Lee Wellings: Football’s Not The Laughter Business

I’m not sure I’ve that much in common with Cristiano Ronaldo. Though maybe we’ve both had a sense of humour bypass.

Cristiano was of course so offended by the FIFA President joking about him that he felt the need to respond, in a barely concealed waspish fashion.

But I certainly haven’t found much to laugh about from the world of football recently. And just as I baulk at world leaders who latch on to sporting success with hollow congratulations, there is also something that makes me queasy about light-hearted excursions from the most powerful people in sport.

Perhaps Mr Blatter got it right. Perhaps the world of stand-up comedy awaits him when he retires in 2015. Though stop me if you’ve heard this one before…whisper stage right…he might not actually go!! Ha ha! Nice one…the standard comic device of letting the audience thing you are going in one direction, then…fooled you!

He was on great form during public speaking on his trip to England, at the FA’s 150th anniversary as well as the Oxford Union. And at the International Football Arena’s 15th anniversary in Zurich a few days later. Sample joke, quoting Machiavelli. “What is power worth if you don’t abuse it,” he said with an accompanying widening of the eyes that said ‘I’m joking people – keep up with me!’

Perhaps I should lighten up, and maybe Cris Ronaldo should too.

Blatter’s on a roll with his one-liners. So I also wonder if he risked a gag to Prince William at the FA celebrations In a caption competition I’d offer up: “One vote for 2018 your royal highness….but look on the bright side…it could have been zero!!”

If Blatter really is in conflict with his UEFA counterpart and one time ally Michel Platini, and there’s increasing evidence of tension, perhaps comedy is one platform on which they can compete.

Platini clearly has a keen sense of humour. I presume he was joking about a 40-team World Cup idea, off the back of 24 teams in the European Championship, which will ruin the best format in international football.

The subject matter pens up a rich vein of gags, and Blatter wasn’t going to let the opportunity pass.

“Why not 48, 52 teams,” he said with a nod and a wink to the audience at FIFA house at the International Football Arena conference. This was knowing, sophisticated humour rather than the slapstick of the Oxford Union.

So where’s my sense of humour gone then?

Maybe I need to try a joke of my own. How about a 209 nation World Cup finals? Boom boom. We could hold it somewhere nice and tropical over three months. Not in the summer though! Nice – topical material.

It’s seriously a shame that the fun and laughter doesn’t seem to be reverberating around the next World Cup venue, Brazil. How can it be that the nation that loves a party – forgive the cliche – and has won the World Cup more than anyone else is surrounded by so much negativity? And it’s been overshadowed by Russia this and Qatar that. Three World Cups all causing FIFA headaches. That’s a bad joke all round

It’s proof that Football in 2013, and 2014 is a serious business. Largely a business. So can it still be funny too? I mean genuinely funny, not wry smiles or black humour.

I’m recalling examples of what has made me laugh in my years of loving the game, as we all do beneath all the politics.

There’s something inescapably hilarious about the moment in the 1974 World Cup when Mwepu Ilunga of Zaire sabotaged a Brazilian free-kick. It wouldn’t have looked out of place in a silent (comedy) movie. Now we are in the You Tube era, Ilunga’s life-defining intervention can be found here, as long as you appreciate I am – honestly – not old enough to have watched it happening live in ’74! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aYDXkVGpMpc&feature=youtube_gdata_player

A few years ago I remember seeing West Ham United fans ‘beating reality with humour’. Being hammered in a midweek game at Manchester United they had not had a shot.

“Let’s pretend we’ve scored a goal” they sang…until the pause…then the cheer…then the wild celebrations. A pretend goal. In reality the ball was still in, play in the middle of the pitch!

Talking of Manchester United you must remember their winger Andrei Kanchelskis, and the moment he stood on the ball and saluted while the match was in full flow. It was actually when he had moved to Rangers and during a 7-0 win against Ayr. I’m not quite sure how it managed to be purely funny and not humiliating to his beleaguered opponents.

These days it would probably cause a twitter storm and he’d end up on a charge of bringing the game into disrepute.

Has football lost its fun? Are we all taking it to seriously? Maybe, but when a bad result in the first game of the season is regarded as a crisis it shows where the game has got to.

So with all the negativity, surely I should welcome the most powerful man in the game lightening the mood in events that are, predominantly private?

Not necessarily. Like football teams have to ‘earn the right to play’, comedians have to earn the right to use their material. They need to get the audience on their side. In the rooms, the audiences have been ready for Mr Blatter’s gentle humour. The wider world is not. FIFA has a lot of work to do to get the smile back on the face of football.

These three World Cups have raised serious issues that has taken the governing body into areas of human rights and social responsibility that are stretching their powers and responsibilities. The politics are even more intense than those around the corridors of football’s powerbrokers.

Then there’s racism in the game, match fixing, owners who aren’t fit for purpose, hooliganism. Issues that have stained the simple starting point of going to a game of football for fun, and yes, even laughter.

It’s not much more than two years since the corruption that shamed the Executive Committee. You don’t need to have been corrupt to be tainted by the appalling mismanagement, especially if you were the captain of the ship.

So I’m afraid, no, I’m not ready to laugh along with FIFA’s President just yet. It’s not really my kind of humour. I’ll leave that to the Oxford students and conference delegates.

There are still important questions that need answering first. Including 2015 and whether Mr Blatter will stand.

That said, I really don’t want to end on that serious note.

So how about I recall the one-liner that came to me when I bumped into an old friend unexpectedly in Zurich this week, from the brilliant deadpan American comedian Steven Wright.

“My my, fancy seeing you here, It’s a small world……..

…..though you wouldn’t want to have to paint it.”

Lee Wellings is the Sports Correspondent for Al Jazeera English based in London. Contact him at ten.a1716204803reeza1716204803jla@s1716204803gnill1716204803ew.ee1716204803l1716204803. Follow Lee on twitter @LeeW_Sport