While Europe celebrates, the rest of the world will miss Blatter

Sepp Blatter is a consummate politician who took advantage of a shifting world order and Fifa’s history.

The FIFA headquarters in Switzerland, from where Sepp Blatter resigned. Photo: Philipp Schmidli/Getty Images
The FIFA headquarters in Switzerland, from where Sepp Blatter resigned. Photo: Philipp Schmidli/Getty Images

After the years of acrimonious press conferences, there was something almost poignant about the fact that when the end came for the Fifa president, Sepp Blatter, he announced his resignation on 2 June to an audience of only 15 people. The contrast to his triumphalism the previous Friday when he was elected president for a fifth term, beating Prince Ali Bin al-Hussein of Jordan, the challenger backed by Uefa, the European confederation, by 133 votes to 73, was extraordinary.

But then the events of the past ten days have been extraordinary, too – from the 14 arrests and FBI indictments of senior Fifa officials two days before the vote, to the body’s ham-fisted attempts to blame a dubious $10m payment made by the South African Football Association (Safa) to the president of the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) on a dead man, just as Safa released a letter making it clear that Jérôme Valcke, Blatter’s secretary general, was responsible. Every day brought new allegations, new resignations and new arrests. It felt like the collapse of communism in eastern Europe, everything slowly and inevitably aligning until one domino toppled after another.

And then, on Tuesday, a snap press conference, which most assumed would announce sanctions against Valcke, only for Blatter, after a 45-minute delay, to resign (not immediately, of course; this is still Fifa, but he will be gone before an extraordinary general meeting, to be held some time between December and March).

The news brought widespread jubilation in western Europe and the United States, but it would be wrong to think that toppling the figurehead will bring an the end to the affair. Fifa is rotten to the core. If there is to be reform, there must be recognition of why Blatter was re-elected on 29 May.

Blatter is a consummate politician who took advantage of a shifting world order and Fifa’s history. In 1974, the Brazilian João Havelange, harnessing mounting frustration in Africa and Asia at a lack of representation in football’s governing body, defeated the traditionalist Englishman Stanley Rous. Blatter became Havelange’s technical director in 1975 and then his general secretary, succeeding him in 1998.

Under their leadership, the marketing of football became far more sophisticated and profitable – Fifa’s reserves now exceed $1.5bn. They also made a point of inclusivity: in 1974, just three of 16 World Cup slots were taken by nations from the football confederations of Africa (Caf), Asia (AFC) and CONCACAF; by 2014, 13 of 32 were. Blatter ensured that the World Cup was hosted in Africa for the first time, in 2010; and developmental aid increased by 70 per cent over his 17 years in office. Many countries have a national stadium or federation because of Fifa’s handouts. There may be corruption, much of the money may be wasted, and the World Cup may have burdened South Africa with white-elephant stadiums while Fifa took the profits, but Blatter did more to help the global spread of football than any previous president.

The rest of the world is suspicious of Europe, with some reason. Although Europe’s contribution to global TV rights (the greatest source of Fifa revenues) has fallen below 50 per cent for the first time, it may be that Uefa would prefer more of that money to stay at home. Uefa is to an extent beholden to the big clubs, many of which would prefer it if their non-European players weren’t travelling home for international fixtures every few weeks.

Only one of the FBI indictments relates directly to World Cup bidding, and that to the mysterious $10m payment made from South Africa to the then CONCACAF president, Jack Warner – who was also arrested on 27 May. A separate Swiss investigation is probing the successful Russia and Qatar bids for 2018 and 2022. Both future hosts, understandably, have condemned the arrests, Russia complaining of the US acting “extrajudicially” and Qatar speaking of “racism”. Blatter has accused the FBI and the British media of pursuing a vendetta against him, born of their anger at losing out in the bidding (and while we’re caught in this tangled web, it is worth reiterating that the supposed reformer Michel Platini, the Uefa president, voted for Qatar; Blatter didn’t).

Prince Ali failed to offer a credible alternative vision for Caf, the AFC and CONCACAF. If Fifa is to be reformed, the western nations that have targeted Blatter have to understand why he remained so popular, in some quarters, to the end. For a revamped body to work, it must be transparent and genuinely global. 

