Foreign Affairs

The Tumultuous Marriage of Football and Politics: The Forgotten Side of the FIFA World Cup

As the 2018 World Cup nears its conclusion, Desiree Durrani reflects on the political issues and tensions that surround the world's biggest sporting event.

The World Cup is without doubt the most watched sporting event in the world. With 3.2 billion viewers globally in 2014, it’s projected to be watched by even more people in this year’s tournament.

With the competition coming to an end on the 15th of July, the semi-finals are expected to be even more dramatic and exciting. For most of these watchers, they will be watching the games for the heart-stopping goals, to criticise Neymar Jr for all his diving[1], and to see who will eventually be crowned Football (soccer) Champions of the World.

While it is impossible to ignore the power this sport has to unite people and break down social barriers, it is also important to reflect on Russia, the ethics of FIFA and the geopolitical perspective of the tournament.

Russia – a win on and off the field

There is undoubtedly a lot of controversy when it comes to choosing a host nation for the World Cup, but even more so when Russia was chosen to do so eight years ago on the 2nd of December 2010.

It is worthy to note that not only does the infrastructure and economic capacity of a potential host country need to be considered, other non-sporting technical matters are just as important. This includes the country’s reputation on the global stage and perceptions by the public. With Russia’s misdeeds outside the sporting world including backing Bashar al-Assad who has orchestrated the bombing of  orphanages and hospitals and the infiltration of the 2016 US Presidential elections, you can imagine the uproar and protests that took place upon FIFA’s announcement of Russia 2018.

Inside the world of sport is no better, Russia is exceedingly notorious for its state-sponsored doping programme where they infamously switched urine samples during the 2014 Winter Olympic Games held in Sochi.

However, this World Cup is proving to improve Russia’s image on the international stage both in and out of the football world. The Russian team is doing better than critics and analysts had predicted. Qualifying runner-up in their group for the second round (Round of 16), but more importantly, victory over 2010 champions Spain has not only landed them a spot in the Quarter-Finals, it had wider implications for the host off the pitch. It shows Russia’s long-term planning is a successful strategy for its future in business and politics.

There has been plenty of convincing coverage that shows the country’s hardline attempt to keep the tournament racism and hooliganism-free, unlike in the Euro 2016 championship where matches were marred by threats and violence perpetuated by the Russian supporters. So far, there has been no reported incidences of hooliganism or racism experienced by match-goers and tourists alike.

While this has been well and good for Russia’s reputation, the seemingly good nature and showmanship could possibly backfire on the Kremlin. There is a very fine line between the right mix of sport and politics, which Russian critics and observers have rightly pointed out. Putin’s spokesperson is one such example, where he compared the celebrations and victory of Russia over Spain to those after the Soviet victory following the defeat of Nazi Germany.

He is not the only one; Russian governor Oleg Korolyov attributed Germany’s exit to the two World Wars saying ‘the souls of millions of victims killed by them have been avenging and will be avenging’. Jokes aside that Germany never wins in Russia, this is an example of PR gone wrong, and stands to do more damage to the reputation that has already been built by hosting the greatest sporting event.

FIFA – the plaintiff, the judge and the jury

You don’t have to be a football fan to know of the corruption scandals that surround the name ‘FIFA’.

For context, FIFA stands for ‘Fédération Internationale de Football Association’, French for the ‘International Federation of Association Football’. It is the only governing body and organiser of global football tournaments – the World Cup of course is one of them.

The organisation has had a long history of corruption, bribery, and fraud. Its first recorded incident in 2001 plastered the front page, or at least the sports section, of any credible newspaper, when Saudi Arabia was accused of handing out $50,000 each to 20 leading figures in the football world to vote for Sepp Blatter. Of course, the man naturally denied any reports, rumours and investigations into the matter.

A major problem with the organisation is the lack of legal accountability and transparency. They are only accountable to themselves, and they walk the line between approved and illegal corruption. The Sunday Times (UK) obtained sound recordings of members from the executive committee asking for monetary incentives in exchange for their votes.

Moreover, England’s bid chief Simon Johnson revealed that 4 members of that committee had asked for bribes, one in the form of US $2.5 million and another in the form of a knighthood. This then launched a year-long ethics investigation into the bids and declared that any breaches did not affect the integrity of the vote. The results shocked many watchers, resulting in the resignation of investigators such as Micheal J. Garcia who was convinced that the 42 page summary-report was doctored.

With the new FIFA president Gianni Infantino pledging to clean up the organisation, is there hope that it has reformed itself enough to ensure that a country like Russia will not be awarded the right to host and bring in an exponential increase in tourism dollars as a result of hosting the World Cup?

