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Why the line between sports and politics must become unblurred

The World Cup is well and truly underway in Russia, seven and half years after 2018’s hosts and Qatar were controversially awarded the right to host football’s biggest tournament. The intervening period has seen criticisms of the bids and these nations publicised on an almost daily basis, and whilst there are merits in highlighting these shady aspects, we are in danger of permanently intertwining sports and politics.

Orientalism is a term coined by noted Palestinian theorist, Edward Said, and details Western perceptions of non-European centric cultures, which are commonly negative – depicting them and their populations as backward and uncivilised. Since the award of the 2018 and 2022 hosts in December 2010, concepts such as these have collided with sport like never before.

Major global sporting events, such as the World Cup, identify and market themselves as pure, a chance for all cultures and nations to compete regardless of status or wealth. States can compete free of politics and conflict. These concepts should render notions of Orientalism moot.

However, recently the image of the World Cup has not done this. The revelations of rampant corruption within FIFA has led to unprecedented levels of scrutiny to how FIFA selects host nations. Russia and Qatar are unavoidably in the dock with the scandal erupting when they are due to host the next two tournaments. Something that is unquestionably no accident. The scandal has inevitably led to finger-pointing, and depressingly, to the equally inevitable hypocrisy.

The explosive fallout of the bidding process saw Qatar and Russia accused of bribery and a variety of further under-handed tactics to secure the nominations. This has been followed by a plethora of further objections, many of which have been politically charged.

Accusations of wrong-doing relating to World Cup hosts became evident in 2000, when a decision regarding who would host the 2006 World Cup was made. South Africa had been expected to be awarded that tournament, bringing the competition to Africa for the first time. However, Germany managed to secure the requisite number of nominations, resulting in a series of accusations of corruption, with some delegates even lobbying for a revote. South Africa was eventually placated with the subsequent tournament and things seemed to go on as before.

Nonetheless, subsequent evidence has emerged of secret slush funds, and even the German government providing arms to Saudi Arabia in exchange for votes. With any notions of human rights, which now dominate the Qatari and Russian bids, not seemingly even mildly significant back then in the bidding process.

The story of the successful German bid continues to garner traction in Germany, with Franz Beckenbauer, one of the greatest ever German footballers, still under investigation for his part in the process. The South African bid was once more thrown into the spotlight in 2015 when the late and former FIFA delegate Chuck Blazer outlined in his testimony that both South Africa (2010) and France (1998) had bribed him and his colleagues in return for their votes.

However, much of this has been forgotten in the majority of the Western coverage (with Germany being the exception, for obvious reasons). The British media, in particular, have built a narrative that has endured for almost a decade. One where sophisticated, European, and traditionally white nations aren’t corrupt. Corruption on this scale only happens in those less developed regions of the world, those savages in distant lands.

The intervening years since the 2018 and 2022 decisions were made have borne a procession of stories regarding compensation sought from losing nations, boycotts, re-runs of the vote, the tying in of political disputes and regular suggestions that England will stage one of the tournaments, upon the removal of Russia or Qatar as hosts.

Had the World Cups been re-allocated, then why wouldn’t it pass to the co-bid of Portugal and Spain for 2018 and the United States in 2026? They came second in the respective votes. The English bid was a distant last, garnering just one solitary vote.

A further in-depth look at the behaviour of the English bid makes a re-allocation of the tournament to ‘the home of football’ even more perplexing.

England unequivocally broke a series of bidding rules, they colluded with the fellow bidders South Korea, promising their support and vote for 2022 in return for Korean support for England in 2018. Something forbidden by the FIFA’s guidelines which unambiguously states: ‘the member association agrees to refrain from collaborating or colluding with any other member association or any third party to unfairly influence the outcome of the bidding process’.

Furthermore, England arranged a highly controversial friendly with Thailand, much to the consternation of then England manager – Fabio Capello. The friendly had no footballing incentives. Its design was unsubtle, to sway prominent Thai FIFA delegate – Worawi Makudi, with the game set to provide a huge financial influx to Makudi’s associates. However, the friendly never took place, called off, following England’s failure to be awarded the World Cup.

The murkier elements of England’s efforts to host the World Cup is encapsulated in one relationship, the association with disgraced former FIFA Vice President, Jack Warner. As with Makudi, the English bid attempted to curry favour with him, so he would use his considerable influence to sway delegate’s votes toward England.

A high-profile international friendly in Warner’s native Trinidad took place, and the English FA paid tens of thousands of pounds for a Caribbean football dinner. In addition to arranging for a family friend of Warner’s to be given a job within the UK – an act naturally deemed to have ‘violated bidding rules’. Warner has become the epitome of ‘corruption’ within FIFA, and has a long list of criminal allegations connected to him both in and out of football. The consistent association the English bid had with Warner is stark and shameful.

