As a boy, he adored the World Cup. But Dominic Sandbrook says his love for football has been soured by its greed and corruption.
London - On Thursday, the madness will be upon us. In case you have been living on Mars, the World Cup begins in Brazil on Thursday. And two days later, to the delight of publicans across the UK, England will kick off against Italy in the sweltering jungle city of Manaus.
Growing up as a football-crazed little boy in the ’70s and ’80s, I adored the World Cup.
I zealously collected Panini stickers, painstakingly circled the fixtures in my parents’ copy of the Radio Times and watched goggle-eyed as players such as Maradona, Zico and Socrates pirouetted across our TV screen.
Sadly, today it is simply impossible to look forward to Brazil’s carnival of football with the same innocent enthusiasm.
Of course, I’ll still want to see every goal, every red card and every hideously missed penalty. Like millions of others, I’ll still be swept up in the excitement, the romance, the fleeting hope that England might pull off a miracle.
For me, in terms of what happens on the pitch, the World Cup remains the most thrilling sporting drama on the planet.
But off the pitch, the tournament has become a bloated monstrosity.
Far from embodying the Corinthian virtues of athletic excellence and fair play, the World Cup has become synonymous with corporate greed, institutional corruption and the widening gulf between the international super-rich and the downtrodden masses.
The World Cup first took place in 1930, and this is the 20th tournament. But never before has it kicked off in an atmosphere of such seediness, scandal and rank dishonesty.
For the past few weeks, international football’s governing body, Fifa, has been embroiled in a corruption scandal concerning its decision to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, a tiny Arab emirate with no football tradition, but extraordinarily deep pockets.
According to documents obtained by the London Sunday Times, the disgraced Qatari football administrator Mohamed bin Hammam made payments worth a staggering £3 million to Fifa officials to win their support.
To put it bluntly, the Qatari construction tycoon bought the World Cup as a bauble for his oil-rich little country.
Yet even before the latest allegations, Qatar’s World Cup was the target of severe and entirely justified criticism.
Not only does the temperature in Qatar reach more than 50°C in summer – which means the authorities are talking about shifting the event to the winter – but there have been countless reports of slave labour conditions for migrant workers building the infrastructure.
In 2012 and last year, government figures show almost 1 000 migrant workers died while working on the preparations.
At the current rate, it seems plausible that more than 4 000 will have died before Qatar’s football party – or more accurately, its wake – gets going.
No sporting tournament is worth so many lives. Even the death toll of construction workers in Brazil, which stands at eight, is a shameful blight on football’s reputation.
But under the reign of Fifa’s Swiss president Sepp Blatter – arguably one of the most self-interested and downright repellent public figures on the planet – international football has become completely unaccountable.
Presided over by a tiny, self-interested oligarchy, it has become a kind of rolling orgy of bribery and greed. Fifa demands tax-free status for itself – worth tens of millions – in World Cup countries.
It has clearly lost touch, not merely with its founding principles, but with the values of the ordinary people the game is supposed to entertain.
Indeed, if the Victorian gentleman amateurs who played the world’s first international match, between England and Scotland in 1872, could see the World Cup today, they would surely recoil in horror.
Even the event’s format has become grotesque. At the first World Cup in 1930, there were just 13 teams, and when England won in 1966 there were still only 16.
Since then, however, the World Cup has become increasingly bloated. Today there are 32 teams and there is even talk of expanding to 40 in future.
Then you have the venue. In the popular imagination – as well as the BBC’s expensive trailers for the tournament – Brazil is a happy-go-lucky paradise, a glorious never-never land of vast beaches, blue skies and nubile dancing girls.
The reality, however, is much less edifying.
As historian David Goldblatt shows in his brilliant book Futebol Nation, Brazil is one of the most divided, unequal and violent countries on Earth.
Even its World Cup history, supposedly all glorious goals and cavorting supporters, has a dark side.
From 1964 to 1985 – a time during which millions around the world were falling in love with superstars such as Pelé – Brazil was ruled by a military dictatorship that used its football team to whip up nationalism and quell dissent.
