One of the most poignant stories of the first world war is that of football being played by British and German soldiers during a Christmas Day truce in 1914. The evidence for this spontaneous show of humanity is largely circumstantial. It seems there was, at least, a kickabout. But the idea of football as a force for good has endured.
With the World Cup kicking-off in Qatar on Sunday night as another war rages in Europe, the concept is pertinent again. Russia and Ukraine will not be among the 32 teams competing. Russia was suspended by the sport’s governing body Fifa after invading its neighbour. Ukraine was knocked out in the play-offs.
But the competition will see fans from all over the world gather in celebration of the beautiful game. If only geopolitical differences could be settled with 90 minutes of football, perhaps with extra time and penalties.
The tournament will, however, be the most controversial yet. Football fans eagerly anticipate every World Cup. But many will feel conflicted this time.
The choice of Qatar as host makes no sense. The desert nation is too small and too hot. Moving the finals to the cooler winter months has disrupted the football schedule in Europe.
Qatar’s ban on same-sex relationships and poor treatment of immigrant workers have left many fans feeling uncomfortable. Fifa president Gianni Infantino railed against critics on Saturday. But the choice of host is not easy to reconcile with the organisation’s commitment to fighting discrimination and protecting rights.
This is a tournament many fans didn’t want. But for all of the controversy, there is something magical about the World Cup. When it begins, I will be gripped. So will billions of football fans around the world. That is the appeal of the game.
My first experience of this prestigious competition was as a child in 1974. I watched on television in wide-eyed wonder as Johan Cruyff’s Dutch team played “total football”, a very different form of the game to that I was accustomed to in the UK.
I had to wait until 1982 before my national team, England, managed to qualify for the finals. Since then, it has been a painful story of glorious defeats, usually on penalties. Who knows, maybe this time, football will be “coming home”.
Fans in Hong Kong will, once again, face challenges following the matches, given the time difference. The earliest games start at a civilised 6pm HKT. But many will be played late at night or in the early hours of the morning.
Some hardy souls will stay up and battle through a sleepy next day at the office. Others will record the matches and watch them when they wake up, taking care to avoid the score. This is not always easy. When Italy beat France in the 2006 final, I began watching the recording the next morning. My older son, then six, sat next to me. “Have they had the penalty yet, Dad?” he asked. Perhaps it is better to watch the games live, whatever the time!
The controversy surrounding the tournament might – except for occasional protests by fans and players – be forgotten in the heat of the game. But the issues remain.
The Qatari organisers have spoken of a “legacy of progress”. We will see. I am not convinced that allowing nations with dubious human rights records to stage glitzy sporting events makes much difference. Where was the last World Cup held? Oh yes, Russia. That worked out well, didn’t it?
Infantino is aiming high. He called for a ceasefire in Ukraine for the duration of the World Cup. That is optimistic. The governing body couldn’t even negotiate the serving of alcoholic drinks in stadiums, let alone world peace. But it is a nice idea.
It can only be hoped the competition will go some way to furthering diversity, inclusivity and good relations among nations. Perhaps the spirit of the legendary Christmas Day match in 1914 can be revived. The world certainly needs it.