France's Benzema celebrates after scoring the second goal for the team during their World Cup qualifying playoff match against Ukraine at the Stade de France Reuters

If any country is in need of a morale booster, it is surely France. President Hollande’s popularity ratings are in the low 20s. The economy is shrinking. The country’s credit-rating has just been downgraded again. The far-right is on the rise. And a crazed gunman is on the loose in Paris. But amid all this gloom, something good has happened. And the positive news has come from an unlikely source, the national football team. Last night “les Bleus” overcame the odds and notched up the 3-0 victory they needed to defeat Ukraine and get to the World Cup in Brazil. Even the high-brow “Le Monde” had the footballing triumph as its banner headline, this morning. Read more

Ferenc Puskas (left) and Billy Wright lead out the Hungarian and English teams (Getty)

My colleague Peter Chapman has a theory that the English working classes realised that it was all up with Empire three years before the upper-classes. The moment of toffish disillusionment came with the Suez crisis of 1956. But, for the working man, the turning point was the England v Hungary football match at Wembley in 1953. England lost 6-3 to a Puskas-inspired Hungary. It was not just that England lost their proud record of never having lost an international match at home. It was also that they were hammered. Humiliated.

For me, however, the realisation that the sun had set on our footballing empire came 20 years later – with the England v Poland World Cup qualifying match of October 1973. England failed to get to the World Cup for the first time ever. That is why a World Cup qualifier against Poland, this Tuesday night, which England must win to get to Brazil 2014, is redolent with nostalgia and fear. Read more

Own goal?

A still from the ad (click to watch)

A woman footballer walks down some stairs into a brightly lit cellar, carrying a dirty ball. She bounces the ball, strikes, and it lands perfectly in a high-end Miele washing machine as an unseen crowd cheers. The woman (whose face and head we never see) sets the wash cycle to “leather” and sits on top of the washing machine while the ball is washed.

The voiceover says: “Clean[1] ball in Sweden. The European women’s championship on ZDF.”

 Read more

Euro 2012: Football and politics in Poland and Ukraine

With the European football championship reaching its climax this week, we look at how Poland and Ukraine have fared by hosting the tournament. Neil Buckley, east Europe editor, Jan Cienski, Warsaw correspondent and Simon Kuper, the FT columnist covering the tournament, join Gideon Rachman.

As with every eruption of violence in Egypt since the downfall of the Mubarak regime a year ago, the events at a football match on Wednesday evening were the result of the absence of an effective police force and the political failure of the generals who have let this state of affairs persist. Read more

The original Socrates died thousands of years ago after being forced to drink hemlock. The modern version died yesterday, aged 57, after an intestinal infection. Socrates was captain of the Brazilian football team, but looked charmingly like an Athenian philosopher. His fantastic performances in the 1982 World Cup also provoked one of the great lines in football commentary - “And Socrates scores a goal that sums up the philosophy of Brazilian football.” A shame that he won’t be around when the World Cup is played in Brazil in 2014.

I usually turn to the sports pages for some light relief from the cares of the world. But the euro-crisis is not so easy to get away from. Reading an account of Arsenal’s preparations for their away game in Germany tonight, I saw that their revered manager, Arsene Wenger, is thinking about more than the state of Jack Wilshere’s ankle. At yesterday’s press conference, he mused  – “I believe that Europe overall, as a unit, is going towards a massive crisis, which nobody really expects now. I am convinced that Europe will go into a huge financial crisis within the next three weeks or three months and maybe that will put everything into perspective again.” Read more

I once had a near miss with Sepp Blatter. I found myself sitting next to him at a lunch and, searching for a topic of conversation, was about to introduce myself as the author of The Economist’s survey of world football. But, as I began speaking, I remembered that I had finished the article by describing detailed accusations of corruption against Blatter himself.

So, rather than complete the anecdote, I came to a mumbling halt. The whole conversation was a bit of a nightmare. Blatter is  charmless – boring, self-important and drippingly insincere. Still, in one sense, you have to admire him. He is an incredible survivor.  Read more

Life in much of Europe is still pretty sweet. Yesterday, the Duomo in Milan shimmered in the sunshine. The atmosphere of serenity was disrupted only by the thousands of drunk, chanting German football fans who had gathered in the piazza, ahead of Schalke’s game that night against Inter Milan, the champions of Europe. But I was inclined to put a positive spin on this scene. What a tribute to the prosperity of the old continent that thousands of ordinary German oafs have the time and money to buzz off to Milan in the middle of the week, to watch a football match. Read more

I have just flown back into London from Dubai to find the city covered in snow and in a slough of depression, after England’s failure to get the World Cup in 2018. Russia got the nod. And Qatar, incredibly (given the heat there in summer) will host the 2022 World Cup.

