04 December 2010

The game being played

I think it would have been great for the Soccer World Cup to have come here in 2022. My kids will be tweeners then, and it would be a good lesson in winnowing out the hype and bullshit from a big event to see why that sport is the activity that most other people are most likely to be interested in. It is idle to proclaim that hardly anybody in Australia is really interested in soccer: this is changing on an almost daily basis, a fact keenly observed and feared by stalwarts of AFL and the Rugby codes. Australia hasn't dodged a bullet so much as a Phaetonic jag that we're not ready to put to good use.

FIFA have stitched themselves up: the next World Cup is in Brazil, where the football will be great and the parties will be fun but the infrastructure almost certainly won't cope. The next one is in Russia, where the money will all go to kleptocrats, facilities will be second-rate at best, service is non-existent and the experience for fans will be crap. Then, Qatar: it's a FIFA requirement that bars stay open into the night following matches, a hard ask in a Muslim emirate a missile lob from Iran and Saudi.

By this point it will be established that the FIFA World Cup is inherently dodgy. Over that period Europe will be poor and old, it won't be the overwhelming presence in world soccer or much of a presence in anything else that it is today. China will want the Cup and China shall have it. If Europe is to get it again, you'd have to back the Czechs or the Dutch.

It's at this point that we will have to ask what sort of World Cup soccer is to have (Australians all, let us have done with this arrogant abrogation of the generic term 'football' to one code only). If you want a competently run World Cup, one that fans and players and administrators all agree is excellent, Australia will become an inevitability.

Australia will have to earn it, though. The A-League is getting better and establishing a real following, to an extent that no sport but basketball has really done since World War II. Finally, Australians are playing soccer beyond puberty. If we host an Asian Cup and do it well, if we host a Women's World Cup (not much room for graft but an event where organisation and participation will count for a lot), our claim will be strengthened to a point where surfing kangaroos can't touch it. A global shift in economic power will render time-zone incongruity from Europe irrelevant.

By then, the toxic Sepp Blatter should be long gone. Blatter courted Australia's vote when first elected, then went back on every undertaking he gave. When he was about to be rolled an Australian vote saved him by a single vote, and Blatter again reneged on a deal that would have made it easier for Australia to qualify for the World Cup. Now we're in Asia and competing strongly: the achievements in Australian soccer have come despite Blatter, not because of him. If the Swedes are hankering to arrest someone, leave Julian Assange alone and can old Sepp.

Andy Anson's mouthing off has not helped his 'country' (FIFA should insist that the UK play as one country or not at all): a bit of quiet stiff-upper-lip would have been better for their chances. If the Canadians decide they want the World Cup for themselves, the US will miss out again (the US-FIFA campaign this year, combined with last year's failed IOC campaign for Chicago, demonstrate that Hillary Clinton is not delivering on Obama's foreign policy aims). FIFA will not deliver a sequence of World Cup venues to English-speaking countries, particularly arrogant declining powers: Australia as a rising power has much to do, but much to hope for.

Mark Arbib is running the line that Australia's campaign for World Cup '22 was perfectly fine except for the votes cast - now where have we heard this before? Could it be that this tactical genius has no feel for politics beyond petty internecine manoeuvrings in his own state and party? When he was Employment Minister, a journalist asked him for the unemployment figure and he tried to bat it away - it was gotcha journalism, but a pattern is starting to emerge. Arbib is looking like a legend in his own lunchtime, someone whose performance as a minister does not match the high expectations set by those with an inflated view of internal Labor politics.

Gillard was right to stay away from this madness but it would be wrong to assume that soccer won't become a political force in Australia, as the other football codes are. Soccer politics is in its infancy in this country (I'm not counting the inter-ethnic conflicts of old here, which were irrelevant then as now) and the Libs are ahead of other parties. No other activity is bringing Australians together like soccer increasingly is. Watch that space, politically and commercially, and for the sake of that simple and elegant game itself.

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