Taylor: England deserves to host World Cup

Despite the continuing success story that is Cardinal football, the world’s biggest sports story this week has got to be the unveiling of the candidates to host two upcoming FIFA World Cups: England, Belgium/Netherlands, Russia or Spain/Portugal in 2018 and Australia, Japan, Qatar, South Korea or the U.S. in 2022.

I could easily write a long column arguing why England and Australia should get the right to host these tournaments, or explain why I dread that Spain/Portugal and Qatar may instead win sufficient votes, but that would achieve nothing more than echoing the increasingly biased and bitter process the whole bidding procedure has become.

None of the potential victors on Dec. 2 will be able to come out of this with their heads held high knowing they have run a clean and fair race; at best, they will only be able to claim that they did nothing worse than their competitors. Lingering doubts about an opaque process that has seemingly encouraged corruption and collusion will be hard to banish.

So instead I want to ask the question: What do we really want from a World Cup?

Last summer’s tournament was painted as a major milestone for the African continent, a great opportunity that would help unite all the people of South Africa and bring prosperity to everyone: black or white, rich or poor. Yet two of my lasting memories of the World Cup are of seeing reports on street vendors being excluded from the areas near the stadiums in order to protect the rights of major sponsors, and of the fact that the official tournament ball, the Jabulani, was so expensive that even middle-class kids in the Western World would struggle to get their hands on one.

Roll the clock back two years to the Beijing Olympics and the story is even worse. One of the justifications for giving China the 2008 Games was that it would act as a major incentive to improve its human-rights record, and Chinese authorities even pledged that this would be the case. In reality, the tournament became the complete opposite and abuses were committed in the very name of the Olympics: forcibly ejecting people from their homes to make way for sporting facilities; detaining large numbers of dissidents in the lead up to the games; and generally doing anything to create an idealized image of the country in the restrictive tourist bubble around the event.

FIFA continues with its inspiring rhetoric and grand visions of changing the world when talking about the World Cup, and the bidding nations never fail to echo this in their sycophantic efforts to please, but should we really believe that a simple sporting event has such power? The 1936 Berlin Olympics didn’t exactly do much for world peace.

One of the major criticisms leveled at the 2018 English bid has been the actions of the British press. In recent months, The Sunday Times newspaper published an investigation of corruption that led to the suspension of several high-ranking FIFA members—including two from the Executive Committee—and just days before the actual vote, a BBC Panorama documentary on corruption within the governing body was due to air.

In response, commentators from other countries have remarked that this would never be allowed in their homelands, and some political pressure has even been put on these media outlets from within the UK.

How can we really place our faith in the World Cup when freedom—in this case freedom of the press—is seen as such a threat to it?

Perhaps instead of trying to actively use the World Cup to make the world a better place we should be using it simply to celebrate positive changes that have already taken place.

On this basis the tournament in South Africa comes out in a completely different light. The country may have failed to live up to the promises of its transition to democracy and in many ways is still just as divided as ever, yet few would argue that life is not better than under the cruel yoke of apartheid. The relatively peaceful transition, without a civil war, in the early nineties is certainly something worthy of winning this major international prize.

Though unable to claim the same sort of political transformation, England too has something to celebrate.

In the late eighties soccer hooliganism seemed to be destroying the sport in its ancestral homeland. English clubs received a lengthy European ban after the Heysel stadium disaster in 1985 and almost a hundred fans died at Hillsborough in 1989. But then everything changed, tough rules were brought in that revolutionized the game in the UK, and suddenly even families with young children began to return to the once-violent stadiums. There may still be isolated incidents, but the transformation has been so complete that reports and images of fans of foreign teams engaged in violent or racist demonstrations now seems pretty shocking stuff for the once bad-boy nation of the world game.

Instead of elusive dreams for the future, this is what the English bid should have concentrated on: its hard-won campaign against violence and intolerance, and how it has already changed the world.

Tom Taylor was totally one of those soccer hooligans from the eighties. Reminisce about Thundercats and Black Sabbath at tom.taylor@stanford.edu.