Saturday, May 17, 2014

Show me the money

Yesterday, as I was driving between Paris and London, I had the pleasure of listening to Arsenal legend Charlie George on Colin Murray's TalkSport show discussing a vintage era of football, when football was truly just about football.

He recalled what a perfect gentleman Bobby Moore was, noting how he wiped his hands on a draped banner before shaking hands with the Queen as he accepted the World Cup trophy in 1966.

More amusingly, George regaled how his pre-match nutritional intake was a cup of tea, a nip of brandy and a ciggie smoked on his way to the game.

Yes, the rose-tinted spectacles were well and truly in place, but it was a wonderfully entertaining interview, not the least because George himself is one of the great old school characters of the game.

We football fans may think that the game's traditions and values, upheld by George and his generation, still exist. But really - do they?

Take today's FA Cup Final. It kicks off at 5pm on the middle Saturday in May when there are still more playoffs and indeed the European Cup final - now the Champions League, of course - still to be played.

What happened to 3pm? What happened to Abide With Me at 2.45? What happened to settling down in front of the telly at noon with a crate of beer and your mates to watch three hours of build up, back stories and interviews on Wembley Way with celebrities whom you'd not previously been aware supported one of the two teams taking part (and in one or two cases, neither did they)?

You know where this is going, and I know it ends with the inevitable "old fart" comment, but the FA Cup is all about tradition. It's not the world's oldest club competition by accident. It hasn't been rhapsodised over for its romance for nothing. 

That it starts out in August with clubs you've never heard of (and are unlikely to see going much further than the crawling-from-the-swamp stages of the competition) and builds - from the hallowed third round onwards - to the grand meeting today at Wembley is all about tradition. And not, strangely, about money. Of course, a fourth round replay for lower-league opposition against a Premier League team will deliver a delightful and, no doubt, badly needed "ker-ching!" for the junior club involved, that's not the reason they take part. Just ask anyone except the chairman.

So, does today's Final kicking off at 5 o'clock make a difference? Two hours won't make any (and at least it's not a lunchtime start). But really, this obsession football's ruling bodies have with "broadening the reach" by making the FA Cup Final - already one of the world's most watched sports events - accessible to an even bigger television audience illuminates the Faustian relationship between football and money.

Yes, cash. Moolah. Dosh. I'm talking about money, honey. Because every time you pass through the turnstile to watch a poor quality 12.45pm league kick-off, or have to rearrange your travel and family arrangements because your club's previously advertised Saturday afternoon fixture has been bounced to Monday prime time, you know that football has fallen someway down the list of priorities.

Cash is king, as they say in the business world, and who can deny the beautiful game its right to make a few bob. But there is a limit. 

Unfortunately, that's not a concept regularly understood at FIFA. Yesterday, football's answer to Robert Mugabe, Sepp Blatter, declared that it was a "mistake" to have awarded Qatar the 2022 World Cup, even though the technical report on staging the tournament in the Gulf state clearly said that a summer tournament would be impacted by the heat.

Instead Blatter - who is declaring himself a candidate for re-election as FIFA president for a fifth time - insists that the decision to award 2022 to Qatar was given by "quite a big majority". Yes, and we know what that majority looks like: it is green and made of paper.

If moving the FA Cup kick-off two hours later than is the tradition makes you feel somewhat uncomfortable, the torrent of equine excrement pumping out of FIFA is weapon-strength. Blatter insists that there were no financial inducements from the preposterously wealthy emirate to stage the World Cup there: "I never said was bought," he pleaded yesterday on Swiss television, adding that "it was due to political considerations."

Ah yes, politics. Obviously. Clearly giving 2022 to an 'old world' host like France, Germany or, heavens above, England, would have been politically incorrect when there are emerging nations like Qatar who should be given a go, be welcomed into the international footballing fold (in addition to buying up football clubs) as it will encourage their greater integration, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

No mention though of that integration involving any improvement in the human rights of the immigrant labour Qatar has got building the 2022 stadia under serf-like conditions, not to mention the country's positively arcane attitudes to homosexuality, contradicting all that football is doing to drive greater respect and inclusion.

As with the 5pm Cup Final kick-off, some will say that playing a World Cup in Qatar in the summer (or more likely, moving it to the European winter when it will be cooler and will fantastically bugger up domestic league schedules for a whole month) is a small price to pay for the game's development.

Well, I'm all for developing football. I'm all for making it even better. And I'm not so entrenched in some form of socialist dogma that it shouldn't be allowed to make money.

But when you see some of these decisions being made which so blatantly go against what it is most right-thinking football fans believe in, you have to wonder whether the money is really worth the putrid odour it generates?

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