The World Cup disgraces humanity

Published by The i paper (21st November, 2022)

The greatest player in World Cup history was Pelé, who scored twice in his first final at the age of 17 and triumphed three times in his four tournaments. As Johann Cruyff once said, he was “the only footballer who surpassed the boundaries of logic”. So how wondrous that we live in an age when a football bureaucrat shows similar ability to shrug off all such restraints of logic. And just as we celebrate the Brazilian magician for showcasing the glory of the game, perhaps we should now all hail Gianni Infantino for spotlighting how the shameless suits, money men and backroom power brokers have soiled the gorgeous game with their sordid actions.

The performance of Fifa’s president on Saturday, delivering an absurdist 57-minute diatribe in defence of a repressive feudal regime, was the perfect kick-off for a preposterous event. Infantino has form, of course. He has claimed that more World Cups would mean fewer migrant deaths in the Mediterranean. He applauded Vladimir Putin for using his event to transform “the perception that the world has about Russia” after the theft of Crimea. Last week the Swiss lawyer even suggested the tournament might spark a ceasefire in Ukraine. Now he has followed up with a ridiculous, rambling and offensive rant that went far beyond anything that might have been dreamt up by the most savage satirist to expose the stains on his sport.

The buffoonish Fifa boss – who flies to the Gulf on private jet, enjoys chauffeur-driven cars and once reportedly claimed a £1,086 tuxedo on expenses – began by declaring that he felt like a migrant worker (as well as “African”, “disabled” and “gay”). He said he understood racism and discrimination since he was bullied as a child for his red hair and freckles. He dismissed concerns over all the deaths of low-paid migrant workers building the stadiums, attacking the West and praising Qatar as a land of “opportunity”. And he defended the “welcome” for LGBT fans in a Gulf state that criminalises same-sex relationships, arguing that criticism would “close more doors”.

It was bizarre. But Infantino is at the helm of a heavily tainted body, set to be elected unopposed for a third term. Everything about this World Cup is wrong – from the timing that forced a break in Europe’s domestic season through to the location in a sweltering desert mini-state that happens to be sitting on huge oil and gas reserves. It is an affront to anyone who cares about climate change, corruption, democracy, equality, feminism, free expression or human rights.And it is grotesque to witness a gilded potentate blow £180bn – at least 12 times more than the last host – on a giant public relations exercise, not least when his nation is a sport minnow that has never qualified for a World Cup and matches there must be held in air-conditioned stadiums.

This is all a bit awkward – as Budweiser said in a hastily deleted tweet after giving £63m on sponsorship only to see its beer banned in stadiums. Yet beyond the epic scale of this sports-washing by a feudal monarchy, there is nothing new in seeing football abused by a dodgy regime. Italy’s squad infamously made fascist salutes and wore black shirts when defending the trophy in 1938. Four decades later, a nasty military dictatorship in Argentina was handed the event, sparking calls for a boycott. Putin, a far more despicable and despotic figure than the Emir of Qatar, was awarded the last tournament despite his 2014 invasion of Ukraine and Russia’s programme of state-sponsored doping in so many other sports.

Football, for all its communal roots in schools and working-class streets, has been tainted at the top level for decades. Once it was local businessmen skimming ticket sales and handing over paper bags stuffed with cash to players; today, it is repressive royals, shady oligarchs and electronic transfers through hidden offshore accounts. Well-meaning footballers promote racial equality and wear rainbow armbands, yet they are the hypocritical ultra-rich beneficiaries of a sport that prostituted itself to pay their huge wages. The biggest stars in Qatar play for clubs owned by autocratic petrostates. Even Saudi Arabia, far more bigoted and brutal than Qatar, was allowed to buy a British premiership team, while Putin’s pals were only winkled out by sanctions imposed after his full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The lack of ethics bothers some of the more thoughtful players. One recently retired England star, a Labour supporter, told me he contacted football chiefs to suggest a £20 cap on premiership ticket prices in a bid for the sport to stay in touch with fans. A nice idea, doomed to failure in an industry corroded by greed.

Ultimately football – like any art or sport – reflects society, providing a powerful metaphor for our times. It has gained through its unashamed embrace of capitalism and globalisation, the relentless pursuit of fame, success and money leading to a better-paid workforce and more skilful spectacle. Yet at the same time, the amorality, arrogance and avarice of those in charge demonstrate the desperate need for decent regulation and strong government to protect the sport from exploitation by toxic forces.

It would have been superb to see this World Cup played in a Muslim nation with real football heritage such as Tunisia or Senegal. Yet it is too easy to slam Qatar with some virtue signalling before settling down on the sofa to enjoy the world’s most exciting sports event – perhaps even with a few beers, unlike all those fans in Doha. The challenge – as with so many other fields of play on our complex planet – is how to enhance the benefits of modernity, restrain the most rapacious forces and protect our values without losing the best of the beautiful game that we saw expressed with such perfection by Pelé. And this takes smart tactics, teamwork and systemic change to succeed.

Related Posts

Categorised in: