Fee Fie Fo FIFA!

It’s a well-known fact that football’s world governing body, FIFA, recognizes more states than the UN. And that’s got to be great news—particularly for the tiny countries—because it means they’ve got a huge multinational organization working on their behalf to level the ground rules of participation and make it easy for all to compete equally regardless of political or economic power. Right?

Wrong.

The international uproar around holding the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar shows that, from FIFA’s point of view, some countries are far more recognizable than others. According to the Guardian (UK newspaper), “FIFA is much less of an international sporting administrator than it is a supranational privateer”.

Dusty Hope
Doha Sam / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

The debate over Qatar’s hosting the 2022 World Cup has tended to focus on the effect weather conditions will have on fans and players at the height of summer when temperatures could rise as high as 50°C.

But cool players and cold beer are irrelevant when you consider these questions: What about slave labour used to build the tournament infrastructure, the number of workers dying climbing into the hundreds? What are the chances of democracy coming to the country? And, although reports so far show no shady negotiations led to the country being selected in the first place, what are the conditions that make Qatar (or Russia, due to host the tournament in 2018) more suitable to host the World Cup than other countries with transparent governance that submitted bids at the same time?

The Guardian newspaper revealed that this summer Nepalese workers died at a rate of almost one a day in Qatar, many of them young men who suffered sudden heart attacks. It also found conditions amounting to modern-day slavery, as defined by the International Labour Organization. These included forced labour, confiscation of documents, denial of access to water, and even no pay.

FIFA likes to promote football—and their flagship tournament, the World Cup—as a global carnival. The people’s game gathers participants from all over the world to learn, communicate and celebrate together. Football’s well-known dark side is airbrushed; hooliganism is rarely mentioned and the political side of extreme partisan behaviour is ignored. More importantly, there is no questioning by the organization of the way money has corrupted the game. FIFA loves to maintain the charade that all’s equal on the pitch and off it.

But, again quoting The Guardian:

“[FIFA] is a parasite body, which descends on the appropriately named “host” nation every four years, siphoning billions of tax-free profit out of it at the same time as overriding its laws and constitutions to suit its needs…”

At the time of the Confederations Cup in June—the tournament held 12 months in advance of the World Cup to test stadiums, television links and so on—the Guardian ran an article about riots in 2014 host Brazil with this sub-heading: “In Fortaleza, a city of glaring inequality, 130,000 live in extreme poverty, a mother sold her baby for £15—and a £150m stadium has been built for next year’s tournament.”

This was not just the people of the favelas protesting, it was thousands of ordinary Brazilians concerned that their country was being used—like South Africa, host of the 2010 tournament—simply as a picturesque backdrop to the football itself, and that the promised legacy in sports and economic terms would really be subservient to the profits going into the pockets of the global giants who sponsor the tournament.

I heard soccer pundit Pat Nevin saying, on an otherwise inoffensive BBC Confederations Cup highlights program, that FIFA is creating a ‘despotic micro-state’ in Brazil as it does for every World Cup.

When football can sweep problems like hooliganism and extreme nationalism under the carpet why should any of this matter?

Well, firstly, because when immeasurable resources are coupled with a complete lack of transparency, the product is something ruthless and evil. It seems incredible that “non-democracies are even eligible to bid” (The Guardian’s Marina Hyde again) for the World Cup, but if there were any conditions that a host country should be democratically accountable, not only would it put off bidders like Qatar, but it would curtail the wealth-gathering of the organization itself.

Secondly, within a sport like football, the great achievements are down to teams. There are great individuals, but they can’t win on their own. Unfettered capitalism means, however, that players are signing on for huge fees and getting ridiculous pay packages sometimes before they’ve done much on the field. Some players have it written into their contract that they have to be the highest earner at their club. So the club signs a new player and you get an immediate pay rise. As a result, in football you are great because of how much you earn, rather than earning a lot because you are great.

And finally, sport shouldn’t be run like free market capitalism. The purpose of capitalism is to drive your competitors out of business. The purpose of sport is healthy competition. A match is not a match if the sides are too unequal. Money creates inequality.

FIFA will never be philanthropic while we the fans allow them to get away with this behaviour. We must concentrate on what we have in common and build understanding, cooperation and support between all football fans. Those of us following the big footballing nations should be speaking up for those who, by no fault of their own, were born in countries at the other end of the global league table.

Remember, there is no Newcastle without Sunderland, no Celtic without Rangers, no Barcelona without Real Madrid, no Boca Juniors without River Plate; and no England without Scotland, no Brazil without Argentina. Embrace your rivals and stand up for the soul of football; it’s healthy competition that matters, not profit.

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