By Hans Vogel
It is a cliche to state that football is big business. Football, the most popular sport on the planet, generates billions of dollars. It is also a cliche to state that everywhere there is money, there is corruption. The more money, the more corruption. Unfortunately, cliches tend to be true, that is why they are called cliches.
It is important to keep this in mind when you watch a world cup game. Next time you switch on your TV-set to see some exciting action, especially one of those games where the stakes are high, I suggest you ask yourself a simple question. Do you really think powerful business interests would leave it up to the discretion of some fallible referee on a modest salary, to decide the fate of their investment? For that matter, do you believe referees make their decisions purely independently?
In case you have been following developments in football over the past decades, you are surely aware of the various football scandals all over Europe and Latin America, involving venal goalies, bought referees, mysterious injuries and anything else incongruous. As always, what comes out in the open is only the tip of an iceberg.
This year 2010, more than ever before, the stakes are extremely high. They are high because apart from Greece, at least six nations taking part in the World Cup, are faced with imminent socioeconomic breakdown. Everyone who knows what has been going on in Greece since 2008 will appreciate what stands to happen in Spain, Portugal, England, France, Italy and...the US. All these nations are teetering on the very brink of economic collapse. For them, it is not a matter of if, but when disaster will strike. Although they will tumble like dominoes, it is almost certain Spain will be the first to go. Its problems are staggering and acute: consistently negative economic growth, unemployment standing at 20%, youth unemployment at 40%, an aggregate indebtedness valued at 270% of GNP, and 1,6 million unsold objects on the real estate market. The population is desperate and seething with rage. Only last week, Spain's major cities were flooded with hundreds of thousands of frightened, angry protesters clamoring for justice. Everything proceeded peacefully—for now. The current Spanish government is unable to solve the problems it is facing. It is only a small consolation that there is not anyone that can save Spain. Salvation is beyond anyone's reach. The only thing that can be done is the loser's way out: buying time.
A stay of execution can only be obtained in one way: by having Spain's national side win the World Cup. As a matter of fact there is ample historical precedent of victory being awarded a nation in particular need of athletic success for political, socioeconomic or even prestige reasons. On several occasions, the World Cup has gone to a country going through some sort of crisis.
In 1954, Germany defeated Hungary in a miraculous final, after being almost annihilated by Hungary during an earlier tournament game. Germany, whose cities were blown to bits by savage British and US bombing raids, whose factories were pillaged by all victors alike, whose population had been decimated and humiliated, was anxious for anything at all to recover a sense of dignity. What better way to achieve this goal than an athletic victory? In 1966, England hosted the World Cup and though its team was certainly not the best or most brilliant, it was awarded the cup after a hotly contested final against Germany. At the time, England (or rather, Great Britain) was in a bit of a tight spot on account of the Rhodesia crisis. England only barely made it to the final, with referees lending a hand, such as during quarterfinals game against Argentina. England had a clear offside goal acknowledged and thus won the game. The Argentinian was put out of balance when its captain was sent off the pitch for alleged verbal abuse.
Argentina's turn came twelve years later, when it organized the World Cup tournament in 1978. It was set up in such a way as to have Argentina meet the universal favorite, Holland, in the final. Of course, the Dutch team did not stand a chance because the military junta governing Argentina needed an athletic success to solidify its position and to complete its program of overhauling the Argentine economy. The US and other nations supporting the junta (including the Dutch government), held great expectations. They wanted Argentina to lead the way in the transformation of Latin American economies to the ruthless kind of neoliberalism that much of the world now adheres to. Argentina was designated as a showcase for hardcore capitalism. Johan Cruyff, the world's most brilliant football player at the time, refused to join the Dutch team, alleging concerns about his safety. You bet the pressure on him to travel to Argentina has been enormous. Yet Cruyff persisted in his refusal. He must have known the Dutch side did not stand a chance and that the final had been fixed long before to ensure an Argentinian victory. In 1982 victory went to Italian side. Perhaps this was not a coincidence either, as Italy was virtually on the brink of civil war. The so-called leaden years (anni di piombo) were characterized by a high level of state and anti-state violence and widespread public disaffection and distrust vis-à-vis government and institutions. Italy's win certainly had a mitigating effect on the public.
Before each World Cup tournament, referees receive clear instructions as to which side they are to favor in case of doubt. Nations whose victory would not make a significant contribution to the advance of the sport are never to be favored. Whatever the athletic merits of their teams, do you really believe North Korea (whose government is routinely vilified by the US and its client states), has a fair chance of getting anywhere? Do you think Honduras will get far? Or Algeria? What about Iran when it took part in the final tournament a couple of years ago? Even the US, for all its apparent military, political and economic clout, cannot expect to win the tournament. That is because in the US, despite massive efforts, football has not evolved into a truly popular game.
Of course, this is not to say that the World Cup tournament has nothing to do with football. Indeed, football is important, but powerful economic and political interests, often unbeknownst to the public, may affect the outcome of every game.
In fact, if you really like football, you ought to switch off your TV-set right now. You are being fooled, you are the unwitting victim of a giant scam, the athletic equivalent of a Ponzi scheme. If you like football, go play yourself or just go out to the nearest park and watch the local kids exhibiting their skills. But by all means, stop wasting your time watching a fixed tournament.
This year Spain, apart from having a good side, faces tremendous socioeconomic problems. A Spanish victory would be in the interest not only of the Spanish government, but also of the other EU governments and the US administration. A victory for their team would divert the attention of the Spanish public and make them perhaps more mellow in their criticism of government policies. The later the Spanish ulcer bursts, the better it is for the other states in economic straits. That is why it can be prophesied with reasonable accuracy that Spain will win the World Cup.
Besides, I am not the only one to say so. Johan Cruyff is on the record for stating he thinks Spain will be this year's World Champion.