this anger.
With money. Here’s 3.6 million quid, just don’t mention the handball. I mentioned it once but think I got away with it. Build a stand with the money, whatever. Just stop whingeing.
“A very good agreement, a very legitimate agreement,” said FAI chief executive John Delaney last week. The hush payment was indeed invested in the revamped Aviva Stadium, though I don’t think the association have gone as far as a formal christening – The Sepp Blatter Stand.
Now in this we know who the bad guys are. Blatter for being an unfeeling clown. Henry for being a cheat – he can smooth-talk his way through so much post-match analysis for Sky; I can still see his skulduggery, followed by his celebration. But what the hell were the FAI doing allowing themselves to be bought off?
The fans must be feeling hugely let down by this – same with Keane, Damian Duff, Richard Dunne and the rest of the players. Their governing body have just added their confirmation to everything having a price in football’s dodgy marketplace – even their pain. For FIFA there now exists a dangerous precedent. Another can of worms has been opened, although Zurich HQ is crawling with them already.
Now for England. The last time their fans were in Dublin they wrecked the joint. Photographs of them dismantling the stadium have been dug out of the archives because this is yet another of English football’s unfortunate anniversary years. The thugs managed to find uses for long pieces of wood that never occurred to the comedian Eric Sykes when he made his film The Plank. There had better not be any repeat of that tonight – not if England are to become World Cup party-planners again.
The mayor of London, Boris Johnson, declared last week that England would be very happy to ride to football’s rescue in the current crisis and take the 2018 tournament off Russia’s hands, if the latter’s winning bid was found to be corrupt. Then John Whittingdale, the culture secretary, said the same thing about Qatar 2022. Yesterday FA chairman Greg Dyke tried to douse their cup-lust. “I think we’ve been far too involved,” he said. “It looks like we’re doing it for personal gain.” But the wider world will conclude that England’s desire is now out there.
It’s very much in character. England expects on the field, and despite claiming to have instituted reality checks, they think the World Cup is always winnable. And the staging of the tournament is also winnable, no matter that the speed with which hands shot up last week was opportunistic and impolite. In a way you can understand their excitement: hosting 1966 worked out so well for them. But this clamour by populist-obsessed politicians will only have Blatter believing he is right to believe it’s sour grapes which have brought about his demise.
Everyone just needs to calm down and let some good games happen, starting with a peaceful one tonight. Last year’s most dispiriting football moment, at Celtic Park for Scotland’s friendly with England, was having to endure the white-shirted hordes sing “F**k the IRA” ad nauseum, accompanied by the FA-approved band. The most uplifting was the Tartan Army’s attempts to drown out the grim refrain with The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond but, despite warnings, there are fears it will be reprised in Dublin.
This is a terrible moment for football and there’s little consolation in the past, now that the 2010 and 1998 World Cups have the stain of bribery on them – and sad to say it won’t be removed by a scrub-down with Kevin Keegan-endorsed soap-on-a-rope. What will the investigators find next? That the greatest goal ever scored, Carlos Alberto’s for Brazil in the 1970 final, was a fake? And what about the greatest goal never scored – 1966 and all that? A thorough probe will be needed. No stone unturned, a re-run of the game. Come on: it’s the right thing to do.