Columns Sport

More Than The Game: Football’s Rotten Heart

Football is the world’s sport. Like so many millions of spectators worldwide, I tune in multiple times a week, whether on TV or in the stands, to watch the game in all its vagarious beauty. When not watching, we play – in the streets, our gardens, on makeshift pitches using jumpers for goalposts, or, if we’re lucky, the real deal, touchline and all. When not playing, we talk – discussing the latest transfer rumours, the game at the weekend, or the ref who was definitely biased against our team.

The sphere in which the footballing world operates is almost unreal; its universal appeal offers me and millions of other die-hards some routine comfort in the increasingly fractured world in which we live. More than half of the world watched the last World Cup and this number grows every year, with new, enthusiastic fan-bases being created worldwide as I write this. If an alien landed on Earth and we wanted to show them humanity and where we are as a race, we would only have to look to modern football as a symbol; a text laying out the magnificence of our global endeavours. 

However, like almost everything in modernity, examining the game more thoroughly than a cursory glance at its gilded edges results in a more sombre conclusion. This is certainly the case when one inspects the conspiratorial background of Russia’s 2018 World Cup and the shoddy excuses that FIFA (football’s governing body) put forward to allow the brutal, repressive regime the honour of hosting the event. Thus, for the next few weeks, I’ll be focusing on the scandals which have ripped through the sport like Bayern through Barca’s defence, in an attempt to shine a light at the ugliness at the heart of the Beautiful Game.

On the 29th of May 2015, Sepp Blatter began his fifth consecutive term as FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) President. Just four days later, a corruption scandal rocked the footballing world, leading to Blatter’s resignation, footballing ban, and, in his own words, “untold damage to the reputation of our institution [FIFA].” Throughout his whole incumbency as president, allegations of corruption and financial negligence had circled him like a hungry vulture waiting to feed. 

Although Blatter was the most senior official implicated in the corruption scandal, the blame can hardly rest solely upon his shoulders. 

The bureaucrats who have been either personally or criminally indicted since the scandal broke range from the current and former heads of multiple national and international footballing federations like CONMEBOL, CONCACAF, and FIFA, to footballing legends like Michel Platini. To date, more than two dozen people and entities have been convicted of or pleaded guilty to racketeering, wire fraud, and money laundering in the ongoing investigation. As such, the past twenty years of footballing bureaucracy – and the football that has emerged from it – has an excoriating asterisk next to it in the record books.

Undoubtedly, more allegations of unethical and criminal behaviour from the disreputable governing body of world football are still to come. Nevertheless, that which we do know paints a troubling picture indeed.

Then-Secretary General of FIFA, Jérôme Valcke, decided to announce the location of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups at a single ceremony in Zürich, 2010, and to scrap FIFA’s policy of rotation between footballing federations. The stage was set, FIFA’s collapse into ignominy was readied; what followed is genuinely quite astounding. Russia was arguably an eminently predictable choice to host the World Cup, due to the extreme popularity of football in the country and Blatter’s policy of opening football up to the wider world. Yet when one looks below the surface, one finds a shadowy hotbed of corruption, under-the-table political dealings, and, intriguingly, the use of at least semi-governmental intelligence services. Further, for fans who wish that the game be held to high moral standards, like myself, there are pertinent and severe concerns over the racism, nationalism, homophobia and sexism that has been well-documented in Russian football, as well as the Russian’s government’s infamous wide-ranging state-sponsored doping programme.

In an attempt to concisely lay out the frankly bizarre unfurling of events, the following few paragraphs will contain most of the period’s pertinent details.

As soon as the plans for the Zürich ceremony were announced, the competing federations – Russia, England, the Benelux, & Iberia, and the USA, Korea, Qatar, & Australia respectively – went about their campaigns. In order to convince the twenty-four strong contingent of electors, (which contained such now-shamed names as Chuck Blazer and Jack Warner), each campaign began a dizzying process of intense lobbying and rule-bending; an orgy of spending, prestige-grabbing, and power-politics followed.

