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It’s Blatter’s Game

April 18, 2011

J. Sepp Blatter: "Yes, Brazil is behind schedule. No, they are doing great!"

I’ve had enough.

I am utterly exhausted.

Jo S. Blatter (that’s my name for the FIFA boss, emphasis on “S”) has done it again. He has ruined my life.

At the end of March, Blatter publicly whined and complained that Brazilians were late and missing all kinds of deadlines in the country’s preparation to host the 2014 World Cup. Moreover, Blatter said something along the lines of Brazil, at this point, being even slower than South Africa was in 2007.

I’m not sure who should be more offended, Brazilians or South Africans.

I’d pick South Africans. It must hurt to be viewed as the benchmark for the slow and lazy.

However, this week, while travelling through Central America ahead of the FIFA Presidential election on June 1st, Blatter said that he was receiving “positive reports from all sides , especially in construction”, and that he was immensely pleased.

Oh please…

Silence, you insufferable dinosaur!

I think everybody needs to grab a cup o’ tea, sit down, and reflect on a few facts for a moment. The business of the World Cup, and FIFA as a whole, are seriously out of touch with reality. Severely out of touch. Pathologically so.

Allow me to explain, and rant a bit.

I have fond memories of watching the 1994 World Cup live on TV with my dad. I was 11 and had just discovered the beauty of football. The tournament happened in the richest and most powerful country in the world, the USA, and its total attendance (nearly 3.6 million) remains the highest in World Cup history – despite the expansion of the competition from 24 to 32 teams in 1998.

Do you, dear fan, recall how many new stadiums the Americans had to build in order to achieve such immense success?

Zero.

Not even one.

I remember asking my father what those funny numbers and lines painted on the turf of some of the pitches were for. “Those are the yards and lines of American football son”, he said. Brazil were playing on the turf of an American college football team…really.

And here’s the thing: it wasn’t an issue.

The game was the thing.

But then Jo S changed it all. The World Cup ceased being about football, and it became a game of Civilization, or Risk. Football was reduced to a mere product. Expansion was the new thing, and Mr. S its commander.

Indeed, during the last years of the Joao Havelange era (FIFA president from 1974 to 1998), the World Cup was transformed into a beast that fed on heavy marketing and massive corporative funding. But S. Blatter took it to a whole new level after he took over on June 8, 1998.

Similarly to the 1994 World Cup, the 1998 tournament was a massive success that produced several memorable moments (Zidane’s brilliance, Ronaldo’s goals…). And, very much like in America, the French were economical: out of the ten stadiums used for the event, only one was built from scratch, the Stade de France.

And lest we forget, Marseille’s Stade Vélodrome, one of the ten venues, was used in the 1938 World Cup Finals.

1938!

As Ricardo Teixeira, the President of the Brazilian FA (CBF),  said during that summer in France: “if they can have a World Cup game in that stadium, Brazil can also host the tournament.”

But then S. Blatter ruined life for everyone…

In order to launch his new brand of business-football, Mr. S took the expanded tournament (from 52 matches to 64) to three of the most innovative, practical and hardworking people on the planet: the Japanese, the South Koreans and the Germans.

Two of those countries, Japan and South Korea, were chosen as co-hosts for the 2002 World Cup. Neither country is known for their football, and the stadia infrastructure was simply nonexistent in those lands. Mr. S’s solution: build brand new stadiums, from scratch. And on top of that, make it all look extra nice, and extra cool, and extra high-tech and just extra! This is Japan after all, land of robotics, computers, virtual reality games and slick ninjas.

Nike jumped in. Brazil’s 2002 kit was ultra modern, with a two-layer shirt able to suck in all of the sweat of the hardworking footballer, and make him look as cool (literally) as he was at kick-off time.

Perhaps everyone was seduced by the number 2002. The first World Cup in the “futuristic” 21st century. Who knows…

Regardless of what motivated Blatter’s insane ambition, the 2002 World Cup had excess written all over it: South Korea and Japan each provided ten stadiums, the vast majority of them newly built for the tournament.

From one new venue in 1998, out of ten, to twenty new stadiums – in four years of rebranding the tournament.

Nevertheless, one cannot, and shouldn’t, compare France’s football infrastructure to Japan’s, or South Korea’s prior to the 2002 World Cup. But twenty new stadiums? Really?

It just got sillier from there…

For the 2006 edition of the tournament, Germany provided 12 venues, most of which had already been standing for years and were simply modified and/or updated to meet FIFA’s regulations. However, this was no mere “update” operation. The Germans rolled up their industrious sleeves and presented the world with uber modern rail transportation between stadia, high-tech finishings that made every single venue look like a glossy spaceship from Vulcan, and a strong sense of general organization that was unprecedented in World Cup history. And they did it all according to FIFA’s schedule, on the dot.

Germany, to a tee.

After the two outlandishly massive and shiny (and lucrative) events of 2002 and 2006, Mr. S decided things needed to be shaken up a bit. And so he dreamed up a brilliantly and singularly stupid concept: to repeat the same successes of the two previous World Cups, make everything just as big and pretty (and on schedule)… but to do it not in places like Italy, or the USA, or England, but in developing and struggling nations, such as South Africa, Brazil, Russia and Qatar.

