Financial Incentives, Filthy Ambitions (Part 2)

5 Dec

Part 2 of  the Dispatches special on the World Cup bids looks at the reasons and implications behind FIFA’s decision to award the tournament to Russia and Qatar.

In the misguided march to war with Iraq in 2003, US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld drew a line in the sand. Europe was divided into two distinct and discernible camps. There was ‘Old Europe’, comprising of those countries who had fostered and re-built the concepts of Western liberal democracy in the embers of the Second World War and were reluctant to unthinkingly be at America’s beck and call. And there was ‘New’ Europe’ made up of states who had emerged out of the rubble of Communism’s failure in the last decade of the twentieth century; eager to curry favour with the world’s only superpower and forge their own powerplays on the world stage. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.

This country however, had a somewhat confused perception of itself in that particular endeavour, rushing as it did to the Bush bugle-horn but England certainly found out on Thursday that it now, without any hint of doubt, belongs to a yet unnamed group of nations that can clearly be grouped into a category entitled ‘Old Football’. Why else would Herr Blatter continually attempt to assuage the impending disappointment of England’s doomed bid with patronising pats on the head about accepting defeat in sport and how England was “the motherland of football”. And as with all mothers, they must eventually learn to accept that their children will ultimately flee the nest. It’s a big world out there and it’s not all that pleasant.

There once was a time, when we were led to believe that the World Cup took place in countries that did indeed have a vibrant and enthusiastic thirst for the game. That changed in 1994 when the USA staged the World Cup but despite the cynicism towards the hosts, they organised one of the most memorable and entertaining tournaments that I can remember. The legacy of that tournament is evidenced in the modest growth of the MLS and despite the sneering, the USA did indeed have a footballing culture pre-1994. As did Japan. As did South Africa.

Russia’s success was borne not out of any kind of love of the game. At best, it is a middle-ranking football nation that by hosting the 2018 tournament hopes to promote a more open and favourable image of itself to an outside world that still regards it with suspicion. The Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin is keen to use the World Cup as a propagandist tool in order to strengthen Russia’s standing in the world. He made his intentions expressly clear when he casually told journalists that, “those who don’t take risks, don’t drink champagne”. In other words, “if you play by the rules, don’t expect to fill your coffers”.

And what coffers they are. In this week’s WikiLeaks scandal, Russia’s government was described as a collaborator with organised crime in “a mafia state”. Nobody is quite clear of Roman Abramovich’s involvement in the sycophantic horse-trading that went on in Zurich last week but the insidious influence of the oligarch-culture that so dominates Russian society, so condoned by Putin and his cronies, cannot be doubted. Russia is a nation of extremes and the economic disparities that permeate its social strata will not be levelled by the arrival of a tournament that lasts but four weeks. Has the World Cup truly benefited the street food vendors outside Johannesburg’s Soccer City? Does FIFA really care once the circus has moved on?

As for the serious issues regarding racism that ravage Russian football, it is disconcerting that FIFA should dismiss the implications of a country whose leading officials can so brusquely undermine the value of multiculturalism. A high-profile Russian football agent, Vladimir Abramov recently stated that, “teams shouldn’t have more than one dark-skinned footballer,” and “how Nigerians ruin Russian cities with their drugs and ultimately their AIDS.” According to FIFA, racism would not be taken into consideration during the bidding process because it was “not an operation matter”. Add a suppression of the press to the mix, when the English bid is said to have suffered because of the investigative instincts of the Fourth Estate and it is clear that FIFA is not overly concerned with promoting philanthropy and humanity through the medium of the World Cup. If countries with a real love for the game, that have the infrastructure in place to execute an excellent tournament, that can openly welcome the world, are to be so shamelessly snubbed as England, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands and Belgium were, what’s the point in even pretending that football is a force for good? “Greed is good,” and it’s alive and well in Russia and Zurich. Football is a fool’s gold.

Which leads me onto Qatar. Blatter has not hidden his intentions to cement his legacy by taking the World Cup to as many new territories as possible. And in his final sweeping, grand gesture he feels this legacy will be complete with the tournament being held in the Middle East for the first time. Then again, I thought the World Cup had already been held in Asia? Would his ‘dream’ not have been better fulfilled if the Australian bid had been successful? Wherever the Australian national team chooses to compete, its geographical location suggests that the World Cup would have indeed been played in every continent. But then again, Australia does not have the most television-friendly time zone, does it? It might have the stadia, transport, receptive public and a formative domestic league but that evidently is not enough.