Letter from Equatorial Guinea: forget human rights – here comes the football

When Morocco withdrew from hosting the African Cup of Nations, citing Ebola fears, Equatorial Guinea stepped in. But at what cost?

A worker installs a flag advertising the cup. Photo: A worker installs a flag for the cup. Photo: Stephane de Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images
A worker installs a flag advertising the cup. Photo: A worker installs a flag for the cup. Photo: Stephane de Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images
In the middle of the jungle stands Mongomo. The city, at the western edge of Equatorial Guinea, has a population of 7,000 and boasts the second-largest basilica in Africa, along with a compact football stadium, both with a capacity of almost 10,000. The Americans have just finished building a library and a museum and there’s a palace, where the country’s president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, was born in 1942. It was here that Obiang’s uncle and predecessor, Francisco Macías Nguema, staged his last stand before being toppled by his nephew in 1979.

Macías was the country’s first president after it gained independence from Spain in 1968. He was rumoured to have been a cannibal; he banned private education and western medicine and hanged 150 dissidents in the national stadium in Malabo while an orchestra played Mary Hopkins’s “Those Were the Days”. Then he made the fatal mistake of not paying the military. As the armed forces mutinied, he holed up in a bunker in Mongomo. He was eventually captured and the bunker was set on fire – a strategy that had the unfortunate side effect of burning the country’s foreign cash reserves – and he was executed.

For a decade and a half, Equatorial Guinea struggled on. In 1992, oil was found. The country now has a respectable GDP per capita of $25,900 – though the vast majority lies in the hands of the Nguema family. There is talk that the falling oil price is squeezing resources but when Morocco withdrew from hosting the African Cup of Nations in October 2014, terrified what fears about ebola could do to its tourist industry, it was to Equatorial Guinea that the Confederation of African Football turned.

Who else could host a tournament at short notice but an oil-rich state with a dreadful human rights record? Equatorial Guinea co-hosted the tournament with Gabon in 2012 and did it well. Its stadiums in Bata and Malabo, the capital, needed little work. But the construction of two further stadiums, in the north-eastern city of Ebebiyín and in Mongomo, was speeded up.

Getting an idea of the true cost is all but impossible. When South Africa, the only non-oil state in Africa capable of hosting tournaments, stepped in to host the 2013 Cup of Nations after it became clear that Libya couldn’t, it cost around $44m. I bumped into the sports minister, Francisco Pascual Eyegue Obama Asue, in a restaurant in Ebebiyín. He could only give a vague figure of £10.5m for each of the two new stadiums, while acknowledging that the rush to complete the projects had pushed the price up.

Obama Asue stressed that Equatorial Guinea hadn’t volunteered as hosts. “The Confederation of African Football asked us and we said yes,” he told me. “We were the last resort. If no one could, it would have gone to Qatar. It would not have been good for this tournament, a celebration of African football, to be cancelled or moved outside Africa. For that reason the president agreed. Africa has to consume what is African.”

This is a recurring motif. Equatorial Guinea seems to have made deliberate efforts to raise its profile over the past four or five years, hosting the African Union summit in 2011 as well as the Cup of Nations. “When we are asked, we are ready to help,” Obama Asue said. “There is a sense of satisfaction, of course, that the rest of Africa trusts us to do it.”

Equatorial Guinea President Teodoro Obiang Nguema (L) and CAF President Issa Hayatou attend the 2015 African Cup of Nations draw ceremony​. Photo: Stephane de Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images

President Obiang is now 72. There is a feeling that he is preparing the country for a future without oil – precise information is hard to come by but it is rumoured that production has peaked – and without him. The effect of US, Chinese and government investment, even over the three years since I was last here, is startling. Most remarkable is the six-lane motorway that cuts through the jungle, connecting Bata with Mongomo and reducing a three-hour journey to an hour and a half.

Technically it’s not open yet. Apparently, Obiang is waiting for the Pope to come and cut the ribbon. British consultants overseeing the construction of a technical college in Mongomo speak of how sensibly Obiang’s grand project has been planned, getting the infrastructure right before putting up too many eye-catching buildings. Yet the human rights issues remain. Before the opening game in Bata, an opposition leader, Celestino Nvo Okenve, was arrested for handing out flyers and T-shirts urging people not to attend the tournament.

