Saturday, 11 December 2010
World Cup Vote - Has FIFA been exposed for what it is, or simply tried to honestly further the global game?
With a week having passed since FIFA's decision to award the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar respectively, the time is ripe to analyse the reasons for this unprecedented decision, and finally settle a debate which has seen FIFA accused of rampant corruption and collusion in bribery. The future of the global game is subject to consistent debate and wildly diverging views; some believe it has been, since the advent of huge television revenues and multi-million pound sponsorship deals, lamentably moving away from its reputation as the sport of the working man to a detached, billionaire's playground and a shameless self-perpetuator of wealth, whilst others merely see the its on-going development as natural and fluid, and merely an example of 'moving with the times'. Whatever side of the debate you find yourself on, there can be absolutely no doubt that the aforementioned conclusion, reached by the panel of FIFA voters on 2 December, has mired the organisation in controversy and resulted in a barrage of criticism being aimed at Sepp Blatter, FIFA's eighth President, who has often been a target for the growing 'goal-line technology' lobby, with the direction in which international football has been going since he took on the role in 1998 always a hotly-contested topic. Many of the various polemics have come from the English tabloid press, for whom FIFA's rejection of England's 2018 Bid has, perhaps rightly, been taken as a personal insult and a slight against the reputation of the country.
Now the English are often seen in a rather negative light overseas, whether this is fair or not, and their reaction to the decision, which was to emphasise the extent to which an 'anti-English' feeling within FIFA hampered England's bid, could be interpreted as a typical reaction and nothing more than sour grapes. Yet I personally do not feel this is a fair assertion. When you look at the core elements of the Russian bid, and the political, economic and social structure of Russian society, they provide an almost-perfect contrast to the central tenets of English socio-economic and political life, and the country's infrastructure? Why therefore, was a nation lacking any adequate, let alone significant or stand-out, stadia and transport infrastructure, able to defeat another whose bid was described as 'technically excellent' and 'low-risk' by FIFA analysts? Here in lies the key point of the debate: should the World Cup be used as a means to further the reach of the global game, at the cost of the passion, history, legacy and supporters who have helped it to expand throughout the world? FIFA clearly believes it ought to be a tool for socio-economic development, as the awarding of the 2022 tournament to Qatar clearly demonstrates; in doing so, one must presume that the organisation feels that by hosting the World Cup a footballing fanbase will simply 'spring up' in the tiny Emirate. However beyond all the romantic rhetoric and promises of a 'better future' the facts appear to have been entirely ignored. Qatar, since 1825, has been ruled by the Al Thani dynasty, in the form of an absolute monarchy. The Emir of Qatar is both the Head of State and of Government.
The story is similar for Russia, the beneficiary of FIFA's generosity for the 2018 tournament. Vladimir Putin, Russian President from 2000-2008 and since Prime Minister under Dmitry Medvedev (2008-present), has a rather ambiguous position in terms of the 'balance of power' at the pinnacle of Russian politics. As somebody who has studied the current Russian political system in some detail, I feel I am not only qualified but disposed to comment upon and, if I can, clarify the situation. Now in theory Russia is a democracy, ruled by an elected President who represents a political party which is part of a wider free, multi-party, pluralistic system. In practice it is rather different. For many international observers believe that, since relinquishing the Presidency in 2008, Vladimir Putin has essentially remained firmly in control of Russia's economic and political direction, which has remained more or less unchanged. Indeed, due to Russian political law stipulating that a President may not serve two consecutive terms, but stating that said person can, should the situation arise, serve an indefinite number of periods as President, that he will return to power in 2012 and remain there until 2028, should he triumph in the popular vote, which has been changed under Medvedev to be held every six years, rather than four. Therefore if you believe the doom-mongerers and often-accurate analysts, there exists in the Russian Federation a situation in which the Head of Government, Mr. Putin, is to all intents and purposes also the Head of State, due to the measure of control he enjoys over Mr. Medvedev, a man who rose to his current political rank solely due to the clientalism and influence of Mr. Putin, to whom Mr. Medvedev owes his career and, rather portentously, his position.