In an effort to find dirt on Russia’s campaign on behalf of England’s, Christopher Steele (former MI6 operative and compiler of the Trump-Russia Dossier) discovered that influential figures close to Russian President Putin had been conscripted to help in their efforts. In 2018, the New York Times wrote how Russian government officials and oligarchs had been “cutting shadowy gas deals with other countries in exchange for votes, offering expensive gifts of art to FIFA voters and even dispatching Roman Abramovich, the billionaire who owns the London-based Chelsea Football Club, to South Africa to pressure Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s president.”

“Roman was absolutely integral to the Russian bid,” Steele commented. “I remember seeing him attending private meetings with Sepp Blatter in South Africa and thinking to myselfWe don’t do that, so we’re fucked.’” Further, in an interview with the BBC World Service’s World Football podcast, whistle-blower Bonita Mersiades who worked on Australia’s campaign to host WC2022, described how the 2010 Zurich vote was awash with spooks engaged in espionage. She explained that “the intelligence agencies that were there said it was really noticeable when the Russians turned up because no one could hear or see anything. The Russians had jammed everyone else’s devices.” It’s no wonder they won when the exertions of biggest rival England went about as far as wheeling out David Beckham, Prince William, and friend-of-pigs David Cameron, as well as handing out identical Mulberry handbags, valued at £230, to the wives of each elector.

I think it would be fair to conclude that Russia’s successful 2020 World Cup bid is a wee bit shady. However, if you thought that the electors were paragons of virtue, corrupted by the evil Russians, you’d be dead wrong. Former Football Association chairman and chairman of England’s bid Lord Triesman, contended that four FIFA electors sought bribes in return for their backing. He alleged that FIFA vice-president Jack Warner requested direct financial compensation of around £3,000,000, that Paraguay’s FIFA member Leoz demanded a knighthood, and that the Thai representative Makudi asked to be granted the TV rights to a friendly between England and the Thai national team. As a result of allegations like these, and the aforementioned 2015 corruption case, well over half of the 24-person electoral committee have been indicted or banned from the game. While each quashed case is a very welcomed addition, it is crucial that we, and our national and international representatives, scrutinise each and every possible source of corruption in the bureaucracies which now govern our lives.

However, the corruption behind Russia’s World Cup bid is perhaps the least of our concerns about the country. The authoritarian state’s blatant erosion of democracy, persecution of the LGBT community, and consequence-free quasi-invasion of Ukraine should have drawn the ire of the international community enough to have inspired it to take a stand and refuse to legitimise the brutal, nationalistic autocracy. Nonetheless, when clandestine corruption exists incessantly at the head of football’s authoritative governing body for two decades, fans must take notice or see our sport degraded even further. 

To make a more abstract point, it’s of tantamount importance to the public good that we fight fiercely against the inadequacies of modern bureaucracies whenever they fail in their duties to the public, as a result of being faced with insanity-inducing levels of money, status, and power in order to facilitate the elevation of their wealth and status. Increasingly in our atomised age, where neoliberal thought has become pervasive, the public has become unable – through both financial dominance in our politics and personal apathy – to hold our representatives to account; through this, we are helping to create the conditions in which corruption thrives. Thus, if we wish to build a better world, it’s imperative that we rage against the machine.

You could be reading this, now at the end of my second column, perplexed as to why I’ve ignored the infamous controversy surrounding the successful Qatari World Cup 2022 bid and the implications it has for world football. Well, this time next week, I’ll be discussing just that (and more) in an effort to illuminate the increasing influence of the Gulf States, like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, on the footballing world and why we should be worried.

Chris ONeil

Chris O'Neil is a columnist for the Blue. He's going into his second year at Brasenose College, studying History and Politics. With special interests in sports and pertinent socio-political issues, he'll be writing his column throughout the late summer and into Michaelmas Term 2020.