So far, understandable teething issues aside, the Cup of Nations has been a huge success, played out before packed stadiums. The flaws of Obiang’s government are manifold but in this it has done an incredible job.

After the World Cup final, the streets of Copacabana ran with urine and the bars ran out of beer

Even amid the camper vans and the seemingly anarchic raucousness of the beach, Sepp Blatter reigns supreme.

The German team celebrate their World Cup victory. Photo: Getty
The German team celebrate their World Cup victory. Photo: Getty

The World Cup ended, as it began, with angry white Brazilians calling for Dilma Rousseff, the president, to “stick it up her arse”. Or at least it did for about 30 seconds before Fifa’s propaganda machine got into action and banal synth-pop was blasted into the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro, the final surrender of this great stadium of the people to the corporatism in which the Brazil of Dilma and her Workers’ Party has been complicit.

The symbolism takes some working through. When the Maracana was built as the emblem of Getulio Vargas’s Estado Novo, it was conceived as the grandest football stadium in the world. It’s said over 200,000 packed in for the final game of the 1950 World Cup, people of all walks of life, rich and poor, professors and prostitutes, pickpockets and captains of industry.

It was a stage for Brazil’s self-projection. Now, tickets are so expensive, and distribution so controlled, that they are out of reach of all but a thin sliver of society. The populist, and in theory socialist, government of Lula and then Dilma, co-operated in the investment of huge amounts of money to put on an event that its natural supporter-base couldn’t attend, with the result that those who could attend, natural political opponents of Dilma anyway, were given a platform on which to abuse her.

Given the World Cup had become a focal point for dissent, the most obvious example of the corruption and cronyism that blights Brazil were effectively jeering Dilma during the final for having given them the opportunity to do so.

There had been talk earlier in the tournament that Dilma and Sepp Blatter, the president of Fifa, wouldn’t even attend the final for fear of the abuse they would receive, but both were there at the handing over the trophy - which, weirdly, these days seems to resemble Blatter; stick it in a suit and paint his head gold and it would be like Dr Evil and Mini-Me - even if the official cameraman seemed to be doing his best to keep the pair out of shot as Germany cavorted on the temporary stage.

Even more confusingly, Dilma’s popularity in the polls had risen from 34 per cent before the tournament to 39 per cent when Brazil won through their quarter-final.

Yet this was never an attractive or likeable Brazil side: led by the boorish Luiz Felipe Scolari, they played over-physical, cynical football and rode a tide of emotion that tipped into hysteria when Neymar suffered the back injury that put him out of the tournament. There was something almost comedic about Germany’s stony-faced professionalism amid the frenzy as Brazil’s stand-in captain David Luiz held Neymar’s shirt aloft before Brazil’s 7-1 capitulation to Germany in the semi-final. All those who insist that what England need is more passion should consider what happened next: no side has ever sung an a national anthem more stridently than Brazil did before that semi-final, and no side has then collapsed quite so spectacularly or brainlessly. Dilma will probably still win October’s election, but that humiliation will eat into her majority.

Along the beach at Copacabana the morning after the final, the vast caravan of Argentinian fans lay quiet. Some wandered over the sand, some boiled water on gas stoves, some sat on the steps of their vans or the bonnets of their cars. After defeat to Germany in the final the previous night, they were quiet, emotionally drained, their version of “Bad Moon Rising”, which had taunted Brazilians for weeks, notable by its absence.

What was up with Messi, wondered those who could be bothered to speak. Was he simply exhausted? Why had he started this season throwing up on the pitch? Given that he’ll be 31 by the time of the next World Cup, is that it for him and his hopes of following Diego Maradona in leading Argentina to the world title?

There was a sense that this was the true World Cup, these fans who had spent their savings to drive from Buenos Aires, just to be part of the event, knowing they had no chance of finding a ticket, or been able to afford it even if they had. Quite how many Argentinians decamped to Rio is impossible to say, with official estimates ranging from 100,000 to 200,000. What’s clear is that it was lots: they were nose-to-tail along the sea-front and they filled the sambapark with their camper vans. Occasionally, amid the swathes of blue-and-white, there’d be a flash of another colour. There were Chileans and Colombians, the odd Brazilian from outside Rio. One family, their car draped in dark green and red, had driven all the way from Mexico City, making the World Cup final the end of a journey across the continent that had taken three months.