Therefore it may be convincingly and factually argued that both Russia and Qatar boast undemocratic, unrepresentative political systems, in which a single individual or 'clique' enjoys an unquestioned monopoly of power, in spite of any 'democratic legislation' or meaningless assurances which may exist to that effect. Now you might be thinking that I've done both nations a disservice and condemned both without providing sufficient evidence. Well in Russia there is definitely ample evidence to provide for further analysis; United Russia, created in 2008 and the current 'ruling party' in the Russian Federation, is arguably little more than a country-wide mouthpiece for Putin and, should we consider Medvedev to have his own, independent opinion, the President as well. It is backed by the multi-billion pound corporations, which include the likes of Gazprom, from which a significant amount of the support for the Putin-Medvedev 'consensus' comes. Other, truly independent political parties do exist, but are subject to significant repression, suffer from wholly disproportionate representation in the Putin-controlled media, and are often forbidden from campaigning fairly and equitably, with the same freedom afforded to United Russia. Civil society is barely tolerated, let alone allowed to flourish as it is in this country. As with the Soviet period, dissent is rigorously clamped down on, as the 2006 murder of investigative journalist Anna Politkoyskaya will attest to. Whilst state involvement in her murder has never been proven, a significant number of analysts are convinced of, if not its ultimate guilt, it’s almost-certain complicity in the assassination. A free media barely exists in the Russian Federation, and perhaps this is why FIFA chose its bid over that from England; the likelihood of any investigative television programme along the lines of Panorama being allowed to exist, let alone screen a thoroughly anti-FIFA, anti-corruption special a few days before the crucial vote, is inconceivable. Therefore I would argue that FIFA has afforded the World Cup, the highest sporting accolade one can bestow on a nation, in my view, to an intolerant, undemocratic, clientalist, repressive, controlling nation ruled by a 'one-man dictatorship in all but name'.
The news doesn't get any better for the Russians; with an appalling human rights record, their recent history as an independent state blighted by aggressive wars of expansion, destruction and unforgiveable violations of human rights in Chechnya and, more recently, North Ossetia, and huge socio-economic disparity between the state-sponsored 'nouveau-riche' and those struggling below the radar of Mr. Putin, FIFA's reasoning seems less and less justifiable. Add to this the inherent problem of racism in the Russian game, something England managed mercifully to stamp out of football some years ago, and continues to make concerted efforts to prevent, and FIFA seems to have positively betrayed the principles of fairness and equity upon which it is supposedly founded. The egregious treatment of Peter Odemwingie, a Nigerian-Russian winger previously with Lokomotiv Moscow, who was subjected to 'monkey chants' and 'banana jokes' and was afforded absolutely no support from any footballing authority in Russia, and the manner in which he has been able to ply his trade in the English Premier League with West Bromwich Albion without such abuse demonstrates the gulf between the two nations in terms of tolerance and respect. Furthermore the following statement from Oleg Blokhin, the Soviet Union's all-time top goal scorer and both a role-model and a hero for millions of Russian children even nowadays, suggests that such attitudes are indeed as widespread as I fear them to be: "The more Ukrainians that play in the national league, the more examples for the young generation. Let them learn from [Andriy] Shevchenko or Blokhin and not from some Zumba-Bumba whom they took off a tree, gave him two bananas and now he plays in the Ukrainian League. [...] I remember when I played football, if we lost a game, it was not easy to walk the Kiev streets – there were many friends out there who could beat you up for that. But is there any sense in beating up a foreigner? Okay, you beat him up – next thing he does is pack up and go." Sickening, I'm sure you'll agree, and an affront to the progress which has been made, at least in this country, in stamping out such antiquated and hateful attitudes and creating an equal game which can be played by all, without fear of prejudice, racism or any other intolerance.