Because Qatar is offering Blatter and the rest of his acolytes to build football in their own image. This World Cup will not be built out of a fostering of passion and historical knowledge of the game. It will climb out of the sand-dunes, constructing monuments of footballing architecture which will be dismantled as soon as they have fulfilled their objectives, ready to be re-packaged and re-sold to other less financially bloated states. It’s the culmination of flat-pack culture, where football becomes homogenised, distilled and rendered synthetic for the cola-guzzling, burger-chomping consumer. Qatar’s World Cup, like no other that has gone before it, will be a theme park to the idea of football as mass entertainment. Because, this time, FIFA is not even prepared to play to the gallery by telling us this is about fostering a football culture. Qatar have never qualified for a World Cup. After 2022, I can guarantee that they never will again.

Like the Russian bid, Qatar was deemed high risk by FIFA but nevertheless emerged victorious over countries that have a proven pedigree in hosting sporting events, such as South Korea and Japan. Once again, the decision to choose Qatar can only be said to have been made under the auspices of lucrative financial dealings that will make a lot of people a lot of money in the next few years. Why else would concerns with regard to homophobia, women’s rights, attitudes to alcohol and the welfare of fans and players in the desert heat be so brazenly disregarded?

However, with this choice, FIFA may have inadvertently brought about its downfall or at the very least, its chastening. The Middle East as a region is not open to remodelling as the massed ranks of the American and British armed forces have found to their cost in recent years. Qatar does not allow Israeli citizens to enter its borders. Now just imagine Israel actually qualifying for the tournament in 2022? The Qataris have said they will relax this rule for the tournament, which makes a mockery of their own beliefs and could potentially throw an already volatile region into disarray. Instead of bringing harmony, what could a potential match between the hosts and Israel bring? And if you’re going to tell me that there is no place for politics in football, then where the hell have you been this week?

Qatar may have dazzled with its artist’s impressions of what the stadia will look like in 2022, but that does not hide the fact that what lies in store for us at the Middle Eastern World Cup is morally bankrupt and at odds with the simplicity of the game it pertains to showcase. It may look very shiny in the desert sun, but in essence Planet Football is being offered a mirage built on sand; there’s nothing there. And if the US continues in its relentless march to confrontation with Iran in the next few years, Sepp Blatter may have put his venal organisation into the headlights of an ideological conflict. Instead of advancing the cause of football, he may have just sealed its demise. Mother always said, “the world’s very big and it’s not very pleasant”.

On Thursday, football entered its very own Dark Ages. It will be a long, desperate, frustrating and upsetting journey to 2026. But after the Dark Ages came the Renaissance. ‘Old’ Football, will once again have its time in the sun.

3 Responses to “Financial Incentives, Filthy Ambitions (Part 2)”

  1. Winston Cuthbert December 6, 2010 at 02:06 #

    Brilliantly written and quite apt. Reference to hope and the Renaissance chimes perfectly and one can only hope that the wait for the return of halcyon days will not be interminable. Morte Fifa! Epitome of the corrupt. How Baudrillard and Eco must feel sadly vindicated at realising they were right.

    • joel December 9, 2010 at 19:58 #

      couldnt agree with you more. this “boys club” has got to be torn down and rebuilt and not with other old, fat, politicians but with footballers. Platini and Beckanbaeur, Zidane and Beckham, people who understand what it is to be a fan and a player.

      But until Blatter and his cronies are ousted we have no choice.

      thank god for the Euro tournaments!

      • Winston Cuthbert December 10, 2010 at 00:24 #

        It must be torn down but when getting the builders in we need a Barcelona model: organisations owned by real fans, those who shiver on the terraces and drive hundreds of miles to support their teams. These fans would, I hope, never allow their beloved football to be hijacked again. While I admire the sentiment, maybe we shouldn’t leave it to those whose heads have turned…Platini…UEFA, Beckenbaeur…Kaiser, Zidane…Qatar World Cup bid, Beckham…recreation of the planet in his own image

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