Written by Lewis Walker.
Edited by Paisley Regester.
July 31st, 2020: it was classic FIFA – controversy, corruption and cover ups. The Swiss had just appointed a special prosecutor to investigate meetings between FIFA president Gianni Infantino and the Swiss Attorney General, who subsequently resigned. The general reaction of football fans worldwide? “No surprise there.” These events were unsurprising and, following scandal after scandal, numbing. Since disgraced former president Sepp Blatter was ousted and later criminally charged, FIFA’s reputation has only degraded further into nothingness. Infantino was elected on an agenda of transparency and accountability and FIFA was seemingly on a path to clean governance. However, after the 2015 corruption scandal that destroyed FIFA’s reputation beyond repair, this should have been easily seen through. Only a few months later, Infantino was being investigated for ethics violations.
It is fair to say that the governance of an industry where its European arm alone was worth an estimated $25 Billion in 2019 is far from trivial. Every summer and winter, billions of pounds are spent transferring players from one team to another. Ticket sales account for billions of pounds in revenue each year across the globe. The FIFA World Cup, the centrepiece of the footballing world, exceeds even the Olympics in viewing figures, with over half of the global population tuning in to watch the most recent iteration. On top of this, 2.5 million tickets were sold and FIFA was projected to rake in around $6.1 Billion from the month-long tournament.
Unlike the Olympics, bids to host the World Cup are plentiful. Each iteration attracts several potential hosts all eyeing up the world’s greatest sporting spectacle. What ensues is a competitive bidding process based on merit and infrastructure – or at least, what was seen to be. Rather than merit, money talks. Behind the scenes, the glaring question became which prospective host can line the pockets of the FIFA magpies with the shiniest of toys. The hosting rights are awarded based on a voting process carried out by FIFA officials and the heads of the world footballing federations. Recently, the US Department of Justice outlined this in black and white – Russia and Qatar (the host of the upcoming 2022 tournament) bribed their way to the hosting rights. Over half the people involved in casting votes are accused of wrongdoing.
Qatar was awarded the 2022 World Cup after a successful bid (colloquially known as “a bribe”). To host the biggest sporting spectacle, the Qataris require a whole new set of stadia and an infrastructural revamp. To achieve this, Qatar needed more workers. Migrants were attracted like moths to an inescapable flame. Since construction began, workers have had their passports confiscated under the kafala system, having their visas tied to their employers. This puts every aspect of their lives in the hands of exploitative employers. Thousands have been forced into labour conditions that the International Observatory for Human Rights predicts could result in up to 4,000 deaths by 2022. Unpaid wages have resulted in deaths by starvation. Qatar has repeatedly fallen short on upholding promises of protection, but despite this, FIFA has failed to hold its host accountable, preferring instead to benefit from the abuses.
The knowledge of FIFA’s blind eye to human rights abuses in Qatar is common knowledge in the footballing sphere and beyond. Less well-known is the destruction they leave in their wake. Infrastructure and the running of the event is left in the hands of the host country, as are all the costs. FIFA rakes in the profits and the host country foots the bill. For some countries, the boost to their own economy might balance this out. For example, the 2006 World Cup was hosted in Germany, a developed nation with the national and footballing infrastructure to host the event without taking on exorbitant building projects. Contrastingly, the 2014 event in Brazil cost $15 billion on paper (rumoured to be around $40 billion+ in reality) for upgrading the infrastructure. This sparked protests in Brazil, with people angered the money was not better spent on impoverished communities, many of which watched as now abandoned stadiums sprouted up next to their homes.
One step further and FIFA would be explicitly displaying its blood money with a sense of pride for the world to see. We are also unwitting benefactors. As a money maker, the World Cup is a ruthless machine. However, as a sporting event, it is an entertainment masterpiece for us to enjoy and half of the global population will do so again in 2022. I have sat and written about FIFA’s blind eye, as have many others. Prosecutors in Europe and the Americas work tirelessly to reveal the truth behind the curtain and human rights organisations frequently release report after report highlighting the abuses outlined above.
Nonetheless, how many of these writers (including myself), prosecutors, activists and everyday persons are going to sit down and watch ninety plus minutes of football every day? I would put money on most of them. However, it is difficult to lay the blame on the fans. They have little to no power to alter the governance on their own. This is a criticism mainly aimed at FIFA, but also myself and others. Can we really celebrate the greatest sporting event, and the sport billions love, burdened by the knowledge that it was built upon foundations of modern slavery and that the governance of FIFA has facilitated this?