For those of us who argue for football’s importance based on its universality, this should have been a scene of vindication. But Sunday night, after the final, was far from a carnival of nations. The streets of Copacabana ran with urine, bars ran out of beer and there was a sweaty fractiousness in the air. Actual violence was limited, but there were occasional clashes between Argentinians and Brazilians, angry enough to make you grateful that meant the two great South American rivals hadn’t met in the final.

And there is one final irony. The majority of those lining the coast road watched the final on one of the two screens on the beach. One of them had been erected by the local municipality, the other was part of the Fan Fest, a soulless monument to commerce, with face painting for £8 and bottles of Fifa wine for £126, that has been earning untaxed revenue for Fifa since 2006. Even amid the camper vans and the seemingly anarchic raucousness of the beach, Blatterism reigns.

It has been the World Cup of the individual, but Germany showed us the power of the team game

Germany, superbly well drilled, provided the perfect example of the superiority of the team game with their 7-1 evisceration of Brazil’s emotionally overcharged individuals in the semi-final.

The German team celebrate their fourth goal against Brazil in the 2014 World Cup semi-final. Photo: Getty
The German team celebrate their fourth goal against Brazil in the 2014 World Cup semi-final. Photo: Getty

This has been the World Cup of the individual. More than in any World Cup since the 1980s, teams in Brazil have been carried by one creative talent. Argentina have relied on Lionel Messi, Colombia have relied on James Rodríguez, Brazil relied, until his injury, on Neymar and even the Netherlands have been reliant on the pace of Arjen Robben. More than anything else, that explains why this has felt like such a strange, old-fashioned World Cup.

The 1970 competition in Mexico was heralded as the beginning of a bold new age. It was the first World Cup broadcast live by satellite and in those indistinct images from Mexico there was something revolutionary. Here were Brazil, golden shirts shimmering in the sunshine, playing a brand of football barely imaginable to British eyes. It was slick, skilful and joyous and was assumed to be the future. It turned out it was the past.

The football that had been seen in England in 1966 was the football of the future. In the late 1950s and 1960s, the sport became increasingly systematised: sides would play less as collections of individuals than as a unit. This mechanisation was no less beautiful than the previous style but it was a different kind of beauty – the collective play of the Dutch or the Dynamo Kyiv of Valeriy Lobanovskyi, rather than the dribbling and flair of a Garrincha or a Pelé. As the Swedish academic Tomas Peterson put it, football took in a second order of complexity. It began to be played with a knowledge of its workings: modern football was to old football as Picasso was to Gainsborough.

The most significant change was pressing, the systematised hunting of the man in possession in packs. It was something made possible by better nutrition (and drugs) in the late 1960s and 1970s and by improved understanding of structures on the pitch – the realisation that a properly organised side could use the offside trap to squeeze the play in such a way that opponents could be left, in effect, unmarked, and so more men could be committed to ball-winning.

At club level, that has made the game more tactically sophisticated but since the coming of systematisation, international football has lagged behind. A club coach can work with his players every day for ten months of the year, building the mutual understanding necessary for the integration this approach demands. At national level, a coach has his players for perhaps three or four days, five or six times a year, plus a couple of weeks before major tournaments. Inevitably, most choose a lowest-common-denominator approach, packing men behind the ball and getting the defence right – since a coach will always be blamed far more for defensive than for attacking failings.

The result is that recent World Cups have yielded roughly half a goal per game fewer than the Champions League. That’s why the group stages of this World Cup, which yielded an average of 2.83 goals per game, were such a surprise. With occasional exceptions – Iran, Russia – teams attacked relentlessly. It was as if sides were caught up in a sense of collective freedom with the defenestration of Spain and their controlled passing approach in their 5-1 defeat to the Dutch.

Some were rapt in the romantic fervour of those early games and suggested that this was the spirit of Brazil at work – that everybody had caught the jogo bonito attitude. More likely, not least because few sides have played less beautifully than Brazil in this tournament with their tactical fouling and unnerving desperation for victory at any cost, this was a familiar pattern: trends in the club game usually take five years or so to filter through to the national game.

Over the past five years, it has become increasingly common for teams to try to win the ball back high up the pitch, to initiate transitions as quickly as possible, taking pressing to a new level. Quick transitions mean players breaking at pace against defences that aren’t set, and that leads to more chances and more goals. It’s no coincidence that the Premier League has averaged over 2.7 goals per game in each of the past four seasons, the first time those levels have been reached since the 1980s.

When two high-pressing teams meet, the result can be stalemate, the game squeezed into a narrow sliver either side of halfway. In this World Cup, though, the result has often been glorious anarchy and, with defences less rigid than usual, skilful individuals have been able to exert a powerful influence. The great creators have become celebrities, supported by hysterical fans who act in a way more associated with Justin Bieber devotees. Perhaps that is the result of the globalisation of the game and the emergence of a new wave of fans with few geographical or cultural reasons to support a particular club, and who prefer to attach themselves to individuals. Or perhaps it is to do with the way the game is presented and the growing demand for soap opera with easily identifiable heroes and villains. Either way, from a tactical point of view, it feels regressive. Germany, superbly well drilled, provided the perfect example of the superiority of the team game with their 7-1 evisceration of Brazil’s emotionally overcharged individuals in the semi-final.

In the last 16 and quarter-final, goals per game were down to 1.33 in normal time, which, beyond regression to the mean, is probably indicative of two things. First, that coaches have had longer to organise their defences but also that the better national teams are closer to assimilating the most intriguing recent development in the club game: the counter-counter, stymying the transitions that have become a key feature of so many sides’ attacking, even if, in the less sophisticated world of the international game, that translates to little more than sitting deeper to keep men behind the ball. Even in the individuals’ World Cup, a system has come to assert itself.

This is Fifa-land: colourful, attractive spectators in team shirts playing by the rules

There is a set way to behave. Team shirts and face paint have become de rigueur, while Mexican waves now interrupt the view of anybody trying to watch the football with irritating regularity. 

Orange squash: Ron Vlaar and Andrés Guardado during the Netherlands v Mexico match, 29 June. Photo: Getty
Orange squash: Ron Vlaar and Andrés Guardado during the Netherlands v Mexico match, 29 June. Photo: Getty

On Sunday, waiting for a flight to São Paulo, I watched the Netherlands’ last-16 match against Mexico at Santos Dumont Airport in Rio de Janeiro. It felt like the archetypal moment of a modern World Cup. There were people in the shirts of Uruguay, France, Belgium, Russia, Colombia and Argentina, as well as Mexicans (who presumably hadn’t counted on making it through the group) and Brazilians (many of whom seem, for the duration of the tournament, to wear the national uniform of Nike yellow at all times). There was at least one television commentary team, children, old people, men, women; the world uniting on a bland, brightly lit food court to stare at a big screen, sponsored by Budweiser. They drank Coke and ate undercooked wedges of pizza – “American pizza, Italian flavour”, the outlet boasted, whatever that means.

The scene was eerily Ballardian, although this was a lounge stripped of the sense of possibility with which J G Ballard would have imbued it. Fifa, you suspect, would like the World Cup to become something similar: safe, antiseptic, anaesthetised, with difference expressed by nothing more than colour of shirt, as everybody shells out for the global brands with which it has signed sponsorship deals.

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With the street protests here muted, the only anti-Fifa note has been struck by the nation of Uruguay and its all but uncon­ditional support of Luis Suárez after he was given a four-month ban for biting Giorgio Chiellini. In the fog of denial, Suárez ludicrously claimed he had lost his balance and fallen into the Italy defender, something that caused him “a strong pain in the teeth”.

There is a legitimate question to be asked about why football punishes biting so much more severely than flailing elbows or bad tackles, which can cause injuries far more severe than a few marks on the shoulder – and you wonder why Neymar, Kyle Beckerman and Mamadou Sakho have escaped investigation for apparent elbows in the World Cup – but having already been banned for a total of 17 games for two biting offences, Suárez can hardly claim he didn’t know how gravely the offence is considered. Equally, there seems to be something a little draconian about the four-month ban, which is not just from playing but from all “football-related activity”. That means he had to leave Uruguay’s team hotel, will not be able to train with Liverpool, his club (for now), and can’t even appear in their team photograph.

Uruguay’s manager, Óscar Tabárez, usually the most thoughtful of men, hinted at those concerns but ended up blaming the “English-speaking” media for asking a series of questions about the bite, and thus forcing Fifa to act. The chutzpah was staggering – Fifa, after all, has spent much of the past decade decrying the English-speaking media for making allegations of corruption within the organisation on an almost weekly basis. The idea that Fifa could be influenced by them is laughable – and ignores the blanket coverage given to the Suárez bite in Brazil and elsewhere.

At least Tabárez had the excuse that he was fostering a siege mentality to try to stiffen the Uruguayans’ resolve ahead of their game against Colombia, which was lost. José Mujica, the president of Uruguay, was presumably speaking from the heart when he denounced the punishment as “a fascist ban” and called Fifa “a bunch of old sons of bitches”. All of this righteous anger was somewhat undermined when, on 30 June, Suárez apologised, “having had the opportunity to regain [his] calm”. It was almost as though somebody had read the explanation for the sanction issued by Fifa, had seen the condemnation of Suárez’s lack of contrition and had recognised an apology was a necessary first step in appealing to reduce the ban. But surely Suárez, who didn’t consult Liverpool before making his statement, couldn’t have been acting under instruction from Barcelona, who are desperate to sign him, despite it all? Because if that were the case, it might make the great Uruguayan martyr seem just a little venal.

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Although there has been the occasional fracas in the stadiums – the incident in which one England fan bit the ear of another, for instance, or when Chilean fans without tickets invaded the media centre at the Maracanã and were chased by security, who were themselves chased by men with cameras, just a lingerie-clad model from being a Benny Hill sketch – this has been another tournament in which fans have become almost part of a Fifa-sanctioned backdrop. There is a set way to behave. Team shirts (great for the manufacturers) and face paint have become de rigueur, while Mexican waves, once a sign of boredom, now interrupt the view of anybody trying to watch the football with irritating regularity. It’s as if fans have become complicit in their reduction to bovinity.

Most inexplicable of all, though, is the reaction of fans who see themselves on the big screen. Even at the height of the tension in the shoot-out between Brazil and Chile, a game in which it seemed a nation was holding its breath, fans had the same Pavlovian response. As Neymar stepped up to take his penalty with the scores level, the camera focused on a pair of young women in Brazil shirts and face paint. They looked terrified, hands to cheeks. Then they caught sight of themselves on the big screen and responded as they were supposed to, smiling and waving, jumping up and down. How tense could they have been a second earlier? Which was the artificial emotion? This is Fifa-land: colourful, attractive people, behaving exactly as they’re supposed to.

Boring Roy dared to become a World Cup cavalier – and he suffered the consequences

With England sometimes, you just can’t win. 

Roy Hodgson at the World Cup in Brazil. Photo: Getty
As England manager, you just can't win. Photo: Getty

With England, there is always a meta-narrative. The team plays in the knowledge that it has not won a trophy since the 1966 World Cup final in England and in the awareness of the post-mortem that will inevitably follow a defeat. Nothing it does is judged on its own merits but everything as part of a wider history: the team of the present pays for the failures of the teams of the past.

If a club side lost two games narrowly against very good sides – Italy reached the final of the last European Championship; Uruguay are the South American champions – it would move on without too much fuss. England will not play another World Cup game for four years (assuming they qualify for Russia in 2018).

That’s why far too much is read into World Cup matches, nonsensically so, for surely nobody believes that Costa Rica offer a model for England to follow? Nor does this team have much to do with the one that so underperformed in South Africa four years ago, let alone the sides that failed even to qualify for the World Cup in 1974 and 1978: yet it becomes another chapter in the saga of failure.

Certain statistics make this campaign look terrible. From kick-off to elimination, England’s World Cup lasted five days, 19 hours and 49 minutes. Nobody would pretend this was a triumph, or that England played well or were somehow cheated, whether by refereeing or outrageous luck. At the same time, it wasn’t as bad as all that. Because of a difficult draw, an early exit was a possibility and in the defeats to Italy and Uruguay England created many chances.