Probably not, but there have been clear efforts to try and implement more stringent rules. This includes a more rigid bid appraisal process and an open ballot of all FIFA member associations – a promising start to a ‘new’ era. What I find most interesting in the reformed bidding process is this new stipulation:

Whoever ends up hosting the FIFA World Cup must prove that they know and have what it takes to deliver the tournament. Not only that, they must also formally commit to conducting their activities based on sustainable event management principles and to respecting international human rights and labour standards according to the United Nations’ Guiding Principles.

This is a first, and only time will tell on whether the 2026 North American World Cup will align to it.

Power to the people – when passion collides with politics

Let me start by saying this: no matter what kind of football fan you are, it is impossible to not be in awe of the World Cup, the power it brings to people all around the world, and how its glory and symbolism forms a great part of the sporting world.

However, the political backdrop to this World Cup is complicated; a political paradox between what sort of celebrations separate and unites them on the pitch. As much as I was all for the idea of the British government’s decision to fly the Saint George’s flag over 10 Downing Street while England remains in the World Cup, I couldn’t help but think of the symbolic gesture it brought – especially in the aftermath of Brexit. While the flag is a symbol that unites the English people during the games, for many it is a symbol of hostility and xenophobia.

St. George flag over 10 Downing Street
Credit: BBC

As part of their efforts to keep hooliganism and excessive nationalism out of the matches and out of the streets, FIFA and the Russian Football Federation have warned fans that any display of overtly-nationalistic symbolism would result in an arrest and immediate ban from Russia – imploring English fans to not bring their flags.

FIFA have stated that they are serious when it comes to keeping hooliganism out of the 2018 World Cup in an unsurprising move to issue US $10,000 fines to two Kosovo-born Swiss footballers, after both made Albanian eagle symbols when they scored goals against Serbia. Leaders in Albania and Kosovo opened online accounts for people to contribute money in order pay the fines (not like the two footballers need it anyway). Kosovar Commerce and Industry Minister Bajram Hasani told reporters he had donated his monthly salary (about €1500) to the account, citing that “They did not forget their roots,”, and that the celebration “brought us joy”.

Though FIFA have made consistent efforts to discourage political gestures from the pitch and the stands at the World Cup, it is clear that nothing can or will stop nationalistic pride from being displayed. However, it is important to make a distinction between symbols and chants that are used for political propaganda as opposed to the expression of genuine pride.

Moving forward – Qatar and beyond

With the end of Russia 2018 looming, it is worth taking a look at this World Cup’s impact on the geopolitics of the world.

If you didn’t notice, Russia played Saudi Arabia in the opening game. However, what caught my attention was two of the world’s political heavyweights in the VIP box, watching from above. It was President Vladimir Putin and King Salman of Saudi Arabia, the latter of which hopes to shape the world through the production of oil and gas, and exerting their influence across the Middle East and Eastern Europe.

These two nations experienced a rocky relationship during the Cold War when Saudi Arabia had allied itself with the US in order to secure its borders from a range of perceived threats, namely communism and Pan-Arabism. However, in late 2016, Russia and Saudi Arabia struck a deal to limit oil production alongside other deals such as a US $1 billion energy investment fund. This also signalled a shift for Russia from its long-time ally Iran, whose national team played in Group B but failed to qualify for the Round of 16.

With the weakening role of the US in the Middle East, it makes sense for Russia to try and increase its influence across the region while Saudi Arabia looks to weaken Iran by aligning itself with Russia. One could only imagine what diplomacy took place in that box.

It was also brought to my attention that Mexico’s game against Brazil coincided with the Mexican presidential election. This coincidence means that the election had to compete for attention that could have either spurred the victorious party or caused chaos in the streets of Mexico City. The election is an important one, with the favourite candidate and now President-elect being Andreas Obrador, a strong left-wing politician who promises ‘radical’ change for Mexico.

However, many people in Mexico had resigned themselves to the ideas that no one is perfect and that football is more important than the elections. What people don’t realise is that the football match is one day with few repercussions, but a political outcome will affect the country more vastly. Treating the election as a back-seat priority could have serious consequences for the country if people are not clear on who they are voting for.

Mexico celebrates Round of 16 qualification
Credit: BBC

With only one week to go of the World Cup, we have seen more of the world being united over the love of football. It has the power to unite people regardless of race, religion and language. We have seen some of the greatest football ever on the global stage, and the best teams crash out.

However, it is important to look beyond the spectacle to ponder how this beautiful game made its way to Russia at this point in its history and whether it was worth the ethical price amongst the corruption scandals of the organisation that this tournament is based on. Support, celebrate and love the game, but be careful of what you are endorsing.

[1] Diving refers to the deliberate falling when a player from another team tries to tackle you, so that the referee will award a foul and in some cases, a penalty kick. I recommend watching the Brazil vs Mexico Round of 16 match, or you could YouTube ‘Neymar Jr diving World Cup’ to get an idea.

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