If there were to be a re-allocation on the grounds of questionable mortality, the malfeasance, rife within English bid, would see them toward the bottom of the list, not at its summit. Sentiments echoed last week by Gary Lineker, who was a prominent face of England’s failed 2018 bid, he stated – “Who are we to start getting judgemental on who should have the World Cup?”

The revelations into World Cup bidding proved unequivocally that these contests were rarely ethical or moral. World Cups have been in questionable locations before, fascist governments and dictatorships have significant form in hosting sporting events, particularly World Cups. These practices have been long-standing and widespread and often transcend any particular nation or culture.

As depicted aptly by Chief Executive of England’s bid, Andy Anson, and his comments days before the December 2010 announcement, the BBC had planned to air a Panorama programme highlighting long-standing corruption within Football’s world governance. Anson reacted angrily – “I’m incredibly disappointed with the timing of what the BBC seem to be proposing with Panorama. To do this the week before the vote – I don’t think it’s patriotic”.

Despite the problematic chain of events set off by the decisions of December 2010, there have been some positives. As the incumbent FIFA Vice President, Victor Montagliani, suggests “If Russia and Qatar wouldn’t have got these World Cups would we be in this situation now with an opportunity to clean the game?

“I think that was the starting point and the tipping point for certain things to happen. If England and the US had got the World Cup, maybe we would’ve had status quo. I’m just wondering if the authorities that have stepped up their involvement in the game would’ve done that if the choices had been a bit different. Maybe the best thing that happened in football was Russia and Qatar.”

Furthermore, FIFA has a responsibility as a world sporting body to bring the competition around the world. This century you have seen the first World Cups in Africa, Asia and with Qatar, the Middle East.

These competitions must go to places where the sport may not have been historically prevalent. FIFA’s mission statement dictates this to be imperative. Their first pillar considers FIFA’s primary objective is ‘to improve the game of football constantly and promote it globally …’ while the second pillar states that ‘FIFA’s goal is to touch, unite and inspire the world through its competitions and events’. FIFA in the twenty-first century has complimented this mandate, combining the two pillars to promote the game outside traditional regions.

Also, having the first winter World Cup in 2022, although handled appallingly, firstly awarding it to Qatar in the summer then changing it to the winter, is a necessary and important precedent to have. Individual nations shouldn’t be prohibited from bidding or hosting the tournament because their climate is not conducive to footballing temperatures in June and July.

Qatar has rightly been subject to much criticism for its human rights record. The blame is justified, particularly when it concerns workers rights, as it directly impacts the building of stadiums and infrastructure required to host the tournament. This and this alone should have been why Qatar could be stripped of the tournament. However, even in this regard, the argument has spilt over to other, more political elements. Mainly from regional rival Saudi Arabia, who, in the past few years, have targeted Qatari media outlets and businesses, often criticising the judgement in Qatar hosting the tournament, despite their own record on human rights widely considered to be one of the worst in the world.

Actions such as these have started a worrying trend, where sports events have become the trigger for government officials to criticise rival states using sports as the vehicle. This results in massive media scrutiny and civil actions. In 2015, Baku hosted the first European games; in the build-up to the games, protests erupted both in and outside the media regarding Azerbaijan’s human rights.

While these protests are noble, sporting events should in most cases be sheltered from the wider problems of society; it also illustrates the shocking selectivity and hypocrisy. Why was there no moral outrage in 2005, when London was chosen to host the 2012 Olympics, two years after uprooting a volatile region through an illegal war? Where was it when Israel was picked to host 2013 Under 21 European Championships, despite Israel being characterised by the UN of “imposing an apartheid regime”? While Sri Lanka hosted the 2012 Twenty-20 Cricket World Cup, despite continued political oppression and horrific massacres by its government.

America (along with Canada and Mexico) have been selected as hosts for the 2026 tournaments, will it’s human rights violations in its indiscriminate drone bombing of thousands of innocent civilians across the globe or the increase in the endemic racism that seems to exist in sections of American society be highlighted? Yes, in the grand scheme, of course, it should, but not in the context of hosting the World Cup.

Sporting events should highlight these issues and if a nation wants to host a global event like the World Cup and has questionable ethics and actions, then these provide a platform for reasonable discussion and with the responsibility of hosting a global event, garner a change and leave a legacy.
However, this should be done in the confines of elements related to the impact of hosting such as event, and use the cultural power and attraction sport provides, not by political posturing.

Russia and Qatar have seen long-standing gripes aired purely for political gain rather than highlighting issues of depravity. As if that is the case, the majority of nations wanting to host the World Cup would never be able too, as nearly every major nation able to afford to host such a tournament is certain to have questionable foreign and domestic policies, and we must remember, first and foremost, this is a football tournament – not a political display.

Written by Adam Fletcher.

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