There was that frenetic drama of the last day of the Premier League just a fortnight ago – City down, Liverpool in, City up, Liverpool out! Then we had Real Madrid further chipping away at Liverpool’s quadruple ambitions, leaving them with a mere double, closely followed by Nottingham Forest clinging on against Huddersfield to finally get back into the Premier League. Then on Wednesday night Ukraine caused delight everywhere in the world except Scotland and Moscow to set up a play off this Sunday against Wales for the last available World Cup slot.
But after that…nothing. Some people, to misquote Kenneth Wolstenholme, aren’t on the pitch – it’s all over.
Just when we should be settling down for a glorious summer of the very best sporting event that there is, a football World Cup, we aren’t. After that Wales-Ukraine game there will be no meaningful football matches until the league resumes in August.
Last summer’s glorious, colourful Euros brought the nation together like nothing else in recent times – who can forget the surge of pride when that lad put a firework up his backside in Leicester Square, for example. It kicked off a year ago next Saturday.
Italy beat Turkey 3-0 in the opener. I was so excited that I insisted on formally celebrating the moment with a pre-match nod to both countries’ culinary cultures by having a doner kebab with an Aperol spritz. I had a wallchart taped above the TV. I even had Panini stickers and album to get started on like I was nine years old.
And it didn’t let me down. The proper big football tournaments never do, particularly World Cups. Even the poorest ones – South Africa, 2010, USA 1994 – are still brilliant.
But this year, instead of a glorious summer, the World Cup will be on at Christmas.
Christmas, for goodness sake.
It’s now 12 years since the scandalous decision to award successive host duties in 2018 and 2022 to those twin paragons of human rights, Russia and Qatar. And it’s an indication of just how rotten both selections were that even Putin’s subsequent war crimes in Ukraine don’t unequivocally make the case for Russia as the worst decision of the two.
Because Qatar getting it stunk from the outset and has just got worse since: rancid corrupt bidding allegations, the deaths of dozens of immigrant labourers building the stadia, the concerns over the rights of gay fans, women supporters and those just partial to a beer at the match never properly addressed.
But for the armchair fan the biggest consequence of choosing Qatar – flagged repeatedly but ignored by those well-fed FIFA delegates until it was too late – were those summer temperatures of up to 50 degrees centigrade. It was always going to be too hot to play in June and July.
And so only after Sepp Blatter and his stooges had backed Qatar did we end up with this temporal shift in the axis of the football universe – a winter instead of summer World Cup.
We armchairs have had to deal with some challenging timings before: remember the weekday morning fixtures that the timezones threw up in the Japan and South Korea co-hosted 2002 tournament, for example. But those lager breakfasts now seem like small beer next to a World Cup in December.
Most fans will at some point have had a wedding or similar that clashed with a must-see match – which can result in ‘doing a Likely Lads’, as it’s known: trying to avoid knowing the score before watching as-live later. But this year this could happen to almost everyone: millions will have to choose between doing what they’re expected to do – going to their children’s carol concert, their office bash or some old friends’ drinks party – and mean-spiritedly staying in to watch a tasty football clash instead. We are inevitably going to make the invidious decision of whether to miss key games or have ourselves cast as Scrooges by family, friends and colleagues. Absurdly I just had to check I hadn’t booked our early-bird family Nutcracker tickets on the same night as the Final. And it finishes just two days before my wedding anniversary. That really would have been tricky.
There’ll be four and a half weeks of this stuff to negotiate come 21 November: 64 matches that could all clash with something festive and obligatory.
It’s terrible news for the High Street too: with the economy all over the place we could really use one of those every-other-summer En-ger-land mini booms driven by a rush to spend on beer, barbecues, replica kits. Shifting this demand to December isn’t going to balance the books as people tend to spend money fairly freely on booze and food then regardless.
And 2022 is already disorienting enough already: here we are in a four-day weekend when all your biorhythms will be telling you there shouldn’t be one – there’s no turkey or lamb leg to roast, just perhaps a street party to avoid if you can. It’s all disorientingly odd. The last thing we need is more change.
Finally, Christmas itself doesn’t deserve this. After Covid-compromised festivities in 2021 and – unless you lived or worked in Downing Street – a Covid-cancelled Christmas 2020, this should be our first stab this decade at a normal December. Instead, for football fans at least, it’s going to be the most abnormal yet.
Of course, it’s two or three years too late for anything to be done to change this. They had three months’ notice to arrange to move a single game recently – belatedly punishing Putin by moving that Champions League final from St Petersburg to Paris and look what a shambles that ended in. No, the ridiculous and infuriating Christmas World Cup is set in stone now.
And yet despite all this resentment and regret, deep down I know that once it starts, I and in all likelihood the vast majority of other armchairs, will soon be completely caught up.
We’ll be guiltily huddled around meant-to-be-off TVs surreptitiously watching Colombia-France at that drinks party, in the back pew at the carols watching Senegal-Brazil on our silenced phones. And we’ll be loving it.
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