by Nick Mabey.
It’s November and the World Cup is in full swing. That’s not a sentence I ever imagined saying, and yet here we are. It wasn’t even a plan. We ended up here because someone realised, too late it seems, that it would be too hot to play the World Cup in the Middle East in the summer. So now we find ourselves struggling to adjust to this new reality. World Cups are about build up, hype, warm sun and cold beers. This year it just sort of started. Where normally shops, houses and cars would be bedecked with the cross of St. George, all I’ve seen is tinsel. Not even football can compete with Christmas in the unnecessary bunting and inane songs departments. Strange days indeed.
The World Cup is being played in that renowned hotbed of football, Qatar. Having never qualified for a World Cup before on footballing merit, Qatar took the innovative route of hosting the tournament in order to ensure they could actually field a team – that being one of FIFA’s rules. I’ll get into hot water if I explore how exactly a country of only 300,000 citizens and eight stadia managed to secure hosting rights for the most prestigious tournament of the world’s most popular sport. It’s a bit like awarding it to Corsica, but without the restrictions or, day I say, the oil. Strange days indeed.
There seems to have been more words written about human rights than football over the opening week of the tournament. Slave labour, human rights violations, sexual orientation restrictions and, horror upon horrors, alcohol bans have all featured more than VAR interpretations of handball, plucky minnows and England’s inevitable exit on penalties. Team captains have been threatened with sanctions for wearing a rainbow armband, Iran supporters have booed their own national anthem and Denmark faced expulsion for having the word ‘Love’ sewed into the inside of their shirts. Strange days indeed.
Among all the weirdness, some high-quality football has broken out. The England team finds itself in a politically explosive group with Iran, USA and Wales. Our first match failed to live up to the usual expectations of a scraped draw via a last-minute equaliser against some unheralded nation. We absolutely thumped Iran 6-2, and looked very much a cohesive attacking force who are going to be a lot of fun to follow, assuming Gareth holds his nerve and realises that we are more likely to progress by winning games 5-3 than 1-0. It’s all very odd. Four days into the tournament Argentina and Germany have already been beaten by those footballing giants Japan and Saudi Arabia. Strange days indeed.
Who know how this will proceed? By the time my next article is due it will be semi-final time and I imagine, if England are still involved, we’ll have overcome this weirdness and be frothing away at the prospect of men’s football finally coming home (a mere 56 years after we last won and 26 years since we started signing about it). One thing’s for sure, if we do win the thing we’ll be campaigning for Kuwait or Dubai to host the next one.
Back at home Nathan Jones got confirmed as Saints manager as Ralph Hasenhuttl’s four-year tenure ended in conventional style (he was sacked). Jones got the chance to be manager for precisely three days and one match before the season ground to a halt. He’ll be grateful only two of his players were asked to participate in the World Cup, and it could easily have been none. Armel Bella-Kotchap is very young to be called into a Germany squad and I’ll be surprised if he gets any game time. Mohammed Salisu only made himself available for Ghana earlier this year and is yet to feature (although may well have done by the time you read this). So Nathan Jones has, unusually, a few weeks to work with almost all of his new squad without the pressure of winning a match. It’s a pre-season vibe that straddles late Autumn and early winter; the first of its kind in my lifetime. Strange days indeed. Unless of course you count the Covid-interrupted season of 2019/20 – now that really was strange.
- Photo by Abdullah Ghatasheh.
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