FIFA and UEFA must learn from the Russia and Qatar experience

Football was warned about Russia and is being cautioned over Qatar. For a game that goes to great lengths to virtue signal whenever it can and attach itself to causes, from rainbow laces to food poverty, not to mention the black lives matter campaign, football can be pretty naïve sometimes. Or maybe it is simply seduced by money and bullied by professional politicians?

The latest threat to football’s sanity – and credibility – is crypto currency, snake-oil salesmen are pitching up with their beards, tattoos and baseball caps, calling everyone “guys” and promising to make fans beneficiaries of possibly the greatest example of smoke and mirrors since Danny Kaye sang about a Danish king being in the “altogether”.

But this is merely part of a trend of delusion that has engulfed football for some years. Football’s governing bodies have shown they are more than capable of being attracted to shiny things, such as buckets of money from sponsors or backers that will use the world’s most popular sport to launder their image (if not their money).

FIFA were lambasted for awarding the 2018 World Cup to Russia, UEFA were criticised for allowing Russia’s Gazprom for having such an influence on European football. The Gazprom logo became ubiquitous, their strange, partly-animated TV ads were somewhat ominous for as well as lighting up the Champions League, they also had the power to switch off Europe. The willingness to jump into bed with anyone willing to bring along their wheelbarrows full of cash, not only paints people as foolhardy, it also suggests procedures such as due diligence and reputational risk are severely lacking. Notwithstanding the stupidity of continually expanding competitions, increasing fixture lists and greasing-up to nations with dubious human rights records, most of the sensible world has told FIFA and UEFA, repeatedly, they are making very damaging misjudgements.

Football does have a track record of ridiculous errors. It also swims in a sea of hypocrisy and if footballers in England and other countries were really as savvy as they portray, they would walk away from a winter World Cup in Qatar. But equally, the governing bodies allow themselves to be manipulated and no matter how much they try to talk-up 2022, they have miscalculated the impact Qatar (and indeed, Russia), will have on the long-term reputation of FIFA and football.

Football has to think more about reputational and concentration risk. Two World Cups have damaged the governing bodies but also highlight the game’s habit of easily shelving its values.

Gianni Infantino’s message to Russia after 2018 now looks as pollyanna as Neville Chamberlain’s “peace in our time” demonstration. “You welcomed the world as friends and those bonds of friendship will never be broken. This is not the end, it is only the beginning.” Poor old Gianni, he must be very red-faced when he reads that today. Four years later, Russia is at war with Ukraine and millions of people are suffering.

Sadly, there are precedents to consider, such as the 1936 Olympics where Adolf Hitler’s Germany greeted the world. Three years on, Germany invaded Poland and life was never the same. In 1934, Italy was host nation for the World Cup and a year later, invaded Abyssinia. In 1978, a Junta-led Argentina won their own World Cup and in 1982, took over the Falkland Islands and then went to war with Britain. In the case of Russia, everyone was a little nervous about the 2018 World Cup but equally, came away believing the country had embarked on a charm offensive.

The subsequent events in Ukraine have shown that Vladimir Putin was as genuine as Hitler in his outward displays of affection. As a result, Gazprom has been removed from the FIFA partnership group and Schalke 04 are no longer sponsored by the Russian energy company. The impact of the war has extended to British football, most notably with the sanctions on Chelsea’s former owner Roman Abramovich. While the story has moved on and Chelsea are now in US hands, there should be few complaints about the removal of an owner whose links with the Russian regime are well documented. He helped Gazprom’s growth by selling his stake in Sibneft to the Saint Petersburg-based company.

Gazprom are 51%-owned by the Russian state, so their involvement in football around Europe represents a back-door route into expanding their footprint. Putin’s government has exercised systematic control over many aspects of Russian business, namely banks, petrochemicals and infrastructure. Gazprom does not sell gas to consumers directly, it sells its offering to governments and as the world’s biggest natural gas company, it is accountable for 17% of global production and around 8% of Russian GDP. Conversely, Gazprom is one of the biggest producers of Carbon Dioxide emissions, a fact that has made them unpopular with many people, as evidenced at a football match between Basel and Schalke 04 when a huge banner was unfurled sending a message to the Russians – “Don’t foul the Arctic”.

But Gazprom’s strategy in football has actually been quite transparent. Schalke 04, who Gazprom began sponsoring in 2007, are based in the Ruhrgebeit, an area in Germany that produces vast quantities of coal. Gazprom were involved in negotiations with Germany over the constructions of a Russian-German pipeline. Having dealt with that project, Gazprom looked further south and bought a controlling stake in Naftna Industrija Srbije, Serbia’s state-owned and gas company.  From 2010, they also sponsored Red Star Belgrade, saving the club from bankruptcy while strengthening links in Serbia.

