Saturday, November 19, 2022

Everybody else is a hypocrite (World Cup edition)

In the last issue of The Economist there are some very interesting articles about the World Cup. One of them reports that there is an increasing number of autocratic organizers because democracies realize big sports events have more social costs than social benefits and vote against them.

Of the three corners of Rodrik’s trilemma (hyperglobalization, democracy and national sovereignty), the Qatar World Cup illustrates the consequences of removing democracy, but keeping national sovereignty and hyperglobalization: autocratic powers competing for resources, in this case the right to organize an event of global impact with huge demand and propaganda potential.

Prestigious media outlets such as The Economist or the Financial Times have made an effort to still provide a rationale not to boycott this World Cup. The Economist’s editorial ends asking ironically if we should rotate the tournament among the 3 nordic countries that have an absolute clean record of respect for human rights (why not?). Others have argued that in Argentina 1978 the World Cup threw light on a brutal dictatorship and contributed to its decline. But the same did not happen with Berlin 1936 or with the World Cup or the Winter Olympics in Putin’s Russia.

With less style, the President of FIFA, Infantino said that “we Europeans should apologize the next 3000 years for what we have done in the past 3000 years,” after saying that he was proud of the FIFA badge he was wearing and saying that he was not responsible for things that were decided 12 years ago, and now we have to make the best of it (although he is presiding over the same corrupt structure that gave the event to Qatar, the one that has decided that the next World Cup will have 48 teams instead of the current 32: more teams, more games, bigger deals). 

The dark side of soccer is explained by its success. Without the magnitude that the show has acquired in a world that lacks a global government, there would be no large-scale corruption, nor would there be bribed officials, nor the opportunistic magnates, nor the advisers who lead athletes to show up in tax fraud and tax havens scandals. Soccer is the most globalized and unified sport. FIFA is the gatekeeper of a global asset in an ungoverned world, and this privileged position is guaranteed by its ownership of the World Cup, the most successful competition, the one in which the best soccer players in the world star in different teams for a month, with a much higher level of equality and uncertainty than in club competitions. 

If someone dares to bypass the power of FIFA, it threatens the brave with leaving them without playing in a World Cup. As argued by Milanovic some time ago, the rules of soccer between national teams, where basically each player can only participate in one national team in his entire career, without transfers of players between national teams, combined with the mobility of players between clubs (which make it easier for the best players from whatever country they are, to play in the best clubs in Europe, that is, in the world), have led to much equalization among national teams, and to raise their level. As Kuper and Szymanski say, in the World Cup edition of their famous book "Soccernomics", far from being in a bubble, the world of soccer continues in a process of solid expansion, reaching more people who are fond of and passionate about this sport, perhaps in the absence of other challenges. 

In 2015, as shown in Netflix’  documentary "FIFA Uncovered," several FIFA executives were arrested by the Swiss police on the orders of the FBI, accused of corruption and of being part of organized crime. Among those affected there were officials from various continents. The very decision to assign the World Cup to Qatar was surrounded by accusations of bribery. 

Holding the World Cup in Qatar has at least had the virtue of triggering a debate about what fans and athletes can do to protest something so complementary to corruption, such as the involvement in sport of autocratic countries (like Qatar -certainly not the only one, and not the worst), whose leaders take advantage of soccer to launder their crimes and their reputation as human rights abusers. The debate on the sportswashing phenomenon has reached the pages of prestigious media. 

Several voices have suggested that a requirement to have the opportunity to organize a major sporting event, and the publicity that this allows, should be an impeccable record of respect for human rights. Amnesty International has demanded that FIFA should at least create a fund to compensate the families of immigrants who died in Qatar's World Cup construction sites, although it would be difficult to agree on the figures, among the three officially recognized by the Qatari government, and the thousands denounced by The Guardian newspaper. The players of the Australian team released a video joining the pro-human rights demands, and ten teams (eight of them at the time of writing this text, playing in Qatar) have joined a campaign in which their captains will wear an armband in defense of the rights of people from the LGTBQ+ community. Some coaches known for their few diplomatic qualms, such as the Dutchman Louis Van Gaal, have raised eyebrows about holding the event in Qatar. 

Many of us will not have the willpower to join a fan strike. It is not possible -at least to me- to disguise this weakness behind ethical arguments.

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