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More Than The Game: Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

My past few columns, much like the outside world, have been dark. Last week, I concluded that the bright light with which football illuminates the world is slowly fading as the ultra-rich and powerful exert their significant, iniquitous influence over its governing bodies. While this is most certainly true, I feel that I’ve railed against something almost intuitively reprehensible, but that my reasoning will not resonate with everyone.

You all instinctively know that ubiquitous corruption in our sporting bureaucracies, the Kafala system of semi-forced migrant labour, and the ‘sportswashing’ of murderous, autocratic regimes like Russia, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia are ethically wrong. However, the ineptitudes and immoralities of the footballing world ought to incite more than innate reactions from our underlying, interconnected sense of our humanity. 

The game I once knew and the love I had for it is on life support. The shady figures seeking to exploit it work hurriedly in the shadows to replace it with a consumerist utopia that benefits the rich and satiates the poor – devoid of any communal spirit and with little regard for the less fortunate. In the new world being built around us, winning – and the cultural & economic capital that comes with it – is best and fuck the rest; this proves forcefully true when it comes to football.  

I spoke last week of the jackboot of post-industrial crony capitalism stamping on the face of humanity forever, snuffing out the fire through which we live, and the bitter nihilism I feel towards the game because of it. This is a profound moral wrong in itself. However, even though the for-profit degradation of football’s ethical well-being is something I feel penetrate the deepest depths of my identity, others may not sympathise with my concerns. Therefore, I feel the need to wrap up this mini-series with a justification.

Continental Glory – Bought and Paid For

The later stages of this year’s delayed UEFA Champion’s League (European football’s premier continental competition) hosted teams such as Manchester City and Paris Saint German. Both teams have circumvented legality and morality in their path to get there. Man City and UCL finalists PSG are owned by billionaires heavily connected to the Gulf States, meaning that their combined $2.5 billion spent this decade in transfer fees are bankrolled by blood-stained petrodollars. They’re also seemingly always in trouble with UEFA for breaking Financial Fair Play Regulations, which are meant to prevent teams from spending far more than they earn – as both have been known to do. 

It’s almost become a cliché to fulminate against Man City and PSG. They’re rightly reviled by fans across the globe for explicitly buying their way to success using money obtained extremely unethically. But this is just the way that European football works now; anyone who wants to win anything has to spend and spend big. 

Still, it hasn’t always been this way. Glasgow Celtic, the team that I’ve supported for as long as I’ve been able to form memories, were the first British team to win the European Cup (the precursor to the UCL) – dominating a strong Inter Milan side at a time when Italian football confidently ruled the roost. They did so with a team worth only £42,000 (around £350,000 in today’s money) consisting of twelve working-class men from Glasgow and one from Saltcoats, which is only around thirty miles east. Like probably every witness to their success, I also have a soft spot for Leicester City. The East Midlands-based team became Premier League champions only two seasons after promotion, even while being outspent tenfold by every other top-six team. This is something that has become all the more poignant since the tragic death of the club’s Thai owner, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, in a helicopter crash outside the King Power Stadium.

With the ever-increasing growth of the influence of profit in the world’s sport, while still clearly possible, stories like these become rarer and rarer. It would be desperately sad if teams like Man City and PSG began to meet in the Champions League final every year – although I wouldn’t bet against it.

A Victory for Humanity

If you’ve read the rest of this series, then you’d rightly conclude that international football is somehow even more fucked up than its domestic counterpart. But, like the success stories of yesteryear, football on the world stage has potential for some utterly awe-inspiring beauty.

One of my personal favourite footballing memories is when Iceland, with a population less than half the size of Lothian, embarrassed England to reach the quarter-finals of the 2016 European Championship and later becoming the smallest nation to ever reach a World Cup. Another is West Germany winning the 1954 World Cup, despite having an amateur league and just nine years to recover from the devastation of World War 2. 

Both of these have their merits, but there’s one achievement that stands high above them for both footballing merit and magnificence: the Iraqi men’s national team winning the 2007 Asian Cup, the Asian equivalent of the European Championship, after years of war and internal strife.

After the bloody Second Gulf War, in which over one million were killed or displaced, the hated Saddam Hussein, and his sons – who had previously controlled every aspect of Iraqi football – were gone. However, chaos was left in its wake and a vicious sectarian civil war broke out. Iraq managed to send a team to the 2004 Olympic Games in Greece, even though German journeyman coach Bernd Stange quit before the tournament after his driver was executed. 