UEFA and FIFA have both embraced Gazprom with such eagerness they must be questioning their practices, such was the scope of their sponsorship that you have to wonder about concentration risk. If Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City (and Newcastle United will come under more pressure with regards to their Saudi Arabian ownership) are highlighted for being state-run or controlled, then surely the governing bodies must face similar criticism. Notwithstanding the World Cup bidding process and how Russia and Qatar won their rights, the involvement of Gazprom must border on a form of state-controlled involvement? If nothing else, it also smacks of concentration risk to have such a presence from one company.

Going forward, both UEFA and FIFA will need to implement far greater intensity around their compliance operations and the basic principles behind placing trust in suspect regimes. This is, after all, not just a case of holding a football tournament, FIFA’s reputation is at stake, and no amount of money can buy a good name once you have lost your credibility. Football needs a strong regulator, robust and value-driven leadership and a clear understanding of what right and wrong look like. In an era of mistrust and scrutiny of business, social and political practices, football should be no different.

Southgate’s era may be drawing to a close, but facts have to be faced

ENGLAND’s performance against Hungary was embarrassing for the faithful that carry the cross of St. George with pride. But a downturn has been coming. Qualifying for the World Cup wasn’t very difficult for England – with the greatest respect to their opponents, Gareth Southgate’s men eased through, winning eight of their 10 games and scoring 39 goals in 10 games and conceding three. Included among their eight wins was a 4-0 thrashing of Hungary in Budapest. They finished six points ahead of second-placed Poland, hinting that after the defeat in the Euro 2020 final in London, England looked to have recovered well from the trauma of losing to Italy on penalties.

After finishing fourth in the 2018 World Cup and then runners-up in a competition in which they were de facto hosts, England might have been justified in feeling a little downcast. But these achievements really were the pinnacle of a team that was more about promise than reality. When it mattered, England didn’t have the gumption to win the key games. The players selected by Southgate had certainly revitalised the idea of the national team as property of the people, but it did not quite have what it takes to win against top opposition. The country keeps urging football to “come home”, but no matter how much lager is thrown in the air, it just doesn’t happen.

A national team doesn’t last for ever, and even though one or two players in the optimal Southgate side have a few years left of their international career, a lack of credible contenders to take over from pivotal figures like Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling, Kyle Walker and Harry Maguire should be concerning the England set-up. It’s not that these players are about to hang up their international boots, but there seems to be a shortage of real alternatives. Who, for example, is Kane’s stand-in of he is injured? Tammy Abraham springs to mind, but he’s simply not in the same class and at 24, we should know all there is to know about him. Vardy is a veteran and players like Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Ollie Watkins are not of the required standard. Marcus Rashford is in danger of losing his way at Manchester United. The fact is, most of the top strikers in the Premier are not English, witness Salah (Egypt), Mané (Senegal), Son (South Korea), Jota (Portugal), Zaha (Ivory Coast) and Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal).

It’s not just an ageing thing, either. Teams can go stale, and on the evidence of recent weeks, it does look as though this England squad has peaked and needs an overhaul. The timing could not be worse, five months until the World Cup and just two warm-ups to get it right. It’s understandable that some folk should start to panic, but sacking Southgate will not solve the problem. Right now, he needs a break as the international calendar is getting more crowded, more demanding and just serves to further exhaust the players. He may be Captain Serious and Mr. Establishment, but if nothing else, the UEFA Nations League games should demonstrate that England do not have strength-in-depth. If the fans think June 2022 has been poor, what is coming later this year could be even worse.

England may have one finger perched above the “transition” button, at just the wrong time of the cycle. It could have been different if Harry Kane had moved to Manchester City a year ago, but in the past season, we have seen the falling stock of a number of players, perhaps due to the psychological damage inflicted upon them by Euro 2020. Southgate’s record as England manager is still pretty good, a win rate of 62.2%, but it is difficult to compare this to the stats for Sir Alf Ramsey (61.1%) and Fabio Capello (66.7%).

In some respects, the England job is not about innovation, trail-blazing tactics and revolution. It is more about harnessing talent, drawing on the pool available to the manager and making the best of the job without uprooting trees. The Premier League is acknowledged as the top league in the world, therefore there should be enough oven-ready resources to build a decent side. Southgate has done that so far, but the squad that served him so well may need surgery. Has he got the replacements he needs? On the evidence of the UEFA Nations League games, the answer is probably negative.

Fool or hero? Maradona movie shows why he was like no other

ANYONE who watched the World Cup 1986 “hand of God” incident will have preconceived views about Diego Armando Maradona. In the space of six minutes in Mexico City, the game against England displayed everything that was good and bad about him. If VAR was in use in 1986, Maradona would have been sent off and Argentina would surely not have beaten England. History would have been so different.