Research by the former Norway (and Wimbledon) manager Egil Olsen has shown that in about three-quarters of games the side creating more chances wins; to that extent, as José Mourinho noted, England “didn’t have the football gods on their side”.

They lost those vital first two games because of a combination of a lack of composure in front of goal and a couple of moments of inconceivably sloppy defending. The header Steven Gerrard missed to allow Luis Suárez in to score the winner for Uruguay was as basic as they come – and yet it was remarkably similar to Matthew Upson’s gaffe in the World Cup against Germany in South Africa four years ago. These were freakish, inexplicable things, the sorts of errors Upson and Gerrard wouldn’t make half a dozen times in a career. As Roy Hodgson said, “Things happen in football.”

In the banality of the phrase lies a profound truth. Not everything is controllable; there’s not always somebody to blame. But that doesn’t suit the national mood, particularly not when there are 48 years of failure to explain. At least this time there seems to be a reluctance to take the traditional way out and find a scapegoat: Hodgson will be kept on until 2016 and the next European Championship in France. Instead, there is a search for wider forces rooted in economics and English culture. The contributory factors are legion: there is never just one cause.

That there is only about a tenth the number of qualified coaches in England there is in Spain, for instance, can’t help, and at least in part explains the apparent technical deficiencies of the English game. The destruction of school sports and the ongoing sale of playing fields have had an impact. The Premier League – and the way club football is structured towards servicing its greed – is certainly deleterious. That the bigger clubs sign so many talented young English players and then, rather than taking the time and making the effort to develop and integrate them, prefer to buy off-the-shelf exotica, must hamper their progress. Daniel Sturridge was 23 when he left Chelsea for Liverpool in January 2013 but had made just 47 Premier League starts.

But much still comes down to luck. The Dutch have been the darlings of this tournament so far, winning all three group games and beating the defending champions, Spain, 5-1. Yet two years ago they lost all three group games at the Euros. They settled on their formation only a few weeks before the tournament when the key midfielder Kevin Strootman was ruled out with an injury. Whatever else their performances are, they are not a victory for long-term planning. Things happen in football.

If Hodgson erred, it was probably in exposing the back four by not offering them sufficient cover in midfield. Gerrard and Jordan Henderson had fine seasons for Liverpool but tended to play in a 4-3-3 rather than a 4-2-3-1. Although Gerrard has adapted his game as he has got older, he is not a natural anchor and that was exposed – ruthlessly and deliberately so by Uruguay, as their manager, Óscar Tabárez, made clear.

Hodgson had played with an extra midfielder in the 1-0 friendly win over Denmark in March but the stodginess of that performance led to calls for a more attacking approach. Hodgson, perceived as conservative, was perhaps conscious that the only other candidate for the job when he was appointed in 2012 was Harry Redknapp, who is regarded as being far more attacking. It seems conceivable that Hodgson got caught up in the meta-narrative of the post-mortem: he knew it would be crueller if he played up to the stereotype of Boring Roy and so opted for a more cavalier approach.

In that regard, the key moment of England’s World Cup campaign perhaps came in Kyiv, after England had produced a superb defensive display to draw 0-0 against Ukraine, maintaining the top spot in the group and making themselves firm fav­ourites to qualify automatically. Hodgson bounded into the post-match press conference, clearly expecting the tone to be congratulatory; instead, he was faced with a barrage of questions about why England had been so dull. With England sometimes, you just can’t win. 

Dilma Rousseff was booed but the riots haven’t started – and most people are enjoying the football

 A successful World Cup could create a mood of general contentment that might yet carry Rousseff to an election victory later this year.

Smile! Despite being booed, the World Cup has gone well for Dilma Rousseff so far. Photo: Getty
Smile! Despite being booed, the World Cup has gone well for Dilma Rousseff so far. Photo: Getty

It’s been a very strange World Cup so far. After all the talk of chaos and violence, of unfinished stadiums and public anger, of Fifa’s corruption allegations and incompetence, most people here seem to be talking about the football. It turns out that all you need to keep people happy is a string of entertaining games. This might not be surprising – the bread-and-circuses trick is hardly new and perhaps reached its apogee in Colombia in 1948, when the government helped fund an enormously wealthy rebel league to stave off openly declared civil war following the murder of the opposition leader Jorge Gaitán – but it is a little disappointing.

