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Friday, June 11, 2010

The name's the game in football by Mark Steel

One of the joys of a World Cup, is watching every single business on the planet trying to get in on it, no matter how distant they are from football. So ex-England striker John Barnes is promoting adverts for Mars Bars, the "official sponsor of snacks" to the tournament. Because no team can hope to win a World Cup unless it regularly stuffs its face with full-of-goodness vitamin-packed Mars bars.

Maybe Fabio Capello will inform us soon that "this is reason why I no select Theo Walcott, for he not eat enough Mars. In training he eat Twix and Rolos but to be fully fitness he must eat solid nugget of caramel sugar."

You might as well have an advert with a lad in a bandana saying: "Hey, if yer want three lions on yer gear come to me, Little Dave from Moss Side, official sponsor of World Cup crack."

He might be more appropriate than the "official sponsor of fuel to the World Cup", which happens to be BP. Because when you think about the demands of international football – meticulous preparation, instant decisive action, somewhere to train that isn't clogged up with oil-saturated herons – then BP pops instantly to mind.

Almost every item you can imagine has a brand that's the "official sponsor". There will probably be an advert that goes: "If you're disabled, you'll still want to jump up and down for England, so why not invest in a Stannah stairlift, official stairlifts to the World Cup, then you can celebrate England's goals by whirring slowly up and down the side of your banisters."

McDonalds are official sponsors, as are Coke, and if you're official, then no other brand of that product is allowed in the ground. The police have probably been instructed that when they're clearing away unsightly vagabonds outside the stadium they're only to use "Buzz'n'drop", the official World Cup taser.

One consequence of the rule is that the hawkers who scratch a living across South Africa by selling bits of old tat have been told they can't come near the grounds. The local beer, Castle, won't be sold because Budweiser is the official beer. All this zealous insistence on there being only one product might make the North Korean team think their leader has taken over the world as promised. Because it's a peculiar condition of the free market that the last thing it can tolerate is a free market. Maybe Fifa's argument would be: "The hawkers are perfectly entitled to offer £5m so they could sell the official World Cup pile of beads off a fold-up table, but they didn't submit their application."

There was a similar lack of choice for the 20,000 people moved from their settlement to make way for the new stadium in Cape Town, on whose behalf the United Nations have issued a complaint. Maybe the decision was made on a special edition of Location, Location, Location, with Fifa president Sepp Blatter cooing: "Oooh, it's got so much potential, we can clear out all these unnecessary peasants and it will be ideal for a match in Group F."

But in a way sport offers a unique challenge to big business, as by its nature it's not completely predictable. It must be frustrating for those who are used to fixing competitions, that they can't guarantee the results they demand. Some of the sponsors must bang their fist on the table during negotiations, yelling: "We're offering a £3m deal and all we want in return is a 2-2 draw with Italy going through on penalties. Now stop stalling and sign the deal." It's also why the World Cup seems more engaging than the Premier League or Champions League, as it can't be bought in the same way, though I'm sure it's been tried, and the Glazers have asked Fifa if they can buy Uruguay or Cameroon, and then pack their team with players no one else can afford.

And it's why, beyond the obsessive fascination all right-thinking citizens have for a World Cup, there's something else reassuring about the tournament this time. It can only take place in South Africa at all because in one of the biggest shock results of all time, the people with no resources of the world took on a seemingly impregnable opponent, and won.

First published in The Independent on 9th June 2010

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