Here, in an effort to impress upon you just exactly how long a time four years is, is a brief list of things that have happened since Germany won the World Cup on July 13, 2014: Zinedine Zidane was given his first job as a manager, won back-to-back-to-back Champions League titles, then promptly resigned; Arsene Wenger’s 22-year reign at Arsenal came to an end; Jose Mourinho won a Premier League title with Chelsea, was fired, was hired by Manchester United and for the first time in his career failed to win the league title in his second season at a club; Lionel Messi lost two Copa America finals (thanks, Pipita!), retired from international football, un-retired from international football and led Argentina, almost single-handedly, to Russia; the U.S. women’s national team won a World Cup; the U.S. men’s national team failed to qualify for a World Cup; MLS expanded by three whole teams; David Beckham finally found a site for his stadium in Miami; and, of course, Sam Allardyce became the first England manager ever to be sacked while boasting a 100 percent winning record.
Oh yes, and also: seven FIFA officials were arrested by the FBI for their roles in a $150 million corruption scandal; Sepp Blatter was elected to a fifth term as FIFA president; Sepp Blatter resigned as FIFA president; Sepp Blatter was banned from all soccer-related activities for six years; the Garcia Report, that much-ballyhooed holy grail of FIFA transparency, was finally, after several, mildly embarrassing snafus, released to the public, where it told us not much more than we already knew about the shady goings on during the bidding processes for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups; the 2022 World Cup in Qatar was moved to November; the Qatari government continued to use slave labor to build its stadiums; the Russian Olympic team was found guilty of a highly-sophisticated, government-backed doping program in Sochi; the Russian government successfully interfered both in Great Britain’s EU membership referendum and the U.S. presidential election; over one hundred Russian hooligans attacked England fans during Euro 2016; Vladimir Putin complimented them on a job well done; and, of course, all the while, Russia prepared to host the 2018 World Cup, the biggest sporting event on planet earth.
All of which is to say, even if you factor in the notorious awful-ness of the experience of being a World Cup host nation, it seems fair to suggest this World Cup could literally not have come at a worse time, such is the highly volatile nature of our current geo-political moment.
Then again, maybe not. Four years worth of PR disasters have come at a pretty much negligible cost as far as Russia 2018 is concerned. FIFA has had a slightly harder time than usual attracting sponsors, but the big hitters — Coca-Cola, Adidas, Visa and Hyundai-Kia — have remained loyal, and over 96 percent of tickets have been sold. The smart money says the disapproving op-eds will mostly dry up once the competition starts.
The lesson is the same as always: All this political mess — the corruption, the slave labor, the racism, the homophobia, the hooliganism — none of it seems to matter when there’s football to be played.
Which is of course exactly the point. The reason all these shadowy political types keep getting involved in this sport is that … well, it’s the money, obviously — but it’s also that they seem to have figured out there’s almost literally no crime so heinous as to dissuade any meaningful number of fans from forking out their hard-earned cash for the right to watch FIFA’s showpiece tournament, and for that matter its sh**tier, non-showpiece tournaments. The moral high ground is simply too high.
This really is a strange moral predicament we’ve found ourselves in, us fans.
On the one hand, you are the type of person who will gladly spend thousands of dollars to travel halfway around the world to watch your beloved (let’s go with) Iceland, decked out in full Viking regalia, showing the world, along with thousands of your Viking friends, just exactly how to clap in bearded unison, at compellingly increasing speeds. When Iceland score their first ever World Cup goal, you will of course, along with all those Viking friends of yours, lose your s**t, and not in any kind of fake or deliberate or overly-choreographed way but because you will be truly giddy with happiness, thoroughly overtaken by the depth and power of communal emotion that only an event like the World Cup can evoke.
On the other hand, you consider yourself a good person, you are capable of basic human empathy, and when you read about FIFA’s many corruption scandals, about the bigotry of the Russian government, about those poor migrant laborers in Qatar, you squirm. You wonder if by going to Russia you are helping to prop up the organization responsible for all this badness. Is your presence consent, you wonder, or is it possible to split yourself in two, to love Iceland and to hate FIFA at the very same time, in the very same place, celebrating the very same goal?
It feels sometimes like the primary reason FIFA and its various hangers-on have been able to get away with so much over the years is that their transgressions are both so far reaching and so bureaucratically esoteric as to have become completely indecipherable to the average non-lawyer. We know we’re meant to be angry, but at what, exactly, and at whom? Why are all the bad guys hiding under that bed sheet? Is that what money laundering looks like?
The easiest solution, history teaches us, is simply to ignore it. Besides, this was our thing, wasn’t it, before it was theirs? To give up on the game, to lose even one ounce of enthusiasm for it, feels for this reason like admitting some grand cosmic defeat, acknowledging FIFA owns our sport right down to the part of your brain that convinced you it was a good idea to dress up in full Viking regalia on a 90 degree Moscow summer day, polyester wig and all.
This line of thinking could be taken one of two ways. First, as an indication of how effectively we’ve been sedated by the modern game, all brand partnerships and International Champions Leagues and Tunnel Clubs, lulled into indifference by the sheer luxurious convenience of it all. Maybe the real tragedy here is that the ways the game has changed have led to a diffusion of the values that would once have inspired fans to oppose such changes. Where those values still exist, power has never been so far out of reach.
From the players and managers, meanwhile, there is mostly silence. Pep Guardiola dipped his toe into the political waters earlier this season, only to stumble over the first difficult question he was asked. It seems increasingly like the great Brazilian playmaker Socrates really was the last of his kind.
Football and politics have always been closely intertwined, but perhaps never so covertly. Heading into a World Cup so thick with political implications, this should make for a strange atmosphere.
Alternatively, this all might be taken as evidence that even now, as warped and sad and scary as the world has become, football remains uniquely capable of bringing us together, perhaps even of showing us a way forward. There is solace to be found in the knowledge there is a thing out there in the world than can make hundreds of millions of people giddy like children, stupid on their own sense of excitement and expectation. In that unity, one hopes, is power.
If and when Iceland score their first World Cup goal, or Russia’s home fans propel them to the round of 16, or Brazil take revenge against Germany for their humiliation four years ago, or Lionel Messi finally wins the one prize that has eluded him — the sheer scale of the emotional release will make FIFA’s idiot-circus seem exactly like what it wants it to: beside the point. Does the fact this is what FIFA tells us to persuade us to turn a blind eye to its misdeeds make it any less true?
“Football is a simple game, complicated by idiots.” So said the great Bill Shankly, another one of the game’s preeminent political minds. As the world descends on Russia this summer, his words will be distorted: Football is a very complicated game these days, simplified by idiots. But by goodness are we going to have fun.