Football became an obsession in this vast, resource-rich but desperately ill-governed country precisely because there was little else to cheer. And even today, decades after the restoration of democracy, Brazil remains one of the most unequal countries in the world.
According to the charity Christian Aid, just 3 percent of the Brazilian population – the super-rich, who live in gated communities with armed guards – control two-thirds of its agricultural land.
Meanwhile, at least 11 million people live in the country’s desperately poor favelas (slums), such as Rio de Janeiro’s notorious City of God, which inspired an Oscar-nominated film of the same name.
Given the financial failure of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, which recouped a mere 10 percent of its £3 billion cost and did nothing to improve the lives of South Africa’s desperately poor population, you might have thought Brazil would have much better things to do than blow millions on another football extravaganza.
But as so often in the world of international sport, nationalistic one-upmanship trumps common sense.
For Brazil’s bling-drenched political elite, hosting the World Cup is a way of trying to persuade the world that they have arrived.
So it is that in the past few years, the Brazilian government has spent £2.4bn on new football stadiums and £9bn on World Cup-related infrastructure.
And yet the irony is that, despite the extravagant spending, it has all been a shambles.
Even now, days before the tournament opens, not all the stadiums are finished.
Many of the projects, such as a new metro system in the city of Salvador and a new airport runway in Rio de Janeiro, have been scrapped or will not be completed until long after the footballers have gone home.
From the very outset there were reports of backhanders and corruption. Despite Fifa’s request that there should only be eight to 10 venues, Brazil insisted on 12, allowing the federal government to grease palms across the country.
So it is that England have been condemned to play their opening match in Manaus, deep in the Amazon rainforest, which is about the last place any sensible person would schedule a football match – apart, of course, from Qatar.
To their credit, the people of Brazil have watched all this, not with supine passivity, but with mounting fury. Defying the lazy caricature of Brazilians as football-crazed dupes, they have been protesting for months against their authorities’ incompetence, extravagance and corruption.
At their peak last summer, there were demonstrations in 120 cities across the country – the largest social protest Brazil had ever seen.
And despite government concessions, the spirit of dissent has not gone away.
Just three days ago, 10 000 people marched on the Corinthians Arena in Sao Paulo, where the tournament is due to start, expressing their rage that the World Cup budget is not being spent instead on health, education and transport.
And given the circumstances, who can blame them?
Ominously, Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff has already warned that she will not allow protests to disrupt the World Cup.
Earlier this year she promised an extra £500m for security during the tournament, including a new elite police force, heavily armed and wearing intimidating Robocop-style armour.
For anyone who knows about Brazil’s recent history, this is deeply disturbing. By any standards, the police have a terrifying record of violence and corruption.
Every year they face fresh allegations of extra-judicial executions in the favelas, where they often launch military-style “pacification” raids, backed up with armoured cars and helicopters.
Last year alone, 6 000 people “disappeared” in Rio, and many are believed to have been murdered by the police or their gangland enemies.
Meanwhile, violent crime remains a terrifying daily occurrence, and Brazil’s murder rate is one of the highest in the world. As a spokesman for Amnesty International remarked: “The government is trying to paint a pretty picture for the world, saying things have been cleaned up and that Brazil is safe for tourists.
“But the reality is far darker.”
Given all this, you may well wonder, why on earth did Fifa pick Brazil to host the World Cup?
Sadly, the truth is that the World Cup has long had a dark side. Indeed, almost from the very outset, the tournament has been associated with violent regimes and blatant political manipulation.
The tragedy is that things could be so different. At its best, sport should be a vehicle for international goodwill, an expression of competitiveness, drive and athleticism, and an exhibition of sportsmanship and fair play.
Thanks to Fifa, the tournament has become an advertisement for everything that is wrong with international sport. And as the costs escalate, the protests continue, and the bureaucrats continue to line their pockets.
This week, millions of wide-eyed boys will tune in, like me, to what the Brazilian star Didi once called the beautiful game. But never, sadly, has the nickname been less appropriate.