Martyn McLaughlin: World Cup is a spectacle for all the wrong reasons

A picture taken on May 16, 2018 shows the Kazan Arena in the Russian city of Kazan. Picture: Getty
A picture taken on May 16, 2018 shows the Kazan Arena in the Russian city of Kazan. Picture: Getty
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Some seven and a half years since FIFA decided to confirm the very worst suspicions of its critics by awarding the 2018 World Cup to Russia, the tournament will begin in earnest tomorrow afternoon.

We have been promised a lavish opening ceremony headlined by none other than 1998’s Robbie Williams, which is a thoughtful and considerate choice on the part of the organisers, given those families planning a summer getaway at Butlins Skegness can save a few quid by turning on their television set and being underwhelmed from the comfort of their own home.

If the prospect of watching a faded pop star trade his principles in return for a wheelbarrow of rubles holds scant appeal, be sure to stick with it. The music will be followed soon afterwards by the football proper, with the host nation taking on Saudi Arabia.

It is a fixture which does not so much resemble an international football match as the game of Risk played by Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un during downtime in their Singapore hotel room. The rules are fluid, complicated and prone to mistranslation, but apparently whoever finishes furthest down The Economist’s democracy index is declared the winner.

Of course, the stars may align and Thursday’s so-called Oil Derby could turn out to be a classic. After all, what referee with a scintilla of concern for their own wellbeing would dare disallow an offside goal by either team? The very mention of chopping off a strike might give the Saudis ideas. The lure of self-preservation means we could well end up with a scoreline to rival anything seen at Murrayfield.

The only quandary facing neutral fans watching on at home will be who to plump for as first scorer. Personally, I’ve gone for the more obscure betting markets and backed both sets of players to take to the field with rainbow laces in their boots.

If that sounds too rosy a prediction to come true, blame the World Cup. It is the biggest sporting stage of them all, and it inspires a heady, at times absurd optimism, even amongst Scottish football fans.

Our national team has endured a two decade long absence from the tournament, yet as spectators, our appetite is undiminished. We are like stray dogs gazing through a butcher’s shopfront, content to feast on sights and smells alone.

Scotland, and the rest of the world, are relishing the chance of watching some of the sport’s finest exponents flaunt their skills on the grandest stage. It may be the last time we witness a World Cup featuring Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, two of the most mercurial talents in the history of football.

Even beyond the star names and powerhouse teams, there is a clutch of fascinating narratives and subplots to grab our attention. How far, for instance, will plucky Iceland be able to progress? The Nordic nation of just 330,000 souls has already made history by qualifying for the tourney, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if they could progress to its latter stages?

And yet, this time around, at a moment when the talk usually turns away from the political rows and fixes firmly on the football, it feels different. Well, it is different.

Russia 2018 is already a spectacle for all the wrong reasons, and despite the best efforts of Vladimir Putin to harness the event to rehabilitate Russia’s tarnished image on the world stage, the fears that the football will be overshadowed are well-founded.

There is no shortage of previous host nations who struggled to make good on their promises, with numerous countries over the years struggling with the exhoribitant financing, security, and logistical operation that comes with throwing a vast party. But when FIFA handed the rights to Russia, such longstanding concerns were relegated to the status of minor quibbles.

World football’s governing body knew fine well the spectres of racism, violence, and persecution would loom large, yet the value it placed on the welfare of hundreds of thousands of ordinary fans could not compare to price Russia was willing to pay.

What then, is a punter to do? For all the comically naive attempts by MPs to force FIFA to postpone the World Cup, it is going to go ahead - and will run its full course - come hell or high water. You can be sure that economics ensures the same will be true come 2020, when the event migrates to Qatar.

For supporters appalled at how the tournament has become the plaything of countries with dismal human rights records, yet drawn to the football itself, it is hard not to feel powerless. But they should not feel compelled to stage a boycott of their own.

Instead, renewed pressure must be brought to bear on FIFA, whose members will convene today to decide who will host the 2026 iteration of the World Cup.

The organisation claims to have swept away the problems which beset the Russia and Qatar bidding processes by putting the decision in the hands of member nations instead of a cabal of executives.

Yet the age-old questions about transparency remain, and the sprawling corruption investigations into FIFA remain ongoing.

There are two parties in the running for the 2026 World Cup. The North America bid, which brings together the US, Canada and Mexico, promises to make FIFA profits of £8.2bn. Its competitor, Morocco, says it will bolster FIFA’s coffers to the tune of £4.48bn.

Can you tell who is going win?