SSome lessons, it seems, are never learned. Gareth Southgate may have been characteristically reserved in his reaction to Friday’s World Cup draw, but most seemed to agree with Kyle Walker’s statement that “you have to be happy with the teams that we drew”.
The triumphalism wasn’t quite as strident as before the 2010 World Cup, but if other sides are truly inspired by the misunderstood irony of the Three Lions, England’s group stage opponents will rage at some of Saturday morning’s headlines.
Aside from the dangers of chaotic complacency, this is not an easy lot. “Some of the ties might be harder than just the rankings,” Southgate said, but the rankings are hard enough. According to the FIFA rankings, this is the toughest group.
In part, this is a result of uncertainty about the final European team due to the shifts caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This unknown side was classified as a Pot 4 team at the draw, but of the three teams involved, only Scotland would be a Pot 4 team; Wales and Ukraine would have been in Pot 3.
But here we are – yes – talking about the little things of football. That’s what sportswashing does and why it’s so insidious, infecting a cause we love that we end up ignoring the cheesy horror of the spectacle.
England’s first Group B game will be played at the Khalifa Stadium, where British construction worker Zac Cox fell to his death in 2017. It was one of only three work-related deaths on World Cup construction sites recognized by Qatari authorities. although Amnesty International doubts these numbers.
At least 6,500 migrant workers have died in infrastructure projects in Qatar. It turns out they paid more than £1billion for the privilege. When Malcolm Bidali, a Kenyan worker, raised concerns about working conditions, it was him held in solitary confinement for a month before finally being allowed to leave Qatar two months later after paying a fine for spreading “fake news”. Abdullah Ibhais is still in prison after defending migrant workers.
The draw focused on Qatar’s culture of hospitality. Wealthy Europeans seem to enjoy it. But LGBTQ+ advocacy groups are still waiting for basic assurances. So said this week Major General Abdulaziz Abdullah Al Ansari, chairman of Qatar’s National Counter-Terrorism Committee Rainbow flags can be confiscated to “protect” the wearer. This inspires little confidence and appears to be in direct contradiction to Rules 15 and 23 of the FIFA Statutes, which enshrine the responsibility of members and confederations to “prohibit all forms of discrimination”. Regulation 4 clarifies that this includes “gender” and “sexual orientation”.
It was striking how aggressive the Qatari tone has been in recent days, with Supreme Committee General Secretary for Delivery and Legacy Hassan al-Thawadi telling Football Association of Norway president Lise Klaveness: “educate” after she proposed that “the injured migrant workers, the families of the deceased must be cared for”.
Of course, this reconnaissance process could be easier if journalists – like the Norwegian film crew arrested last November – were not intimidated into trying to cover such issues. If this is the approach now that it’s time to prepare a PR strategy, ask yourself what can happen when the chaos of the tournament itself arrives.
A Honduran delegate insisted that this was neither the time nor the place for such discussions. But if not now, then when? It’s not the ones pointing out the atrocities that are spoiling the World Cup. And if that means some awkward gear changes, that’s the nature of this tournament.
And so back to the group. As Southgate pointed out, the third game against the Uefa Path A winner will be difficult for whoever qualifies. It could be Ukraine who, with all the emotions of war and the feeling of fighting for a cause, will be very different from the team that beat England 4-0 at last summer’s European Championships.
Or it could be a UK site. Even at Wembley last June, a derby against Scotland produced England’s worst performance of the tournament.
History also offers no grounds for optimism against the USA, as England have failed to win either of their previous two World Cup clashes. There was Rob Green’s roar and a 1-1 draw at Rustenburg in 2010, the start of what was, for at least four years, a singularly dismal season. And 60 years before that was the 1-0 defeat in Belo Horizonte. The US was then a ragtag bunch of mostly amateur players, few of whom would qualify under modern nationality regulations. Now they have what is probably the most promising squad in their history, with players who are regulars at Chelsea, Juventus, Borussia Dortmund and Barcelona.
England start against Iran, a country they have never played against before. The UK imposed sanctions on Iran in 2007 and although last month’s release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori removes an immediate flashpoint, there will be inevitable political tensions. Iran is probably not the 21st best team in the world, even if the Fifa rankings say so. They have only won two games at the World Cup, one of which was against USA in 1998. Solid and well organized, they have conceded just five goals in ten games in the third round of Asian qualifying.
group of death? Well, at this World Cup they are all, and the metaphor should probably be withdrawn for reasons of taste. Group of confusing complex politics? Well, in modern times, obviously.
It’s likely that England will pull through, that there will be a grind and there will be huge outbursts of frustration, talk of the need to unleash this great generation of attacking talent, partly based on the underestimation of England’s opponents.
And that doesn’t matter, because world championships aren’t won in the group stage, but in knockout matches against the elite. And none of that will matter, because football shouldn’t be a propaganda tool and its great tournaments shouldn’t be made possible by exploited labour.