Qatar, for what it is worth, is hardly a tolerant, democratic state either, certainly not along the lines of those such as Spain, Portugal, Belgium, The Netherlands, and even England. No political parties are allowed to exist, there are no elections, and the ruling party retains power courtesy of the huge revenues derived from the sale of Qatar's extensive natural resources. Furthermore, although some may consider this a 'non-issue', alcohol is legal but only with a permit, somewhat difficult to get hold of during a tournament attended by thousands from across the globe, and forbidden to be drank in public. Whilst Qatar is by no means the most repressive Islamic state in the Middle East, a status which hardly deserves applause, and women are permitted to drive and not kept subservient to quite the same extent as in many of the states bordering the Qatari emirate, FIFA are certainly pushing the boundaries of what constitutes a progressive, democratising, forward-looking state with its awarding of the 2022 World Cup. Yet the main problems with Qatar lie in its almost entire lack of any sort of meaningful infrastructure. In time for 2022 transport networks, entirely new cities, and a daunting array of stadia need to be built; indeed, once they are constructed, most will be located within a sixty-mile radius, with many cities concentrated in one single city or locale. Now from a purely pragmatic point of view, this sounds excellent, with journalists, teams, supporters and other observers being subject to fewer 'travel headaches' than those of this year's tournament in South Africa, for example. However, it does certainly seem that in 2022 a situation will come to exist whereby the 'haves', already enjoying luscious lifestyles in the largest Qatari cities, will be able to enjoy the tournament, whilst the 'have-nots', living in the countryside devoid of the benefits brought to 'the few' by the 'oil boom', will not, thereby perpetuating the sort of inequitable social strata FIFA's rhetoric suggests it wants to remove. It is also worth saying that with so many stadiums and the vast majority of the infrastructure concentrated in a handful of cities, the demands on the emirate's limited accommodation and transport resources will in all likelihood be unlikely to be fulfilled. In a final flurry of common sense I would also like to raise another point; how much of a 'footballing culture' and 'fanbase for the future', presumably only cynically designed to generate even more wealth at the pinnacle of 'our' global game, will be able to be generated by a country with a minuscule population of two million? At least in Russia, a country with a population of 141 million, there is potential for commercial expansion. Although I highly doubt any of this will benefit Russia's many 'little people', who presumably weren't factored into FIFA's 'common sense voting' and the minds of the Russian delegates in Zurich.
Thus I now feel I am able to provide a summary as to why Britain was denied the opportunity to host the 2018 World Cup, which will take place 52 years since the country which invented football last hosted the tournament. Firstly, FIFA has clearly decided to turn away from the democracies of the world such as England, which enjoys a media, despite subject to criticism, outside the control of the state, and a flourishing, vibrant civil society. In this country we don't just sweep corruption under the carpet, as presumably occurs in Russia. The Panorama show was indicative of this fact. England's bid team didn't want the programme to go ahead, and implored the producers to prevent it being aired. I would imagine that the vast majority of hopeful children and adults alike across the length and breadth of the country, would have preferred to be postponed or possibly abandoned altogether. But it wasn't, for in a democratic state you have to value the right of free speech. The recent protests over the Government's decision to raise the current cap on tuition fees provide the starkest contrast possible to the situation in terms of civil society, popular democracy, and free speech in Russia. Protests such as these simply would not be allowed to occur, and in the end FIFA clearly decided that they preferred law and order to freedom of speech and integrity. Secondly it appears that England's already vast array of appropriate stadia, and mass legions of 'football mad' supporters weren't 'appropriate' to host the World Cup. Evidently stadia such as Anfield, Old Trafford, Wembley and Stamford Bridge, despite being perfect in terms of facilities and boasting rich, long legacies of triumph and disaster, were not the image FIFA wished to portray to the world of this 'global game of ours'. Finally I genuinely do believe that England is a name to be scorned around the world. To say, 'we didn't get it because we're English' could be termed an easy and wholly exaggerated solution, but one cannot deny that the lack of consideration given to England's bid, which was commercially, technically and I would argue 'morally' and 'historically' the best, raises questions about the attitude taken towards this country by the FIFA voters.