Cold Comfort: Get ready to shiver watching a World Cup you helped pay for | World Cup 2022
SShortly after noon on November 22, 1963, Aldous Huxley, novelist turned consciousness expander, lay in bed dying. And not just die, but die on acid. As his wife prepared her last dose of LSD, she heard on the radio that something else had happened. John F Kennedy had been shot. This presented a dilemma.
Did Huxley really need to be told that by the way, Aldous, I know you’re dying of acid right now, but one of the most mind-blowing events of the 20th century just happened too? As it happened, Huxley was allowed to drift off to sleep, swaddled in his private ecstasies, undisturbed by half-seized visions of grassy knolls or the Dallas police. And the reason I mention it here is that this image has often crossed my mind in recent weeks while being entertained and distracted by professional sports; and at the same time half-follow the incessant stream of news and counter-news from what must, out of habit, be called the “real world”.
There you quietly decipher the Cruyff-based iconography of Erling Haaland’s flying volley, and someone keeps tugging at your sleeve saying you really need to focus on the impending hostile collapse of the established world order. . They are opening “warmth centres” in the north of England for late winter this winter. But hey, Todd Boehly’s All-Star Game has divided football. Can you just keep it for a bit? We’re trying to die blissfully under acid here.
In the middle of this, there is a subject that continues to cross these two worlds; and which has for now been allowed to sit there, unsolvable, inevitable and uncomfortably dark. The thing is, we probably need to think about it now.
This week Gareth Southgate announced his squad for England’s final matches before Qatar 2022. Last week Liz Truss announced that you will only have to pay £2,500 on your energy bills, while also funding (follow the ball under the cup) via £100bn in taxes. This week, the French government also capped energy payments and, by extension, payments to Qatar’s gas industry, at the cost of billions to their own public purse.
Also this week, Qatar opened the magnificent $767m Lusail Stadium, which is really a lot of money, but that’s okay because they, and in fact you, have it all covered. Did we mention that Kylian Mbappé scored again? These dots are so connected that it seems almost too obvious to draw a line between them. Everyone knows that football is dependent on fossil fuels and ambitious nation states. But the war in Ukraine, the loss of Russian energy, the profit of OPEC+ have brutally highlighted this. Inasmuch as it’s worth taking a moment to consider how this flow of power and money plays out, with football sitting like a cackling Lord Haw-Haw in the middle of it.
There’s almost a sort of Fifa dark comedy here. A war started by the latest World Cup hosts is now filling the coffers of the next World Cup hosts, while generating eye-popping profits for the latest 2030 bidders and current owners of Newcastle United (a war that involved, it will without saying, to invade the hosts of Euro 2012. Take this UEFA!). In the midst of which there is a real prospect that in two months time you will be able to watch the World Cup under cover, while a nation which benefits from your presence under cover puts on its big show, paid for by the fact that you are under a blanket blanket.
Here’s a show that’s ultimately being paid for by your excess energy bills, even as the UK goes head-to-head for Qatar’s gas reserves. Let me entertain you. But let me also impoverish you. Watch David Beckham shake hands with the Sheikh. Then go to the food bank. When will it not be OK? Closer to home, as Britons seek to alleviate fuel poverty this winter, they will at least have the chance to celebrate footballing glory paid for by those who directly benefit from this struggle. Threatened by global energy prices? Announce Dembele! A billion pounds on display! Keep watching the lights. Give me just enough bread and just enough circus.
Football is of course only a part of public relations here, a noise around the politics that animates this dynamic. But shouldn’t we at least be skeptical of this process? Shouldn’t we mention it? Or consider how we plan to consume it or celebrate those responsible? And it really is a real power shift. Recently, Saudi Aramco announced what would be the biggest quarterly profits in the history of profit-making companies, which bodes well, of course, for Eddie Howe’s complex team-building needs. These high prices are the result of the war in Ukraine. Additionally, the UK buys most of its gas from Norway.
But don’t be fooled by the arm’s length business relationships. In a market where prices and supply are agreed and interdependent, there are only dealers and customers, led by a group at the center that totally controls the global carbon addiction. And in the meantime, you’re essentially paying for this power play every time you turn on the heat for a treat, also paying for Shell profits, for EDF profits, for Chris Wood’s salaries.
It is of course everywhere in football. The new owners of Chelsea have large Saudi investments, unrelated to the purchase of the club. Abu Dhabi’s national energy company, owned by the same owners as the league champions, has seen its profits soar 63% during the energy crisis. Meanwhile, around 15% of households in Greater Manchester live in fuel poverty, a dire situation that will only get worse as the glorious winter of the oil ball draws closer. But hey, Haaland looks good. And all the while, it’s just a little bit colder there.
Some supporters of these clubs will feel attacked by the finger pointing at these relationships, will call for silence on these issues, as they are complex and uncomfortable and essentially unsolvable. Every club is affected by this in one way or another. No one is clean. All owners are taxed on us, no matter how deep their pockets. Life is hard enough already. Sometimes you just need a little relief.
But it’s also important to note that it’s not just about things like show or reputation management, but about control, resources, and hard power. The visible end, the investment in public relations through sport, should at least be knowingly consummated. Just like when, say, Alan Shearer proclaims that it’s all unconditionally good and beneficial, lending his celebrity gaze to the project, when there’s no real analysis of why, just scores and points, then something missing from the picture.