The best comment so far was an e-mail I received from a colleague, shortly after the verdict was announced: “Russia get 2018 World Cup; just what a game accused of corruption needs.” Still, at least, nobody would ever associate Qatar with corruption.

Actually, I think it was probably the accusations of corruption in FIFA – emanating from the BBC and the Sunday Times of London – that finally did for the English bid. You don’t have to worry about that sort of thing in Russia, where from time to time investigative journalists are murdered or beaten up. Read more

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RB = Roger Blitz, the FT’s sports & leisure correspondent (in Zurich)
DD = Darren Dodd, an FT news editor

RB Fifa will sell this as votes for new frontiers, a la South Africa. The accusation of collusion is dampened by Russia’s victory. For England, going out in the first round only reinforces the argument that when it comes to football politics, England just does not get it.

Simon Gray in France asks: What time of year are they going to play the 2022 World Cup? In July it is about 50C in the shade in Qatar. Players will be dying, literally. Air-conditioned indoor stadiums? I suppose they can afford it.

Robert Orr in New York says not many tears were shed at the bar over the US losing out to Qatar in 2022. Pundits on ESPN, which was at least broadcasting the decision live, were more concerned about how to pronounce the Gulf state’s name. Cat-ar? Quat-ar? They quickly moved on to the  more important matter of Lebron James’ return to Cleveland later this evening…

Michael Kavanagh is back to reading L’Equipe. The site says Russia won despite a “dangerous risk” around transport considering the huge distances between host cities. It predicts that Russian football, already turbocharged by petroroubles, will gain further prominence.

Mark Mulligan in Madrid says: There’s deep disappointment in Madrid, but television commentators are at least conceding that perhaps Spain – and more so Portugal – have bigger issues to deal with at the moment, a reference to the eurozone crisis.

Iberia’s bid was built around quality of football and transport infrastructure, love of the game across the two countries and their natural appeal as tourist destinations.

Also, of course, Spain felt that it deserved to host a World Cup after its fine performance and subsequent victory in this year’s tournament.

HM: And in all Sepp Blatter’s waffle before the announcement, note how he referred to China as the place where football was born. A 2026 bid from Beijing, anyone? Then again, Blatter did call England “the motherland”.

Henry Mance: So Batman – as WikiLeaks had him – will be flying to Zurich after all!

and the 2022 host is…..Qatar

2018 winner is Russia Read more

English football fans and the British press are transfixed by the legal battle to sell Liverpool football club, against the wishes of its deeply-indebted Texan owners. Even the FT carries the story prominently on today’s homepage.

In recent years, there has been a vogue for foreign owners to come in and buy English football clubs – perhaps it looks like fun, and some of the teams are global brands. . But – in a trend that is oddly emblematic of the way things are going in the global economy – it is obviously much better to be bought by an oil-rich Gulfie or Russian, rather than an American. Basically, the former have more money. Read more

Sports tournaments are meant to be celebrations of youth. But last night’s World Cup final made me feel very old. First, there was the sight of poor old Nelson Mandela being trundled around the pitch – he’s about to turn 92 and I’m afraid he looks a little, how shall we say, past it. And then the cameras zeroed in on Jack Taylor, the last Brit to referee a World Cup final: the 1974 game between the Dutch and the Germans. I’m afraid, I remember that game with crystal clarity – as if it were yesterday, in fact. But the fact that Mr Taylor is now in his eighties, is a reminder that it was all a very long time ago – and I’m also getting old. Read more

At first sight, there is little geo-political needle in a Spain v Holland World Cup final. But listen to the Dutch national anthem on Sunday night, and you will realise that this is a grudge match dating back almost 500 years. The Dutch anthem is sometimes claimed to be the oldest in the world, and it is certainly the only one I know to contain sarcasm in its very first stanza. Read more

FT column: South Africa’s trial by World Cup

My latest column is on South Africa:

There are still five days to go before the last ball is kicked at the World Cup, but the sense of relief in South Africa is already palpable. Over the past month, the country has put itself on trial by hosting the world’s biggest sporting event. South Africans were desperate to show to foreigners that their country was safe, welcoming and sophisticated. But they also wanted to prove a point to themselves: that their nation, which is still deeply divided on racial grounds, could unite around a successful tournament.

