Saturday, March 18, 2023

Populism and corruption, for example in soccer

FIFA is the unregulated global monopoly that owns the World Cup and the rules of the most successful global sport. It has in place the structures that led in 2015 to the arrest of several officials as a result of an FBI investigation that concluded that they were part of organized crime.

The sportswashing World Cup in Qatar epitomized everything that is wrong with modern soccer, and also its invulnerability as a result of the fans’addiction (mine included) to keep watching it.

In my class on soccer and economics for foreign (mostly American) students in Barcelona, this week I was asked by a student to organize a discussion about the current allegations on FC Barcelona bribing referees. I happily accepted and sent them an article by journalist Sid Lowe in The Guardian. I also advised them to read the book by Simon Kuper on Barça and explained events since Kuper left it at the end of his book (with the re-election of the ultra-populist Laporta as president and the departure of Messi).

Populism and corruption usually go hand in hand. Populism was used to hide corruption in the US with Trump, and national-populism has been used in Catalonia to hide the corruption of sectors of the bourgeoisie (including those that typically preside the famous local soccer club). We could provide further examples from Italy, Argentina, France, Russia…

People connected to the club and more than one of its presidents in the last two decades have been closely connected to hubs of soccer or political corruption or sportswashing in Qatar, Brazil, Uzbekistan, the Emirates and Spain. The payment of more than 7 billion euros to the vice-president of the referees committe is just part of a familiar pattern. It was perfectly predictable that the club's president Joan Laporta would fight the allegations by saying that everything is an operation orchestrated by the enemies of the club. We'll see if this is a sufficient defense if the club is punished by losing points, the category, or not playing in the European competitions at a time where it has to finance the renovation of the stadium and remain competitive in the transfer market.

So far, fans keep watching and soccer does not seem to be suffering from a crisis of credibility as far as the audiences are concerned. In cycling, doping scandals did affect audiences and the sport is still recovering from the Armstrong scandal. That’s not happening to soccer, at least so far.

Meanwhile, FIFA’s World Cup in 2026 will have 16 more teams (up to 48), 40 more games (up to 104) and 10 days more: more money, and more incentives for corruption if nothing is done to deeply reform the structures of modern soccer.

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