Nonetheless, these players excelled in qualification. A young striker called Younis Mahmoud emerged, who scored in a 4-2 victory over a Portugal side that included Cristiano Ronaldo. Iraq made the semi-finals, losing to Paraguay and finishing fourth. Their Olympic experience set the scene for Iraq’s greatest triumph.

By 2007, as many as 100 people were being killed every day in Baghdad. Unsurprisingly, no home international matches could take place, so their home games were played in the UAE. Despite losing their opening game 2-0 to Singapore, Iraq roared back to win their group and qualify for the Asian Cup.

Iraq’s tournament began slowly with Younis Mahmoud, now the undisputed figurehead upfront, salvaging a 1-1 draw against Thailand. But next, Iraq pulled off the shock of the tournament, a 3-1 victory against Australia. In the quarter-finals, Mahmoud scored twice as they beat Vietnam, setting up a semi-final against South Korea. As the team progressed, thousands upon thousands of Iraqis would take to the streets to celebrate, in increasing numbers, flying the Iraqi flag openly on the streets for the first time in years. The semi-final was no different. The game finished 0–0 and went to penalties, with Noor Sabri saving the final kick.

But, as the team celebrated, and Baghdad celebrated too, a suicide bomber quietly approached an ice cream parlour full of celebrating fans in the capital, destroying himself and 30 football fans with him. That night twenty more fans were killed across the city in suicide attacks, as were five more, accidentally, due to people firing their guns victoriously in the air, and the bullets falling back to earth. 

The Iraqi team, ecstatic in the aftermath of triumph, were shattered by the news that their victory had indirectly led to the deaths of dozens of their compatriots. Nashat Akram, Younis Mahmoud, and Jorvan Vieira, the team’s coach, would later explain how the team sat in silence in the dressing room, watching the carnage unfold on TV. The team held a meeting to discuss pulling out of the tournament. However, they watched as a bereaved mother was interviewed. Her young son, Haider, had been murdered in the attack. Umm Haider, ‘mother of Haider’, as she would become known, begged the team to continue in memory of him, vowing not to bury him until they won the title.

And they did. In an emotional final Iraq took on regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia. And it was, of course, Younis Mahmoud that scored the winning goal in a tight 1-0 victory, clinching Iraq their first and only Asian Cup title. Despite the risk and the bloodshed of the previous weeks, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were back on the streets to celebrate.

After July 2007, US military statistics revealed that the number of civilian deaths dramatically decreased, from 26,000 to just over 10,000 in 2008. The US military surge was partially responsible. But there was also no doubt that the Lions of Mesopotamia – even if it was only briefly – reminded a fractured country that they were greater than the sum of their parts.

Justified Animosity

As the top of the international game is overtaken by the machinations of illiberal despots and tyrants, underdog stories seem to lose their worth. When the UAE and Saudi Arabia, armed by the US and UK, can relentlessly bomb famine-stricken Yemeni civilians all the while scheming to influence the decisions of FIFA, what does it matter when they beat the odds and qualify for a major tournament? The inequity and injustice at play there betray their glory. 

The absolute majesty of the beautiful game is devalued, embittered when it arises from toxic roots. If Lionel Messi had made his £700 million move to Man City, it would sour the most spectacular career in sporting history. If Leicester’s stunning title win had been funded by a Russian oligarch or a Saudi petro-billionaire, then their victory wouldn’t be nearly as awesome. If the Lions of Mesopotamia won the AFC Cup while the elites of their country conspired to control FIFA – like Qatar did last year – I wouldn’t have written this column about them. The incredible unifying spirit that football often creates among communities, both inter & intranational, will be lost to history if we allow its continued degradation.

Regardless of the fact that the final withering of football’s heart appears to be a foregone conclusion, we should hardly take it lying down. Every concession granted to economic and political tyranny should be polemicised against with sharp invective by our media, our bureaucracies, and ourselves. In the words of the late, great Christopher Hitchens, “seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence.” 

I hope that through these few short stories I have justified my insistence that, in the face of both political and footballing regression, we ought to rage, rage against the dying of the light. It may be all we have left.