More Than The Game: The War For Football’s Rotten Heart

With illustration by May Moorwood.

For many fans, football, like all cultural cornerstones, is a welcome escape from our regular lives; we find genuine, unmatched fulfilment in celebrating hysterically from the stands, shoulder to shoulder with our 90-minute-brotherhood. It’s a boot, incessantly stamping on the human face when we watch, helplessly so, at the degradation of things so central to our lives. It’s easy to become overwhelmingly nihilistic when a formerly resolute fixture in one’s life is seemingly restructured, brick by brick, with utter regard to profit and little to morality or ethics. This same nihilism is hard to avoid when our political sphere is successfully invaded by reactionary, anti-intellectual elements and our communities are left to decay, all under the protective aegis of apparently progressive free-market capitalism.

However, despite the fairly blatant corporate control of our politics, at least we have the vote, a moderately free press, and the ability to make our voice heard through both protest action and activism. Our political system, for all its rot, earnestly supports some democratisation of power and revelation of knowledge – our footballing bureaucracy promotes their complete negation.

FIFA’s clandestine nature has resulted in its chequered past, shadowy present, and bleak future; this statement has proven true most forcefully with Qatar’s World Cup bid. FIFA whistle-blower Phaedra Al-Majid, told the BBC that she is “tired of FIFA’s culture of secrecy”, after Michael Garcia, the US investigator appointed by FIFA to look into allegations of wrongdoing during the bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, resigned in protest of an official summary of his findings. Perhaps most damningly of all, Sepp Blatter, disgraced ex-FIFA President, claims that a surreptitious meeting between Nicolas Sarkozy and the Crown Prince of Qatar was the impetus behind their successful bid. Taking all this, as well as the information in last week’s column into consideration, it’s impossible not to come to the conclusion that Qatar’s World Cup is deeply corrupt and unquestionably immoral.

But this has all been dealt with? Surely most of the figures complicit in the corruption behind Qatar’s bid are gone from the sport. What’s the point in raging over closed cases, especially when the Qatari World Cup is so close? One may query. Well, I would answer, FIFA is a very seedy operation and you aren’t thinking big enough.

Qatar’s cultural crown jewel has become the central pawn in their global political battle with its Arab neighbours. In June 2017, Saudi Arabia and the UAE were the leading countries in a five-nation coalition that cut all political and economic ties with Qatar. The blockade, shoddily justified by Qatar’s alleged support for terrorist movements in the Middle East (glass houses…) and its close links to Iran, purposefully hindered Qatari construction works in order to facilitate the possible sharing of hosting privileges across the Persian Gulf. When the emails of the UAE’s ambassador to the US, Yousef al-Otaiba, a well-connected scion of Washington’s political elite, were leaked, it laid bare a trail of plans aimed at diminishing Qatar’s ability to host the World Cup, including one that would force Qatar to share the World Cup with its neighbours.

Saudi Crown Prince, Mohamed bin Salman’s cultural and economic reform strategy ‘Vision 2030’ is also extremely significant here. Under the auspices of bin Salman, the ultra-conservative Islamic kingdom claims that it is opening itself up to the western world. With this came gradual social reform and an opening up to liberal values. Further, the house of Saud has invested billions of pounds in major cultural and sporting events, particularly football, seeing it as a way to both soften its image and – with one eye on the successes of its neighbours Qatar and the UAE – to increase its own soft power and influence (this is known as ‘sportswashing’).

Saudi Arabia and the UAE may be strengthening its ties with FIFA. In 2018, Infantino made a shock proposal to FIFA: a revamped Club World Cup, backed by SoftBank (a huge Japanese conglomerate which has strong ties to both Saudi Arabia and the UAE) to the tune of $25 billion (compared to the current tournament which is worth, at most, $100 million), and expanded to include the biggest European clubs and as a direct challenger to UEFA’s Champions League.

Damningly, current FIFA president Gianni Infantino addressed the leaders of the G20, the 20 largest economies in the world – Mohamed bin Salman, amongst them. After years of repetition that sports and politics should be separate, he gave a speech that claimed football could in fact be used to heal socio-political divisions. One example? The rift between the Gulf states. “Maybe, if football makes dreams come true, in 2022 we could also experience a World Cup in Qatar as well as, why not, some games in other countries of the Arabian Gulf. But this is another story, hopefully with a happy end. Inshallah!” he proclaimed to a conference of world leaders

On more than one occasion, Infantino has raised the prospect of bringing forward an expanded 48 team World Cup for 2022. Such a move would be impossible for Qatar to accommodate and would force them to share the finals. Later he told The Guardian that expanding and sharing the World Cup could help bring peace in the Gulf. When asked about Saudi Arabia hosting matches, he said: “if any discussion around the World Cup can help in any way whatsoever to make the situation evolve in that region, with regard to Saudi Arabia, it’s a nice impact maybe.” If it was that notorious night in Zürich which consigned Sepp Blatter to the dustbin of history – at least in the eyes of the ethically upstanding – then I fear that we may have already witnessed the moral nadir of Gianni Infantino.

Despite the fact FIFA’s corrupt past looks to be destined to repeat indefinitely, evermore blatantly corrupt, what’s worse is that it’s all done with a complete disregard to morality or even human rights. I explained last week about the Qatari World Cup’s horrific background and the repressive backdrop over which it will take place – still, neighbouring regimes fight them tooth and nail for the prestige of being the most brutally despotic Gulf state.

While the UAE is a horrific place to live if one is LGBTQ+, has to work to survive, or wishes to speak out against the regime, it’s not even the most repressive regime in the Persian Gulf. Saudi Arabia remains one of the world’s most uncompromising abusers of human rights, even after its wholly inauthentic attempt at ‘reform’. The Saudi people have absolutely no democracy. According to the Cornell Law School’s Death Penalty Database, the state executed over 1,000 people in the 2010s. There is, effectively, a gender apartheid in the country, even after taking into account the lifting of the ban on women attending games and the ban on driving. Scandalously, Jamal Khashoggi, the dissident Saudi Washington Post journalist and critic of Mohammed bin Salman, who was lured to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, murdered, dismembered and disposed of by a squad of security personnel with links to Mohamed bin Salman. He quickly became something of an international pariah for seemingly random vacillations between liberal reformism, sybaritic opulence, and viciously tyrannical despotism.

Famously, Infantino sat next to the Saudi Crown Prince and Vladimir Putin at the opening of the 2018 World Cup. The fact that the current FIFA President unabashedly rubs elbows with such brutal dictators and autocrats frankly nauseates me, but it’s hardly surprising. After FIFA’s unashamed embrace of both the Russian and Qatari World Cups, despite human rights abuses and blatant corruption, this is just the way football’s governing body operates now.

If last week’s column didn’t instil in you a deep distress at the state of football, then this week’s surely must have. The rot that has burrowed deep into the core of the world’s sport hasn’t gone anywhere; it’s only getting worse. I put the small amount of hope I have for the game into campaigns like New FIFA Now, who agitate for complete structural revolution with fans put back at the heart of the game. Any fan worth their salt should appeal passionately, radical as it may seem, for a complete boycott of Qatar 2022 and the total destruction and reconstruction of FIFA.

But I wouldn’t hold my breath. Wide-scale institutional reform is sorely needed and, as profit is chosen at every stop over the progressive power of art and even human life, it isn’t going to come. In our increasingly divided, unfulfilled world, football’s unifying nature will be mourned like a lost child; her slow death is killing me.

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.

About the Author

Chris ONeil
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.