Enjoy the World Cup Lads
If the past week has taught us anything, it is that sport really isn’t all that important. Yes, it provides some light relief from the terrible news emanating from Ukraine on a nightly basis and sport has its place in lifting our mood. And sitting in the Kinane Stand last Saturday night, I was lost in the over and back of the Tipp v Sligo game and could forget about geo-politics, at least until I got home and turned on the news.
But when I did, I discovered that world football had disgraced itself, once again. Fédération Internationale de Football Association or FIFA for short is the world governing body for association football, or soccer if you prefer.
It is a monolith of an organisation, headquartered in Zurich with a membership comprising 211 nations. In 2018, FIFA generated more than $4.6 billion, which isn’t bad for a supposedly non-profit organisation. It has a cash cow event every four years which essentially runs the organisation and this event is the World Cup. Remember back to Italia ’90 when we were dizzy with excitement when we found ourselves competing against and beating the nations of the world? Actually we didn’t win a game in that tournament apart from a penalty shootout against Romania but never let the truth get in the way of a good story. We were big fans of FIFA back then.
The FIFA World Cup is not just one of the biggest sporting events in the world, it is the major source of FIFA’s income. Qualifying for the tournament in turn is a major income generator for competing nations. Remember back to 2009 when Ireland played France for a spot at the World Cup in South Africa the following year. Thierry Henry handled the ball, France went to South Africa and we wept
bitter tears. Such was our sense of injustice that, according to then FIFA President Sepp Blatter, we
asked to be added to the list of participating countries in order to right the wrong. Now Sepp would not be a man to trust with your communion money let alone world football but his accusation, however true or not, serves to illustrate how important World Cup qualification is.
The FIFA world Cup will take place this autumn in Qatar, certainly not a football heartland. I will get back to the choice of this location in due course but first let’s look at who is still trying to qualify.
Russia, for one. Russia hosted the last FIFA World Cup in 2018 and beforehand we were treated to quite awkward moments such as FIFA President, Gianni Infantino, playing keepy-up with Vladimir Putin in whatever the equivalent of the Kremlin’s Oval Office is. Ah well, he who pays the piper and all that.
There are a few slots left for inclusion in the Qatar finals this autumn. One berth will go to either Russia, Poland, Czech Republic or Sweden. Russia were given a home game against Poland and if victorious would also be at home for a game against the winners of Sweden and the Czech’s, winner taking all.
It will come as no surprise to learn that all three potential opponents, Poland, Czech Republic and Sweden said that they would not contemplate playing Russia in light of the invasion of Ukraine.
Enter the combined brains trust of FIFA. Their solution was to ask the Russians to play in a neutral
venue, without the playing of a national anthem and without the national flag of Russia flown. Now that really was a FIFA solution to a FIFA problem. Let’s ignore the slaughter of innocents so that the games could go ahead and Vlad wouldn’t be peeved. There is tone deaf and there is downright idiocy. This was the latter. Still Poland, Sweden and the Czech’s said no and so a new announcement had to be made on Monday last. Russia would be suspended from all football.
Now it is important to understand just why FIFA made such a dog’s dinner of this. And the answer of course is money. This year’s Champions League final was due to take place at the Gazprom Arena in St. Petersburg. Gazprom is one of the leading sponsors of the European arm of FIFA, namely UEFA. In 2013, Gazprom signed a deal with FIFA to become an official partner for the FIFA world cup, Vladimir Putin and Russian Sports Minister, Vitaly Mutko, attended the signing ceremony. Gazprom pump around €40 million a year into football. It is a Russian gas company which is majority state owned.
Its annual sales in 2019 were over $120 billion. If Gazprom was a country it would be the 58 th richest country in the world. It is the largest publicly listed gas company in the world. It sells gas into all European markets. So if you want to understand why FIFA were so cowardly with their initial stance on Russia playing international football, the look no further than FIFA’s balance sheet.
FIFA making a dog’s dinner of decisions is of course nothing new. But even by FIFA’s low standards, the decision to gift the 2022 World Cup to Qatar was nothing short of bonkers. It is a tiny country.
But its GDP per capita is the highest in the world. Which means that Qatari nationals are the richest people on the planet. And wealth is power. Also, remember that the country is an absolute monarchy. There are no elections, dissent is forbidden, and the King rules with absolute power without the checks and balances provided by a parliament. Clearly FIFA find absolute monarchies, oligarchies and dictatorships easier to deal with. The FIFA General Secretary Jerome Valcke was quoted by the BBC saying
“I will say something which is crazy, but less democracy is sometimes better for organizing a World Cup,” . … “When you have a very strong head of state who can decide, as maybe [President Vladimir] Putin can do in 2018…that is easier for us organizers than a country such as Germany, where you have to negotiate at different levels.”
So a country with a population of less than 2 million people will host the next FIFA World Cup later this year and they won the vote from the FIFA Executive Council by whatever means were necessary.
They immediately began to build the stadiums that will be required to host the 32 team tournament.
And with such a small population, the majority of whom are very rich, they needed someone to lay
the bricks, mix the cement and carry the hod. The locals in Doha do not get their hands dirty. And it is not just football stadiums that have to be built. Roads, a new airport, improvements in public transport, hotels are all being made ready at dizzying speed. Qatar needs migrant workers from poorer countries to do this work for them. Nothing wrong there on the face of it but dig a little deeper. Since being awarded the 2022 World Cup twelve years ago, 6,500 migrant workers have died in Qatar. Most are from India, Sri-Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal. That is an average of 12 workers per week. There have been 37 deaths directly attributable to the building of football stadiums. The rest mostly in other construction related accidents. So as you watch the football next autumn, try and remember the blood that has been shed in building stadiums for which Qatar have no use once the World Cup juggernaut leaves town.
David Beckham has signed a £150 million deal to be an ambassador for the world cup. Explain those deaths to us please Ambassador David? You are certainly being paid enough to have an opinion.
The treatment of women in Qatar is also disgraceful. I fully understand the need to be respectful to another country’s traditions and values but if those values are misogynist and barbaric then no, we do not reward that country with the second biggest sporting event on the planet. Paola Schietekat, a Mexican national, is a world cup official currently working in Qatar as part of the world cup organising committee. She made a complaint that she had been raped by a male associate who had broken into her apartment. She was subsequently charged with having extramarital sex and is facing 100 lashes up to 7 years in jail. Schietekat was told that she would have to marry her attacker in order to avoid a conviction. The eyes of the world will turn away from this story when the World Cup rolls into Doha. In fact the eyes of the world already have.
A recent match in Qatar between Bayern Munich and Tigres was notable for just one thing. The treatment of women. A member of the Royal Family was present to hand out medals. He greeted the male match officials with a fist pump but did not acknowledge the two female officials who were instructed to walk past him whilst he snubbed them. Again, I understand certain Islamic beliefs in relation to physical contact with members of the opposite sex, but surely that does not mean that you snub female officials. Could he not have spoken to them without the fist pump? Acknowledged their existence, their role? The condoning of such behaviour by FIFA disgusts me. Expect more of the same in the lead up to the event and during the football jamboree.
Thankfully Ireland will not be present in Qatar later this year, I say thankfully as I regard this World Cup to be a sordid affair and I am glad we have nothing to do with it. By all means lads, enjoy the world cup, but good luck explaining away the above behaviour to your wives and daughters.