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Kathy Sheridan: The notion that football transcends politics is well and truly dead

When a front row guest of honour at the World Cup opening is Saudi’s Mohammed bin Salman – what is it but purest geopolitics?

It gets harder to separate Gianni Infantino from the character of King Louis in the 1981 Mel Brooks film The History of the World: Part I who looks at the camera after some disgusting deed and chirps: “It’s good to be the King.” It’s a sweet deal to rule the kingdom of Fifa. There is something about a big football job – the relentless toe-licking by needy presidents, princes and murderous dictators, the red carpet adulation, the mountains of cash and no coaching requirements – that seems to confer a sense of regal omnipotence, invincibility and magical thinking shared only by the likes of crypto kings, tech bros and Donald Trump. Elon Musk thought he could sort out the whole Ukraine business with simple crib notes from the Kremlin. But even he hasn’t tried to teach North Korea to sing in harmony with the world, as far as we know. Infantino has. Of course he has.

“Any country can host an event,” he said in a surreal hour-long soliloquy at the weekend. “If North Korea wants to host something ... I actually went to North Korea some years ago to ask the North Koreans if they were ready to host part of a Women’s World Cup with South Korea ...”

The only people being brought together in North Korea at the weekend was Kim Jong-un with a grown daughter whose existence had been a big secret hitherto. The site chosen for the cosy father-daughter reveal, touchingly, was the launch of a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile as US and South Korean supersonic bombers flew aerial drills in response.

“We are football people, not politicians, and we want to bring people together,” said Infantino about his efforts to draw this power-crazed dictator of the world’s most secretive state into the great, inclusive, global football family. Kim must be deriving hysterical entertainment from it all. Between Infantino’s last-minute arbitrary veto of the terrifying One Love armband and the stone-faced Iranian players refusing to sing their national anthem while Iranian spectators loudly booed it, it’s hardly surprising that an exasperated Qatari asked why they even bothered.


If it began with rows about religious or cultural sensitivities versus human rights, it has descended even further into barefaced lies. Two years ago Fifa’s then chief of social responsibility and education officer Joyce Cook, a gay woman, staked her reputation on the promise of “a progressive change in all of those aspects and rainbow flags, T-shirts will all be welcome in the stadium – that’s a given. They understand very well that is our stance.”

Qatar’s World Cup leadership also offered assurances that rainbow displays wouldn’t be removed.

Hearing reports of rainbow hats being removed by security, even the most bigoted members of the great football family must look at those statements and ponder the rotten core of their beautiful game.

Every journalist has one question: why are we here? If this World Cup has put the lie to anything, it’s the notion that football transcends politics. The grandiose, delusive, bubble-dwelling amorality of the Fifa monarchy is distilled in Infantino’s North Korean anecdote. When a front row guest of honour at the opening of this circus is Saudi’s Mohammed bin Salman – suddenly the Qataris’ BFF after years of cut-throat enmity – what is it but purest geopolitics?

When the armband diktat was handed down and the English team folded with indecent haste, the breezy barstool critics were out in force to mock the folders

It also cruelly exposes the naive notion (mine included) that star player activism might shift the dial at home and abroad. Taking a moral stand is supposed to be hard. Mobs of witless idiots and cynics are poised to dismiss any activism as woke-ism, virtue-signalling and hypocrisy. And even in this sporting arena there are genuine matters of life and death that have nothing to do with football.

What we took to represent extraordinary courage from the silent Iranian players was dismissed by many at home as nothing more than lip service. The team’s primary offence was to turn up and represent the loathed Islamic Republic regime but since they were there, the least that was expected from them was the instantly recognisable scrunch-snip hair-cutting gesture (as done for real in public by countless heroic Iranian women).

When the armband diktat was handed down and the English team folded with indecent haste, the breezy barstool critics were out in force to mock the folders. One way or another it felt like a very public humiliation. Gareth Southgate, the team manager who tells his footballers that they are role models, said he understood Fifa’s decision in the context of setting precedents.

Whatever his private thoughts as a patently decent man, he was obeying his employer. People in arts, businesses and professions are presented with moral dilemmas all the time but rarely one so costly and so public. But supposing in those circumstances your son risked losing his shot at a World Cup – the sole focus of his life and talent from childhood – what would you have wanted for him? Alan Shearer, an England great who played in the uncontroversial 1998 World Cup, told the BBC he would have worn the armband. “That would have posed a bigger question and a bigger problem for Fifa than them not wearing it.”

It certainly would. The sight of a referee flashing a yellow card to an English player would have been stunning. The real question is whether it’s fair to impose that burden solely on the young players? They tried. To a point. The real culprits, the ones that get rich on the geopolitics, lie elsewhere.