Last month’s audit into the tournament found, for instance, that transportation of prefabricated grandstands in Brasilia was supposed to cost $4,700 but the construction consortium billed the government for $1.5m. It’s estimated that as much as 30 per cent of the $900m total budget for the city’s stadium has disappeared in kickbacks. Surely that is a scandal worth protesting against, whether or not this tournament is, at this early stage, threatening to be the best from a footballing point of view since 1986?

There were demonstrations near Carrão Metro station in São Paulo on the day of the opening game but those taking an active part numbered only a few dozen. Perhaps 20 of them clashed with police, who deployed stun grenades and tear gas in what seemed a disproportionate response.

There were reports of other small-scale protests across the city and a couple of Molotov cocktails thrown near the municipal chamber but the claims that there would be as many as 10,000 people protesting on the streets seemed wildly inflated.

It was a similar story in Rio de Janeiro when it hosted its first game: lots of talk of demonstrations that amounted to nothing more than a few dozen people standing desultorily behind a banner reading “Fuck Fifa”, while at least as many journalists wandered about wondering whether anything was going to happen. There is anger but so far it has been nowhere near as concentrated as it was during the 2013 Confederations Cup in Brazil.

Smooth operators

Stadiums might not have been given the final lick of paint – and there was obvious embarrassment that 1,376 people had to change their tickets for the opening match in São Paulo because their original seats didn’t exist – but apart from gripes about the exorbitant cost and limited availability of drinking water in stadiums (with all food and drink confiscated on the way in), match days seem to have gone relatively smoothly.

The biggest threat to the tournament seems to be less street demonstrations than the threatened strike action. The São Paulo Metro was shut down for five days over a pay dispute but reopened two days before the first game. A 24-hour strike by 20 per cent of staff at Rio airport had little discernible impact.

For the love of the game

The clearest sign of discontent came at the opening game, a 3-1 win for Brazil against Croatia, when fans inside the stadium abused President Dilma Rousseff.

What happened requires a little unpacking. Most of the fans at that game were from the wealthy, white middle and upper middle class. This is a group naturally opposed to Rousseff, who draws her support largely from the working class and the impoverished north and centre of Brazil. So she is criticised both by her core supporters, who find themselves priced out of the World Cup, and by those who can afford to go to games, because they were predisposed to oppose her anyway.

Rousseff’s enthusiastic celebrations as Brazil came from behind to beat Croatia suggested she is aware that the propaganda battle for this tournament is not lost yet. When Brazil went behind, there was booing and chanting against her; when they equalised, there was mass rejoicing and fireworks in the sky over São Paulo.

At full-time, after an extremely dubious penalty to Brazil and a smart finish from Oscar had made it 3-1, there was a mood of general contentment that might yet carry Rousseff to an election victory later this year.

Conspiracy theories

The most troubling aspect of the tournament so far was that penalty, awarded by the Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura for a nothing challenge by the Croatia centre-back Dejan Lovren on the Brazil forward Fred. Taken alone, it might be seen as an understandable error but that call was one of a number that went the way of the host nation – most significantly Nishimura’s decision to show the Brazil forward Neymar only a yellow card for planting a forearm into the windpipe of Luka Modric. The Croatia coach, Niko Kovac, whose demeanour is usually one of wry detachment, was understandably seething afterwards, describing the penalty as “ridiculous” and Nishimura as “completely out of his depth”.

Kovac felt that, at the very least, the pressure of the situation had got to the referee: “If we continue in this way we will have a circus,” he said. “I am not the sort of person to blame referees but we are the first to play Brazil so I have to say it: things have to improve.”

The subtext was clear: given the number of interests for which a Brazilian victory would be desirable, from Rousseff to Nike, and the potential threat to public order if they fail, it’s just about possible to believe in a conspiracy to favour them. Then again, after such a high-profile decision going their way in the opening game and with Kovac making his case so eloquently, there will be tremendous psychological pressure on referees and administrators not to be seen as soft on Brazil. l

Jonathan Wilson is the author of “Inverting the Pyramid: a History of Football Tactics” (Orion, £8.99) and the editor of the Blizzard, a quarterly journal of football writing. He will be writing weekly from Brazil during the World Cup