What is it in me that wants the FIFA World Cup to be an unmitigated disaster? Shall I tell you? Everything in me. Misanthropy. Mischief. Morality.
Do I begrudge the Russians their showpiece tournament, procured in a most opaque manner from an organisation notorious for its corruption? You can bet your last rouble I do.
Do I resent Vlad The I’m Paler exploiting the propaganda coup of putting Russia front and centre of global sport as a means of justifying his regime to his immiserated population and excusing his galloping kleptocracy? Da.
Will the whole shebang be more entertaining if it is characterised by logistical chaos, unsavoury scenes, allegations of match-fixing, unconscionable cheating, a drug scandal, widespread hooliganism and sundry diplomatic controversy? Holy Pirozhki! All of the above.
Two memorable quotes here to kick off the World Cup and discredit: first, in reply to a journalist’s fatuous question, “Is football a matter of life and death?” Bill Shankly’s even more fatuous reply “No, it’s more important than that”; second, George Orwell’s famous assertion, “Sport is war without the shooting.”
I rather fancy over the next month, we may well witness “Sport is war with added shooting”.
We may also be given the opportunity to test the accuracy of the former statement because the chances of this competition taking place in Russia without somebody dying, especially when England’s initial fixture takes place in Stalingrad of all places, are remote.
The British gave the world The Beautiful Game and then watched as the world emphatically beat us at it.
This we accepted over the last century with a combination of good grace and stoicism. We invented hooliganism too — it's one of our most successful export stories — but now we must endure the ignominy of being overtaken even in this, the most basic of sporting disciplines? By the Russkies? O tempora! O mores! The shame! The infamy!
For several decades British yobbos bestrode the plazas and grandes places of Europe like destructive colossi, successive hordes of pot-bellied, Union Jack short-sporting invaders smashing up those poncey continentals and their café societies amid clouds of tear-gas and jets of water cannon.
Our team is crap but we used to be justifiably proud of Our Boys. They stood bare-chested, squinting, sweating, guts rippling, lager in one hand, mobile phone in the other, arms outstretched in defiance towards the pathetically effete riot police of all nations, chanting "In-Ger-Land" and "No Surrender To The IRA" while Johnny Foreigner looked on, cowed and bemused.
Frankly, I’m embarrassed by the contingent of what appears to resemble authentic football supporters flying to Russia to follow Our Boys.
Some of our fans looked like they’re actually going for the football and a pleasant minibreak rather than a riot and some gutter-knuckle. Some of them, disgracefully, don't even have tattoos. Skin where there should be ink. Biceps galore, bereft of the barbed motif wire motif, flabby shoulders devoid of dragon and many pectorals unadorned by the flag of St George. It's no surprise Russian Ultras put us to flight. Where is the spirit of Agincourt?
This will be the Charge of The Light Brigade — except in reverse. Someone needs to take this mob in hand. We've gone soft. Russian Ultras have been holding casting auditions for their hard-core fighters because only the toughest get the chance to scrap. Knowing that Cossacks, fond of a little BDSM action with their nagaikas and also partial to wearing furry shapkas while horse-riding bareback, have been detailed with paramilitary security furnishes no reassurance whatsoever.
Not long after the Italia 90 World Cup, I went to a domestic football match in that grim northern metropolis I once called home and afterwards there were scenes of balletic violence in the Stygian darkness under the main stand where mounted police doled out the wood shampoo to the brawling lumpenproletariat and all the while, Nessun Dorma, the anthem of that summer, boomed around the stadium’s public address system, generating a powerful display of high operatic drama.
Often, accompanying this footage, one will hear commentary along the lines of, "this violence has absolutely nothing to do with football" which seems to be invalidated by the last 30 years of watching major tournaments and seeing the same images of carnage repeated over and over; "These are the scenes we don't like to see".
Au contraire. It's exactly what we want to see, and a welcome diversion from Brexit and Love Island. It's raw and exciting. There's nothing more diverting on the 10 o'clock news than watching bien-pensant BBC journalists shaking their heads in disgust at the antics of footy fans.
The state of the nation
Congenital malefactors, Russia, took on the flagellating theocrats from Saudi in the first match yesterday after all the usual unnecessary and exaggerated theatricals of the opening ceremony. When another dictator and arch-purveyor of panem et circenses, Marshal Mobutu, offered to put up the $10m which another overweight, ridiculously coiffured self-promoter, Don King, demanded to host the Rumble in The Jungle in 1974, he was so arrogant he didn't even deign to show up.
Vlad will, however, Putin an appearance, even though he doesn't really care about football, preferring judo, ice hockey, men wrestling in MMA, shirtless equitation and so on but he will take a bow to acknowledge the crowd’s acclaim for delivering the global centrepiece of the beautiful game and placing Russia front and centre on the world stage.
"Russians: you may not have an earthenware vessel in which to micturate but I bring unto you the world cup. Xorosho?" Sadly, for most of his immiserated population, that works as a quid pro quo so “Da”.
The bordellos of Moscow will be doing a roaring trade and high summer’s hot night air shall be thick with the sound of a thousand creaking bedsteads and laboured breathing but I doubt Russia derives many economic benefits from WC2018. The entire palaver cost them $11bn but returns on investment are difficult in Russia, because inflated cost accounting on government projects is the main source of private wealth and (public penury) in Russia.
Typical Goldman Sachs. “After hours of number-crunching, 200,000 probability trees (me neither) and one million simulations” their quadrennial WC report tells you something you already knew, like Brazil are favourites for the World Cup, and then expect you to pay them for it.
Economics may be important but after reading a line entry like, "Judging by explanatory power, our revamped models were five times more accurate than our earlier Poisson-based regression" they sure do suck all the pleasure out of life.
The "state of the nation" section does not feature the word ‘democracy’, nor is there any reference to state-sanctioned assassinations, the invasion of neighbouring countries, vaulting corruption and destabilising cyber-warfare which might otherwise deter an investor.
Take that, Russia
Heaven knows, as someone who thinks Kylie is edgy, I'm not up on popular music but the Russians are presenting the reappearance of Robbie Williams at the opening ceremony as a propaganda coup?
This surprises me because that strikes me as an admission of defeat and acknowledgement that you couldn't even persuade Gary Barlow (who would open your curtains if asked) to endorse the Russian regime.
If Robbie Williams has been in rehab for the last decade maybe he's not aware of the invasion of Ukraine, the illegal annexation of Crimea and so forth. This is as bad as Donald Tramp who could only persuade redneck bellower Toby Keith to perform at his inauguration. No one else wanted to be associated with such a toxic brand and Michael Jackson was not available.
One can't — and one shouldn't — ever separate sport from politics because sport is intensely political.
If one despises Russia's Mafia-state regime like I do, afford them not the platform for sporting glorification and imperial vindication. The pariah status was almost complete. Economic. Geopolitical. Sporting salvation? Nyet.