Tournament has been multicultural and warmly received
19 January ~ When Australia’s bid to host the 2022 World Cup received only a single humiliating vote, the cries of “never again” came long and loud. Never again waste public money – almost $50 million (£27m) – on a process run according to FIFA’s ethical standards. Never again let genuine enthusiasm to stage a big event become poisoned by engaging with dubious middlemen and downright crooks.
It’s a shame. Because the Asian Cup, held in Australia for the first time in January, hints at what a World Cup could look like if it was not hostage to FIFA’s increasingly preposterous demands. Almost no money has been spent on upgrading venues, let alone building new ones. Freed from the demands to install gold-plated toilet seats, personal helipads and all the other requirements of the Sepp Blatter’s executive committee members, organisers felt able to stage games at venues such as Newcastle’s Hunter Stadium, which still has grassed hills at each end, and as a result would not remotely meet Football League standards, let alone FIFA’s.
Ticket prices were kept reasonably low. The organisers have been rewarded with crowds higher than many expected (an average of more than 16,000 going into the final round of group games) and a hugely positive public reaction to the tournament, even with live TV coverage largely restricted to pay channels. Migrant communities in Australia have come out in force, with strong support for Iran, China, South Korea and Japan in particular. Despite the political implications of Palestine’s tournament debut, and the potential for tension among the other Middle East representatives, there has been little to sour the mood.
True, the Saudi Arabian squad brought their country’s official prejudices with them, when they objected to the fact that their bus driver was a woman. But even that was swamped by the bond between the Iranian team and their huge local following, who by no means toe the line of the country’s rulers. The former Fulham star Ashkan Dejagah maintained that the enthusiastic backing in Sydney, where more than 22,000 saw Iran beat Qatar, made it feel “as if I was playing in Tehran”. Yet he cannot have failed to notice that – unlike in Tehran – a large proportion of the Iran fans were women, in many cases showing no regard for the mullahs’ preferred dress codes.
That was exactly the kind of positive impression Australia hoped its multicultural population might stamp on a World Cup. And despite some objective deficiencies of its 2022 bid, it was a much more attractive vision than the one put forward by the ultimate victors.
Of course there are vast differences of scale between a World Cup and an Asian Cup that would make it hard to replicate the feeling that this tournament is a friendly visitor rather than a gross imposition. It would be wrong to say the Asian Cup has taken the Australian sporting summer by storm, but it has done enough to make cricket nervous that its own ludicrously over-extended World Cup will suffer by comparison next month.
Modest venues, a reasonable timetable, engagement with local fans, a low-key but welcoming atmosphere – it’s like a glimpse back in time at what the World Cup once was (in about 1958, perhaps) but almost certainly never will be again. Mike Ticher