Shortly after midday on 22 November 1963 Aldous Huxley, novelist turned consciousness-expander, was lying in bed dying. And not just dying, but dying on acid. As his wife prepped his final dose of LSD she heard on the radio that something else had happened. John F Kennedy had been shot. This presented a dilemma.
Did Huxley really need to be told, that, by the way Aldous, I know you’re dying on acid right now, but one of the most mind-blowing events of the 20th century has also just happened? In the event, Huxley was allowed to drift off, swaddled in his private ecstasies, undisturbed by half-grasped visions of grassy knolls or the Dallas police. And the reason for mentioning this here is that this image has sprung to mind a lot in recent weeks while being entertained and distracted by professional sport; and at the same time half-following the endless scroll of news and counter-news from what we must, out of habit, call the “real world”.
There you are quietly deciphering the Cruyff-based iconography of Erling Haaland’s flying volley, and someone keeps tugging at your sleeve saying, you really need to concentrate on the imminent hostile collapse of the established world order. They’re opening “warmth-hubs” in the north of England for when the gas runs out this winter. But hey, Todd Boehly’s all-star game has DIVIDED football. Can you just keep it down for a bit? We’re trying to die blissfully on acid in here.
In the middle of this there is one topic that keeps cutting across these two worlds; and which has for now been allowed just to sit there, unsolvable, unavoidable and uncomfortably grim. The thing is, we probably do have to think about it now.
This week Gareth Southgate announced his squad for England’s final fixtures before Qatar 2022. Last week Liz Truss announced that you will only have to pay £2,500 on your energy bills, while also (follow the ball under the cup) funding this via £100bn in taxes. This week the French government also capped energy payments and, by extension, payments to Qatar’s gas industry, at a cost of billons to their own public purse.
Also this week week Qatar opened the magnificent $767m Lusail Stadium, which really is a lot of money, but no biggie because they, and indeed you, have got this covered. Did we mention Kylian Mbappé scored again? Those dots are so connected it almost seems too obvious to draw a line between them. Everyone knows football is in hock to fossil fuels and ambitious nation states. But the war in Ukraine, the loss of Russian energy, the profiteering of Opec+ has put this into brutal focus. To the extent that it is worth taking a moment to consider how that flow of power and money is playing out, with football sat like a cackling Lord Haw-Haw in the middle of it.
There is almost a kind of dark Fifa comedy here. A war started by the last World Cup hosts is now filling the coffers of the next World Cup hosts, while generating mind-boggling profits for the latest 2030 bidders and current owners of Newcastle United (a war that involved, needless to say, invading the hosts of Euro 2012. Take that Uefa!). In the middle of which there is a real prospect that two months from now you could be watching the World Cup under a blanket, while a nation that is profiting from you being under a blanket stages its grand spectacular, paid for by you being under a blanket.
Here is a spectacle that is, in the end, being paid for through your excess energy bills, even as the UK goes cap in hand for Qatar’s gas reserves. Let me entertain you. But let me also impoverish you. Watch David Beckham shaking hands with the sheikh. Then go to the food bank. When will this not be OK? Closer to home, as the people of Britain seek relief from fuel poverty this winter, they will at least have the chance to celebrate the football glory paid for by those who benefit directly from this struggle. Menaced by global energy prices? Announce Dembélé! A billion pounds in the window! Just keep looking at the lights. Give me just enough bread and just enough of a circus.
Football is of course just a public relations strand here, a noise around the politics driving this dynamic. But shouldn’t we at least be sceptical of that process? Shouldn’t we mention it? Or factor in how we plan to consume it or celebrate the people in charge? And this really is a genuine power-shift. Recently, Saudi Aramco announced what are reportedly the biggest quarterly profits in the history of companies having profits, all of which bodes well, naturally, for Eddie Howe’s complex squad-building needs. Those high prices are a result of the war in Ukraine. Plus, the UK buys most of its gas from Norway.
But don’t be fooled by the arms-length commercial relationships. In a market where prices and supply are agreed and inter-related there are only dealers and customers, led by a group at the centre that has complete control over the world’s addiction to carbon. And in the meantime you’re basically paying for this power-play every time you turn the heating on for a treat, paying for Shell’s profits too, for EDF’s profits, for Chris Wood’s wages.
This is of course everywhere in football. Chelsea’s new owners have heavy Saudi investment, not connected to the purchase of the club. Abu Dhabi’s national energy company, owned by the same people that own the league champions, has seen profits rocket by 63% during the energy crisis. Meanwhile about 15% of Greater Manchester households are living in fuel poverty, a horrendous state of affairs that will only get worse as the glorious winter of oil-ball closes in. But hey, Haaland looks good. And all the while it’s getting just a little bit colder out there.
Some supporters of those clubs will feel attacked by having these relationships pointed out, will call for silence on such issues, because they are complex and uncomfortable and essentially insoluble. Every club is touched by this in some way. No one is clean. All owners are foisted on us, no matter how deep their pockets. Life is hard enough. Sometimes you just need some relief.
But it is also important to note this isn’t simply about things like show or reputation management, but about control, resources and hard power. The visible end, the investment in PR through sport, should at least be consumed in full knowledge. Just as when, say, Alan Shearer proclaims that this is all unconditionally good and beneficial, loaning his celebrity glaze to the project, when there is no real analysis of why, just scores and points, then something is missing from the picture.