Frankly Mr Shankly your quote needs updating. Football IS a matter of life and death. Full stop.
“Some people believe football is a matter of life and death … it is much, much more important than that.” Bill Shankly’s Wildean bon mot has been wheeled out more times than Ryan Giggs has played for Manchester United. But I’m giving it another brief outing here. (You never know. Throw our surprise striker on for the last five minutes and we might just snatch one).
Lots of pundits seem to delight in grabbing hold of the Anfield legend’s well-worn quote to show how witty they are. Come up with your own clever-clogs catchphrase, I say! So what does it mean? To most people it’s probably just a bit of footballing froth. A throwaway remark that works because it’s unusually well-constructed and somehow shot through with some of the famous Liverpool manager’s “hard man” glamour and his more-than-average footballing nous. (Scouse nous. Ahem). Anyway, I can never hear about football tragedies without thinking of the Shankly saying. Hillsborough, Bradford City, Heysel, the Accra Sports Stadium deaths in Ghana in 2001 (127 dead), the dozens killed during Egypt’s Port Said stadium clashes in 2012. The list goes on and on (many more here). Or indeed the recent depressing news of two more deaths during construction work on the stadium that will host the opening ceremony for next year’s World Cup finals in Brazil.
Deaths and terrible injuries. Bereavement, wrecked families, ruined lives. Police investigations. Recriminations and years of bitterness. So where’s your Shankly witticism now? OK, this is not really fair, but I still think it’s right to pay close attention to the “hidden” costs of some of the football jamborees that the television channels and commentators do so much to promote as breathless, edge-of-your-seat family entertainment. The Crème de la Prem etc.
Besides the deaths in Brazil (and popular opposition to the enormous costs of the 2014 World Cup to the Brazilian exchequer), the other obvious current example is Qatar, host to the 2022 World Cup. Last week’s big Amnesty report on the exploitation of migrant workers in Qatar’s booming construction industry got a lot of media coverage (egs here, here and here; and see my blog post here) and elicited concerned responses from Fifa’s Sepp Blatter, the European Parliament, the Qatari government itself, the Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger, and the global footballer player’s union FifPro.
In the immediate wake of the Qatar furore, plans for 50,000 new “humane” homes for the country’s migrant workers were announced, with one newspaper reporting that “the plan has been accelerated after criticism from Amnesty International and the Trade Union Confederation”. You’d rather hope that all of Qatar’s 1.4 million migrant workers could be accommodated in humane conditions in the world’s richest of rich countries, not just the odd 50,000, but I suppose it’s a start.
Meanwhile, 50,000 also happens to be the number of people that can be accommodated in the Arena Corinthians in Sao Paolo, where the workers died in the stadium construction accident this week. Football’s a funny old game as they say, and little coincidences like this always give me a Shankly-esque jolt. To re-write a line from that not-noticeably-very-sporty figure, Morrissey - “Football, Football famous Football / It can play hideous tricks on the brain”. Frankly, Mr Shankly, you were only half right. Football is - all too often - a matter of life and death.
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