The sporting field is supposed to be a pure environment. A place where the worries of the world can be left behind and where the only numbers that really count are the final scores. But, as the allegations of extreme corruption and the stenches of scandal continue to grow around international soccer administrative body FIFA, one can’t help but think that such unclouded notions are merely the pipedream of fans. The reality is that big time sports are also big time corporations, and the needs of many are often outweighed by the wants of the few who are perched at the top.
This current scandal wasn’t totally unexpected. One has to only cast their eye back to 2010 when more than a few eyebrows were raised as Russia, a nation with a reputation for being intensely anti-LGBT and where football has been plagued with racism, was successful in its bid to host the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Surely FIFA would have known what a public outcry the announcement of a Russian tournament would produce. Then came the Crimean crisis and the continued presence of Russian troops in Ukraine. When the calls came for Russia to be stripped of the right to hold the tournament, FIFA and its long-time president, the much-maligned Sepp Blatter, essentially ignored the controversy and said the tournament would go ahead as planned.
There was even more disbelief when it was announced that Qatar – whose national team had not once qualified for the World Cup and were ranked 113 at the time of the selection, and where the heat is so intense that the competition would have to be held in the November and December, not the traditional June and July – would hold the 2022 tournament. In order to win the rights to the event, a majority vote has to be cast for a single nation over the other bids, in this case 12 out of the 22 possible votes. In each round of voting, the nation with the lowest bid is eliminated until a majority is reached. In the final round of voting for 2022, Qatar defeated the USA with 14 votes to 8.
While suspicions of vote-buying have been running rampant ever since, more alarmingly are the claims that worker conditions on Qatar’s World Cup sites border on slave labour, and reports of significant death counts have seemingly fallen on deaf ears at FIFA. On these building sites, huge workforces are attempting to get the country ready in time for the prestigious tournament. Yet reports coming out of the area claim that many foreign workers are forced to surrender their passports to their employers and are paid as little as $50 a week. In addition, they have no choice but to live in extremely overcrowded and unsanitary housing where hundreds of people are packed into a few dozen rooms. It was also reported that in 2014, Nepalese workers in Qatar were dying at a rate of one every two days and this figure was expected to rise. Undoubtedly the question needed to be asked, why choose Qatar when the road was so obviously perilous?
It wasn’t until last month in Zurich when things began to come to a head. There, US authorities placed 14 FIFA officials under arrest and announced a 47-count indictment against them which included charges of wire fraud, racketeering and money laundering conspiracies centred around the control and issuing of media and marketing rights for games and tournaments. Some of the charges date back two decades, with the authorities alleging that around $150 million in bribes were taken by officials.
On the same day, it was announced that authorities from Switzerland would launch their own investigations into the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bids, citing suspicion of criminal mismanagement and money laundering. Next there came the matter of $10 million from the South African Football Association that in 2008 was allegedly transferred by FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke into accounts under the control of former official Jack Warner. It’s been alleged that Warner took bribes to help South Africa become the host of the 2010 World Cup.
From there, things have become more and more farcical. A mere two days after the arrests, Sepp Blatter was re-elected as FIFA president. This was followed by his announcement of resignation just four days later in the face of growing concern, although it’s now worryingly being reported that he may in fact seek office again for what would be a sixth term. There were also the admissions of accepting bribery by former FIFA member Chuck Blazer, and even the revelation by John Delaney, the Football Association of Ireland’s chief executive, that they were ‘loaned’ €5 million by FIFA to abandon legal proceedings regarding the infamous Thierry Henry handball incident in the second-round qualifier for the 2010 World Cup.
Sadly, all this seems to have come as a surprise to precisely no one. Yet like in any good corporate scandal, only when the walls are crashing down around them do they consider changing their tune. It was announced on 7 June that if it was found that Qatar and Russia won their tournaments because of bought votes, then they would be stripped of the rights to hold the competition. Given everything that’s gone on, one could be forgiven for wondering if this would ever actually occur.
The public and political response to the entire saga has understandably been one of outrage and disappointment. FIFA officials have been playing by their own rules for too long, and at the expense of the players and the fans, not to mention the massive workforce in Qatar. But what can be the solution? Corporate heads will most likely roll at some point, but how much can and will be fixed? There is certainly damage that cannot be undone.
The backlash is coming, but when so much money is at stake the priorities of the big businesses that run the show will always differ from fans who just want to watch and support the game. When sport is run by corporations you get corporate players, corporate goals and, unfortunately, corporate greed.