Asif Kapadia’s excellent film, Diego Maradona,  portrays the Argentinian icon in all his guises, as brilliant footballer, as good-time Charlie, as defiant product of the slums, and perhaps most surprisingly, as victim. In terms of natural talent, Maradona probably had no equals. Pelé, perhaps, comes close, but other greats such as Cruyff, Beckenbauer and George Best do not match Maradona for raw, animal ability.

It’s not easy to like Maradona, but you cannot help but sit open-mouthed at the impact he had on people. He was, effectively, of the people, the representative of the masses on the field of play.

Diego Maradona practices his ball skills

When Maradona moved to Barcelona in 1982 it was after a fractious World Cup in Spain. The timing could not have been worse. Here was the latest wonder-kid from Latin America, commanding a world record fee of £ 5 million with expectation weighing upon him. It was difficult for him to be the king-pin in Barcelona and he was an obvious target for the assassin-like defenders of La Liga. He didn’t appear happy in Spain, injury and illness playing their part, and his involvement in a brawl on the pitch towards the end of his second season, with TV capturing Maradona kicking opponents with some venom, was the final straw. The player wanted out and the club had seemingly had enough.

There was no big queue of takers for the player that looked to have lost his way, but Napoli – an unlikely destination – stepped in and paid £ 6.9 million to take him to the south of Italy. Argentina has always had a link with Italy, in that cities like Buenos Aires had many people with Italian ancestry.

Kapadia’s clever editing suggests that everywhere Maradona went, there was chaos and confusion. Naples provided the ideal escape route for Maradona from the media glare and politics of Barcelona and the local people saw him as a messianic figure that could take an underachieving club to unprecedented glory.

But, as ever, he was a target. The very first question at the introductory press conference asked a confused Maradona if he knew who the Camorra were, which drew an angry response from the club’s president who called for the journalist to be evicted from the room.

The script for Maradona in Naples, somewhat predictably, would not end well. It was a classic tale of a journey to glory – two Serie A titles in 1987 and 1990, one UEFA Cup and the Coppa Italia. Maradona did lead his club to glory, playing in front of huge crowds. Between 1984-85 and 1988-89, Napoli’s average attendance was in excess of 70,000. In between domestic success, Maradona went to two World Cup finals, in 1986 when he inspired his country to victory over West Germany and 1990 when a limited and bad tempered team lost to the team they had beaten in Mexico four years earlier.

Although he remained a pivotal figure, albeit one that seemed to look heavier and heavier towards the end of his Napoli career, it was his off-pitch life that started to bring down the curtain on Maradona’s golden period. Temptation has always been thrust in the face of wealthy young footballers, but Maradona – a man of excess – also had the influence of characters from the underworld. At times, the film portrays him as a haunted figure, hemmed-in by his relationships and environment. He also lost his popularity and his “protection”, not because of his ability, but because of the ill-timed and ludicrous attempt to divide Italy’s footballing population during the 1990 World Cup. Given Maradona was the talisman for a nation that had something of a siege mentality, his plea to Italians to back another country – using the North v South conflict in Italy as the ignition key – was badly judged and painted him in a very poor light. The people that had taken him to their hearts and provided a backdrop that made a scruffy kid from the backstreets of Buenos Aires feel at home, suddenly grew tired of him and the authorities were also after him. The story had now reached the “fall” chapter in the rise and fall of Diego Maradona.

Why is he so different? While other legendary figures are admired for their skill, their influence on a game and their personality, Maradona represents the classic tale of the poor boy made good, who flies high and self-destructs. Maradona never truly changed from being that kid. He lived a hedonistic life  – drugs, drink, women, notoriety – because he could. He paid for it and deep down, we all know this story will not have a happy ending. Although players like George Best were fabulous to watch, Maradona seems to embody “the struggle”, slaloming his way past defenders, getting chopped down, relentlessly pushing on towards goal. And then, when he scores, it is the triumph of the soul, the will of God decreeing that Maradona (he always referred to himself in the third person) should succeed. More than 30 years after his time in Naples, Maradona shrines, murals and souvenirs proliferate the tight, shabby streets. He has a very special status in a deeply religious city.

The film leaves you wishing that somehow, it could have been different, that this incredibly talented player could have gracefully ended his playing days and become an influential figure in football through his retirement. But the drama seems to go on – Maradona is not “establishment”, he is a rebel, a non-confirmist, a maverick and an actor on a stage. In 2018, at the World Cup, he was pictured, cigar in hand, berating people in the stand below him. He looked a troubled man. People worried about his state of mind. Nothing much has really changed.

Photos: PA