So much for the collapse of Europe and the unstoppable rise of the Latins. There were three Latin American-European clashes in the last quarters of the World Cup – and the Europeans won all of them. In my newspaper column last Tuesday, I argued that most efforts to impose some sort of theory about the rise and fall of nations on a mere football tournament were basically bullshit – and I feel vindicated by the collapse of the “collapse of Europe” theory.

I saw the two Joburg-based quarter finals live. Getting to matches in Johannesburg is a good deal less convenient than elsewhere. In Durban and Cape Town, the new stadiums are right on the beachfront and easy to walk to. Getting to Soccer City in Soweto involves complicated park-and-ride schemes. And Ellis Park, where Spain and Paraguay played last night, is in a ropey part of the centre of Johannesburg. I had met a couple of Chileans who complained of having to walk back from a game there, through darkened streets at past midnight. But I went to the match with Lungile Madywabe, a South African journalist, who was quite happy parking his (old) Mercedes in the neighbourhood. The surroundings of the stadium were pretty lively: short-time hotels, darkened night clubs with music blaring, some people gathered around briars and lots of stalls selling match memorabilia, including the dreaded vuvuzelas. Read more

Still brooding about England’s defeat, I went to Cape Town last night to watch Spain play Portugal. I find that at this stage in the competition, a sort of fellow feeling settles in amongst the followers of defeated nations. On the plane down, I sat next to some Chileans who were still licking their wounds, after their team’s 3-0 defeat by Brazil the previous night. They told me that England had been unlucky; I told them that Chile had been unlucky. Near the ground, a bunch of fans in Mexican shirts noticed my England scarf – and we jointly cursed the referees in this competition, and agreed that both our teams had been victims of incompetence or worse. Then queuing to get into the ground I got chatting to a Japanese fan, who had just seen his team go out on penalties to Paraguay. I told him how impressed I had been by Honda, the Japanese forward. “He’s called Honda, but he plays like a Ferrari,” replied the fan, who was over from Tokyo for the week. Read more

Sitting in the stands last night, waiting for the Argentina-Mexico game to start, I texted a South African friend about England’s loss to Germany earlier in the day. “We were robbed”, I wrote. Her reply reminded me that “In SA, that phrase is ambiguous”.

Actually, one of the things that most visitors to this World Cup agree about is that South Africa feels a lot less scary than they expected. I have been here four days now, and I haven’t been murdered once. Read more

The Afghan war effort is in chaos; the Australian prime minister has resigned and the G20 are meeting in Toronto. But the global event that I have decided to concentrate on is the World Cup. I have just arrived in Durban and later this afternoon, I will be attending the Lusophone derby: Brazil v Portugal.

One of the things I love about the World Cup is the way that it takes a country over. Even the air hostesses on my flight down from Johannesburg were wearing football kit (a marked improvement on the fussy uniforms that BA put their cabin crew in). Out on the Durban waterfront almost everybody is wearing either a Brazil or a Portugal shirt.  The miles of golden sand are playing host to lots of Copacabana-style games of beach football (the Durban beaches knock spots off the Copacabana). Everybody is in a good mood. At one stage, a street hawker began to shout at me rather loudly, in what I ïnitially took to be an aggressive manner. But then I made out his words: “My brother, your flies are undone.” I bought a Brazil cap off him, as a reward for his tip. Read more

I know this is a highly delicate subject, but I can’t help wondering whether there isn’t a racial under-current to the row about France’s rebellious football team. Most of the French team are black – including Nicolas Anelka, the player who was sent home and Patrice Evra, the captain, who clashed with his fitness trainer and then took part in the boycott of training. Most of the politicians and journalists who are denouncing the team for betraying the nation are white.

When the French team was successful – above all, when it won the World Cup in 1998 – mainstream opinion delighted in the multi-racial character of the team and took it as a symbol of a newly-unified French society. When Jean-Marie Le Pen, the head of the French National Front, criticised the team for having too many non-white players, he was roundly and rightly denounced. Zinedine Zidane, the star of the French team and the son of Alegerian immigrants, remained a national hero, even after he was sent off in the World Cup final of 2006.

And yet racial politics have continued to haunt the French football team. In 2001, there was a public outcry when the French national anthem was greeted with cat-calls at a home game against Algeria – young Frenchmen of North African origin were blamed. Then when Nicolas Sarkozy notoriously referred to rioters in housing estates as “scum”, he was criticised by Lilian Thuram, one of the heroes of the 1998 winning team. Read more