English glee belies tricky World Cup draw and dangers of complacency | Jonathan Wilson
Some lessons, it seems, are never learned. Gareth Southgate may have been characteristically measured in his response to Friday’s World Cup draw but most seemed to follow Kyle Walker’s line that “you’ve got to be happy with the teams we’ve drawn”.
The triumphalism wasn’t quite as strident as before the 2010 World Cup, but if other teams really are inspired by the misunderstood ironies of Three Lions, England’s group-stage opponents are going to be raging at some of Saturday morning’s headlines.
Quite apart from the dangers of jingoistic complacency, this is not an easy draw. “Some of the ties are potentially trickier than just the rankings,” said Southgate, but the rankings are tricky enough. By the Fifa rankings, this is the toughest group.
In part that is a consequence of the uncertainty over the final European team because of the postponements caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. That unknown side was classed as a Pot 4 team in the draw, but of the three sides involved only Scotland would be a Pot 4 team; Wales and Ukraine would have been in Pot 3.
But here we are – already – talking about the minutiae of football. This is what sportswashing does and why it is so insidious, infecting a thing we love so we end up ignoring the tawdry horror of the spectacle.
England’s first Group B game will be played in the Khalifa Stadium, where the British construction worker Zac Cox fell to his death in 2017. His was one of only three work-related deaths on World Cup-related construction sites acknowledged by the Qatari authorities, although Amnesty International doubts those figures.
There have been at least 6,500 deaths of migrant workers on infrastructure projects in Qatar. It turns out they have paid more than £1bn for the privilege. When Malcolm Bidali, a Kenyan worker, highlighted concerns about working conditions, he was held in solitary confinement for a month before eventually being allowed to leave Qatar two months later having paid a fine for spreading “false news”. Abdullah Ibhais is still in jail after defending migrant workers.
There was an emphasis around the draw on Qatar’s culture of hospitality. Wealthy Europeans certainly seem to enjoy it. But LGBTQ+ pressure groups are still awaiting basic assurances. This week major general Abdulaziz Abdullah Al Ansari, chairman of the national counter-terrorism committee of Qatar, said that rainbow flags may be confiscated to “protect” the person carrying them. That hardly raises confidence and seems in direct contravention of regulations 15 and 23 of Fifa’s statutes, which stipulate the responsibility of members and confederations “to prohibit all forms of discrimination”. Regulation 4 makes clear that includes “gender” and “sexual orientation”.
It has been striking how aggressive the Qatari tone has been over the past couple of days, with the secretary general of the supreme committee for delivery and legacy, Hassan al-Thawadi, telling the president of the Norwegian Football Federation, Lise Klaveness, to “educate” herself after she suggested that “the migrant workers injured, the families of those that died, must be cared for”.
That process of education might be easier, of course, if journalists – such as the Norwegian film crew arrested last November – weren’t subject to intimidation when they tried to report on such issues. If that is the approach now when there has been time to prepare a PR strategy, you wonder what may happen come the chaos of the tournament itself.
A Honduran delegate insisted this wasn’t the time or the place for such discussions. But if not now, when? It’s not those who point to the outrages who are tainting the World Cup. And if that means some awkward gear changes, that is the nature of this tournament.
And so back to the group. As Southgate pointed out, that third game against the winners of Uefa Path A will be difficult whoever qualifies. It could be Ukraine who, carrying all the emotions of the war and fired by the sense of fighting for a cause, will be very different from the team England beat 4-0 last summer at the Euros.
Or it could be a British side. Even at Wembley last June, a derby against Scotland brought England’s poorest performance of that tournament.
History offers no great reason for optimism against the USA either, with England failing to win either of their two previous meetings at World Cups. There was Rob Green’s howler and the 1-1 draw in Rustenburg in 2010, the beginning of what, at least for four years, seemed a uniquely bleak campaign. And 60 years before that was the 1-0 defeat in Belo Horizonte. The USA then were a ragtag bunch of largely amateur players, few of whom would qualify under modern regulations on nationality. Now they have probably the most promising squad in their history, with players who are regulars at Chelsea, Juventus, Borussia Dortmund and Barcelona.
England begin against Iran, a country they have never played before. The UK imposed sanctions on Iran in 2007 and although the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori last month removes an immediate flashpoint, there will be inevitable political tension. Iran are probably not the 21st best side in the world, even if that is what the Fifa rankings say. They have won only two games at the World Cup, but one of them was against the USA in 1998. They are solid and well-organised, conceding only five goals in 10 games in the third round of Asian qualifying.
Group of death? Well, in this World Cup they all are, and the metaphor should probably be retired on grounds of taste. Group of baffling complex politics? Well, in the modern age, obviously.
The likelihood is that England will go through, that it will be a grind and there will be great outpourings of frustration on the way, talk of the need to unleash this great generation of attacking talent, based in part in the underestimation of England’s opponents.
And none of it will matter because World Cups are not won in the group stage but in knockout games against the elite. And none of it will matter because football shouldn’t be a propaganda tool, and its great tournaments shouldn’t be made possible by exploited labour.