Despite the starry-eyed wishes of the founding fathers of today’s major sporting events, the Olympics and the World Cup, sports and politics always mix. The ability to bring large numbers of people together, or indeed have half the world glued to one event for hours bestows too much soft power on sports, so politics will inevitably follow. The 2022 FIFA World Cup begins in a few days in Qatar. This year’s World Cup takes place nine months into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the conflict has unsurprisingly infiltrated the sports. On 28 February, FIFA and UEFA, under recommendations from the International Olympic Committee, suspended Russia and Russian clubs from participating in their competitions, including the 2022 World Cup. In late October, Ukraine, which failed to qualify, tried to get FIFA to kick Iran out of this year’s tournament. Iran has been accused of assisting Russia’s war efforts by providing it with kamikaze drones.
There has been a lot of furore over moves to address corruption in FIFA, especially after this World Cup was awarded, for the first time, at the same time as the preceding tournament, and many think that investigations into FIFA are sour grapes. During 2015’s G7 Summit in Germany, US President Barack Obama said the quiet part out loud: “The United States, by the way, since we keep on getting better and better at each World Cup, we want to make sure that a sport that’s gaining popularity is conducted in an upright manner.”
On the surface, Mr Obama’s comments, which came on the heels of the FBI’s investigation into Blatter’s FIFA, look like a nudge for transparent practices. However, at a closer look, it reveals America’s design for FIFA – an international state capture of some sort which ultimately benefits no one but the American sports business elites.
But there are a lot of other issues, such as human rights issues which have been routinely brought up since the World Cup was awarded to Qatar. In February 2021, The Guardian estimated a death toll of 6500 migrant workers since the World Cup was awarded to Qatar. In March 2021, Hendriks Graszoden, the turf supplier for the 2006 World Cup and the European Championships in 2008 and 2016, refused to supply Qatar with World Cup turf. Also, in September 2022, Amnesty International published the results of a YouGov poll of over 17,000 football fans from 15 mostly Western countries showing 73% supported FIFA compensating migrant workers in Qatar for human rights violations. For many countries in the Global South, there is fatigue over the West, making their cultural norms be those of everyone else and trying to enforce them.
Football is the world’s most accessible sport, which explains why it is so popular in poorer countries with limited capacity to invest in high-end facilities. Europe has a population of 750 million people, and the countries have 37 professional football leagues representing more than 1,000 clubs in 31 countries across Europe, with semi-amateur and amateur clubs still having the opportunity to play in national cup competitions and play for promotion to the highest levels of local and continental competition.
The interaction that this accessibility provides is what has made football the most popular sport in the world. The World Cup that is its pinnacle, should be tweaked to become even more accessible to be hosted by its less wealthy members instead of being re-engineered to be dominated by a US that doesn’t care about the sport and even refuses to call it “Football” but have chosen to give the name to a sport that has the ball carried mainly by hand.
Qatar’s success in acquiring the World Cup hosting rights is tainted. It is essential, however, to recognise that the bidding process was initially warped in favour of a select group of wealthy established countries that looked to be the only ones reaping the benefits of World Cup hostings that significantly boost national development and prestige.
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