The Blog

The World Cup: Will We Ever Turn That Corner?

This has been an amusing tournament so far, if only for the verbal interplay in the TV studio between ex-footballers and assorted armchair experts whose gone-to-seed physiques are crammed awkwardly between the four corners of our screens...

This has been an amusing tournament so far, if only for the verbal interplay in the TV studio between ex-footballers and assorted armchair experts whose gone-to-seed physiques are crammed awkwardly between the four corners of our screens.

And England? Well, the script was written long ago. Dumped out at an early juncture through a corrosive sense of entitlement and bona fide ineptitude, it's another tournament with the same result, the same recriminations, the same disbelieving Adrian Chiles who wears the stunned expression of a man who wonders why he ever left Working Lunch for a gig as disenchanting as this.

But this is an illogical world, and the World Cup, if nothing else, is a news story. A long, drawn out story of dubious worth spoken of in tones that border on religious conviction. It is often called 'a unifying event' or else a 'communion', but for whom and for what purpose?

For what ostensibly seems like an immensely enjoyable carnival of sport, and nothing else, becomes something else when one's focus grows a little more forensic.

To grasp football properly, we must quote Umberto Eco. And here is where it gets tricky, because when the likes of Chiles is mentioned in the same breath as Eco, one realises the subject in question is problematic.

On football, Eco has been quoted as saying that "it is linked with the absence of purpose and the vanity of all things".

That it is a game of tactics played, at its best, by a team in possession of skill and organisation is a point Eco cares not to countenance. Instead, he is more interested in another tactic that is employed by those who run 'God's game': mass dissemination of the World Cup via mass media.

But to what purpose? Consider this: we, the people of the world, are the mob, the modern day version of the mobile vulgus of Roman antiquity from which the word 'mob' is derived. We demand a good standard of living from our political leaders. Food must be plentiful and affordable. Luxuries within our financial reach. But these things are sometimes difficult to provide, like now, because of the global recession.

Remember the recession? I thought not. The reason it has been pushed to the back of your mind is because you are taking your opiate obediently: lashings of it, every day, via the flatscreen. You are under the influence.

The World Cup is the recurring moment when we take our eye off the ball. The games have been foisted upon us and keep us passive and acquiescent. By watching football you buy into the idea it is a unifying event that crosses borders and makes many races into one face - a sporting love-in that lasts but a month before we plunge back into our bankrupt realities. We thereby suspend disbelief in the moral failings of our governing elites. We cry ourselves hoarse for a team of conceited, overpaid sportsmen who see fit to take to the field in varying states of disarray. They're out of shape, two yards too slow, uninspired. Much like the watching audience.

This is England. But try again and consider, as Eco puts it, "the influence of forgeries on history". In the case of this tournament, what has been forged, via the notion of sporting nationalism, is a narrative of English achievement. Language is toyed with in the most cunning of fashions when English footballing success is discussed on TV. The nuanced evasion of truth and the nimble side-step around fact as practised by pundits are the pronouncements of men adept at selling snake oil.

And the oil in question? Let's call it 'Whiff Of Empire'.

Football writers and commentators all suffer from historical amnesia. The plummeting value of the England team's stock is almost improbable. Tournament on tournament, the team performs more poorly, somehow beyond the boundaries of logic. But here is where one gets to most accurately gauge the collective psyche of the nation: here in the Adrian Chiles Parlour of Vascillation and Delusion, where the verbal art of turd polishing is practised and made perfect. If only such a systemisation of skill existed on the field.

So, with the opening ceremony, we arrived in Rio in search of the opiate we crave as the car bombs exploded in Basra and goals were scored in the Maracanã. Are we to believe that whatever occurs in Egypt, Syria, Somalia or South Sudan can be eclipsed, or even solved, by the toss of a ball? Is this World Cup that diverting or instructive? Is FIFA capable of bringing peace to war-torn areas via its particular brand of organised sport? Of course not.

We're half way through a parade of millionaires, all haircuts and beards, grimaces and hoots. Members of a troop. This is an event that occurs every four years and serves as a diversion for the masses, its purpose abstract, inflated, at times (especially when watching the England midfield) highly absurd; Camus would have loved it.

And all is conducted by attendant televisual prophets who sit blank-eyed in pressed shirts beneath TV lights, squinting into the void. The world is awake, we are told, roused from its slumber by The Game.

But best not to think too hard on matters global, eh, because it is to the game that the world turns its hungry eyes as the TV stations would have you believe the average British man is more content to hear whether player X bit player Y, or indeed whether referee Z saw him do it.

The tournament amounts to the most cynical of diversionary tactics at a time of economic convulsion. Yet they are tactics that work to keep the global audience from thinking too hard about anything, save the final score.

But soon the tournament will draw to a close, and we'll all have to steel our hearts for the moment when Gary Lineker turns one last time to the camera with his Thora Hird smile.

So let us end with Eco who, in 2011, said that "people are tired of simple things. They want to be challenged". But were that truly the case, they would have challenged themselves by now.

Football, it's a funny old game.

Photograph by JAH