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World cup tension

13 June 2014

THE tension is mounting; World Cup fever is upon us. Will our team sing the National Anthem properly? Will the armadillo be saved? And when is a sports venue not a sports venue?

The England football manager Roy Hodgson wants to demonstrate patriotism by making sure that the players all sing the National Anthem when in Brazil: "You very rarely play against opponents who haven't got their hands on their hearts when singing their anthem as loud as they can," he says, and he wants the England boys doing the same.

So as well as practising penalties they will also need some song practice, brushing up on the words beyond "God save our gracious Queen, long live our. . ." But when asked if the substitutes also had to sing, Hodgson was not sure. "Do they all sing it? . . . I hope they will."

More pressing, however, is the future of the three-banded armadillo, which is the official Brazilian World Cup mascot but is in danger of extinction. Income from merchandise featuring the animal is worth millions to FIFA. And conservationists say that some of this money should be invested in protection for the species.

Known locally as the tatu bola, or armadillo ball, it protects itself when threatened by rolling its flexible armour into an impenetrable ball. But, unlike other armadillo species, the tatu bola is not adapted to life underground, and the ground above is fast disappearing.

Flavia Miranda, the deputy chair of the Anteater, Sloth, and Armadillo Specialist group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature, says: "In the last Brazilian list of endangered species, the three-banded armadillo moved from 'vulnerable' to 'in danger', because it's lost nearly 50 per cent of its habitat in the past 15 years."

There are other issues: the unique defensive strategy of becoming a ball may have helped it to survive 140 million years of evolution, but leaves it vulnerable to human beings; for when it rolls into a ball, it remains stationary. Scientists and conservationists believe that FIFA should fund protected space in which it can thrive. But there is no sign of that, yet.

Both these stories, however, have been swallowed up by a shocking World Cup bribery scandal that is not shocking anyone. How Qatar got the nod for the World Cup in 2022 baffled many, given that the country is too hot for football, and does not possess a stadium. Now the Sunday Times reports that payments of millions of pounds were made to officials who supported the bid.

The bid committee for Qatar denies these allegations; but the bleak backdrop is the deaths, so far, of an estimated 1200 migrant construction workers in the £120-billion push to create the necessary sporting infrastructure.

Oh, and apparently World Cups also involve some football matches.

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