Genius.

What could possibly go wrong?!

Well, a lot, actually. South Africa’s 2010 World Cup proved to be a complex one. Transportation between host-cities was relatively chaotic, the quality of the pitches left a lot to be desired, and often the organizing committee and FIFA officials had run-ins with each other over missed deadlines. In the end, football itself ended up paying for the mistakes and lack of communication/organization shared between FIFA and South Africa. The quality of the games presented was shockingly poor. The altitude of several venues affected the motion of the ball and player performance. Additionally, the cold temperatures of the South African winter (some matches were played in temperatures well below freezing) didn’t help the quality of the game.

In terms of statistics, the tournament was also a disappointment. Only 145 goals were scored in South Africa, the lowest number of any World Cup since the tournament expanded in 1998.

Furthermore, the final between Spain and the Netherlands produced an infamous new record: the most cards in one match, 14 yellow cards and 1 red.

Not to mention corny Shakira performed before the game…

No matter how much FIFA would like us to believe that South Africa 2010 was a smooth ride (Blatter gave the tournament a 9 out of 10 grade in the end), the image that sticks with us fans is that of Dutch player Nigel De Jong’s brute challenge on Alonso. The high boot kung-fu kick on Alonso’s chest to me represents the sloppiness of South Africa 2010, a tournament poorly organized and poorly attended.

And don’t get me started on Paul the Octopus (RIP) or the vuvuzelas…

But hey, if Blatter says it was all good, then the upcoming competition in Brazil should be a piece of cake, right?!

Wrong.

Brazil 2014 is a completely different beast. South Africans had to build five brand new stadia, and drastically upgrade other five in order to meet FIFA’s requirements, which is understandable since South Africa isn’t primarily a football nation. In South Africa, rugby and cricket rule the hearts of the fans. Thus, basic infrastructure issues needed to be addressed.

Brazil, on the other hand, breathes and lives football. They are the only nation to have participated in every single edition of the World Cup, and they have won the tournament a record five times. The local league is known for producing countless world class players, and many of them today – due to the country’s economic boom – have chosen to play at home instead of moving to Europe. Currently, stars such as Ronaldinho, Ganso, Neymar, Elano, Luis Fabiano and Lucas Moura are performing on home soil. The quality of the domestic league has improved dramatically, as has the quality of management in most teams. The conclusion: surely, at least  some of the countless stadiums around the country should, after a few upgrades, meet FIFA’s requirements for the World Cup.

That conclusion only makes sense. It’s a simple fact. Brazilians shouldn’t have to build twelve brand new stadiums, most of them from scratch.

But they are.

It is as though Mr. S Blatter loses a bit more of his brain after every World Cup he puts on, and becomes unable to remember what the World Cup before the last one was like. Indeed, the very last tournament, in this case South Africa, shall determine what the next one will be like. Forget the lessons we learned from Germany in terms of upgrading already existing stadia, or from the USA in terms of making “unsuitable” venues work well; let us build things from scratch like South Africa did, because just like South Africa, Brazil is a developing nation that needs to prove to the world – through the almighty benevolent assistance from FIFA – that poor people can also put on a fancy and expensive show.

Whatever for? And at what cost? Why should Brazil, or South Africa, be expected to perform like German or Japanese clocks?

The whole thing smells like some rotten and patronising version of post-colonial neo-colonialism…

Indeed, it all goes back to Blatter, Mr. S, and his “philosophy” and desires. Nevertheless, his vision for the future of the game remains totally unclear to me.

What he should be doing isn’t complaining one week about Brazilians being late in construction, or praising them the other week for complying to FIFA’s agenda. FIFA should oversee the chaotic operations of the Brazilian FA (President Teixeira is an incorrigible crook) and assist in advising the organizing committee with plain and simple common sense. In this instance, common sense would lead to the fact that Brazilians should not be using public money to pay for unnecessary venues that will be left to rot once the tournament is done; it’s that simple.

But that won’t happen, simply because FIFA and Blatter are out of touch with reality. They had no idea what the South African culture was all about when they decided to give them the right to host the World Cup, just like they have no knowledge or sense of what Brazil or Brazilians are all about. For them, it’s all business; dates on a planner, meetings with fellow expensive suits, marketing deals and Excel spreadsheets.

It’s not about the people behind the largest cultural gathering on the planet, fans, hosts or organizers. And it’s not even about football.

It all goes back to Blatter.

It’s about what he wants…

It’s about whatever he cooks up in his head when he wakes up in the morning.

I’m sure he’s got a reason for everything he does or doesn’t do.

And I’m sure the details are too boring, so there’s no need for him to explain them to us.

Thanks Mr. S, I’m sure it’s all part of a grand master plan.

I can’t wait to see what you have in store for Russia and Qatar.

Stadiums that float, balls that scream “gooooal” when they go in (goal-line technology, there’s a fancy idea), pink grass that smells like gum…

I cannot wait.

RB.

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