Separation of Sports and Politics is a Necessity

Adam Fletcher

FIFA World Cup 2006 – ARG vs MEX. Photo source: Nahum via Wikimedia Commons.

Orientalism is a term that may not be familiar to those who do not study literary theory or international politics, yet its representations are viewed regularly by the masses. The concept, coined by Palestinian theorist, Edward Said, focuses on the West’s perception of non-European centric cultures being negative, often depicting them as backward and uncivilised.

Recently, this concept has clashed with sporting events, which by its very definition should render Orientalism obsolete. The Football World Cup has become sport’s biggest competition. Steeped in history and grandeur it has become essential to billions the world over. The tournament provides a platform for all cultures and nations to compete regardless of status or wealth. Nations can compete free of politics and conflict. However, the reaction to the decision to award the next two tournaments to Qatar and Russia, particularly in the British media has seen Orientalist sentiment become commonplace.

On a pleasant June evening, I and millions across the UK witnessed this glaring Orientalist stance. The Sports fragment of Sky’s vast media instrument broke the news of Chuck Blazer’s, the now infamous FIFA whistle-blower, whose testimony had been released by the FBI. It stated he had and other delegates had taken bribes in exchange for voting for the South African bid to host the 2010 World Cup. It was however the following statement transmitted by their chief football reporter that really stood out. The second claim was the same had happened for the 1998 World Cup in France, to which the response was by the reporter “well, we weren’t expecting that”. This goes against the narrative that had raged within the British press within the last five years. How can a sophisticated, European, traditionally white nation be corrupt? Corruption is supposed to be contained to those savages in distant lands, or the occasional rogue European or American.

What is abundantly clear is that World Cup bidding throughout its history has been an unethical and immoral practice regardless of which nation or culture is piloting it. Germany’s successful bid for the 2006 competition has been exposed for its government providing arms to Saudi Arabia in exchange for votes. The German bid has rarely been analysed. In 2000 when their bid was successful, allegations of corruption surfaced, with even certain stakeholders lobbying for a revote . The media has largely ignored these facts, despite heavy scrutiny of corruption in FIFA and the parallels to the contemporary situation.

A lack of media focus can also be attributed to the 2018 and 2022 losing bids. Several stories have surfaced suggesting a re-run of the vote, and public statements from losing bids such as Belgium and Australia seeking compensation. Their argument is that the whole bidding process was corrupt, but that suggests that either a) they were then in the wrong, and then any compensation should not be given, or b) if they did play fair then those fair votes should stand.

Therefore, if the World Cups were re-allocated, then Portugal/Spain and the United States, who came second in the respective votes, should be selected as alternative hosts.

In the British media this consideration is never mentioned for two reasons, firstly, England got 1 vote and where a distant last, and secondly that would open England’s bid for deserved criticism. England unequivocally broke a series of bidding rules; they colluded with the South Korean bid, promising their support and vote for 2022 in return for Korean support for England in 2018. Something inherently forbidden by the FIFA’s own guidelines which unambiguously states: ‘the member association agrees to refrain from collaborating or colluding with any other member association or any third party with a view to unfairly influence the outcome of the bidding process’.

Furthermore, England arranged a friendly to sway prominent FIFA delegate Worawi Makudi, by organising a controversial friendly with Thailand. This friendly was set to be monetarily beneficial locally; nonetheless, following the decision not to award England the World Cup the game was unsubtly cancelled.

These murkier elements of England’s bid are epitomised by its association with disgraced former FIFA Vice President, Jack Warner. As with Makudi, the English team attempted to curry favour with him, so he’d use his considerable influence to sway delegate’s votes toward England. A premier international friendly was set in Warner’s native Trinidad, and the English FA paid tens of thousands of pounds for a Caribbean football dinner. In addition to arranging for a family friend of Warner’s to be given a job within the UK – an act naturally deemed to have ‘violated bidding rules’. Warner has become the epitome of ‘corruption’ within FIFA, and has a long list of corruption allegations connected to him both in and out of football. The unwavering association the England bid had with Warner is stark and concerning.

England bid officials, analysts and even government ministers have proffered that England should replace Qatar or Russia to host one of the tournaments. Yet this urgency was lacking on the eve of the bid as the BBC through its Panorama programme wished to highlight corruption within FIFA, England’s bid Chief Executive, Andy Anson reacted angrily –  “I’m incredibly disappointed with the timing of what the BBC seem to be proposing with Panorama. To do this the week before the vote – I don’t think it’s patriotic”.

Instead of focusing on these issues, the British media have focused on disparaging the winning bids, sentiments such as those that appeared in the Guardian –   ‘Smaller than Yorkshire, boasting temperatures of over 50C in June and July, and with no footballing tradition to speak of, Qatar was always an unlikely choice to host football’s World Cup’. What these bias critics have failed to grasp however, is that FIFA has a responsibility as a world sporting body to bring the competition around the world. South Africa, South Korea and even the US have been selected for previous world cups, where football was not an historical or even a popular sport.

The organisation’s mission statement dictates this imperative. Their first pillar considers FIFA’s primary objective is ‘to improve the game of football constantly and promote it globally …’ whilst the second pillar states that ‘FIFA’s goal is to touch, unite and inspire the world through its competitions and events’. FIFA in the twenty-first century has complimented this mandate, combining the two pillars to promote the game outside traditional regions.

The primary focus of attack has consisted of highlighting Russia and Qatar’s human rights record, their stances on same-sex relationships, Qatar’s migrant worker issue and the Russian invasion of Crimea. A trend has begun to develop where sports events have become the trigger for mass protests, on issues governments should be intervening on. Baku recently hosted the first European games; in the build up to the games, protests erupted both in and outside the media regarding Azerbaijan’s human rights.

While these protests are all noble, its smacks of hypocrisy, where was the moral outrage when in 2005 London was chosen to host the 2012 Olympics, two years after uprooting a volatile region through an illegal war? Where was it when Israel was picked to host the 2013 Under 21 European Championships, despite it being an occupier state and responsible for thousands of innocent civilian’s death?  Sri Lanka hosted the 2012 Twenty-20 Cricket World Cup, despite continued political oppression and horrific massacres by its government. The US is being suggested as a host for the 2026 Football World Cup, are the media going to come out and say it should not be awarded due to the endemic racism its own president has condemned following a year of police brutality and murders, and now the devastating Charleston Massacre?

No it won’t, but neither should it! It is essential that sport should be a separate entity and not mix with foreign policy, politics and national interest. Numerous global sport governing bodies have stringent rules to ensure they don’t overlap. Certain nations have faced bans from major global competitions for breaching these rules in the past; bidding for the same competitions should see a similar attitude taken.

As for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, I believe they should not be moved. Many of the world’s footballing associations voted for Mr Blatter in the recent FIFA election, including major European football nations such as France and Spain, suggesting that many are happy despite the intense scrutiny. There is no doubt that the bids are tainted and the behaviour should have no place in decent society.  Nonetheless, taking away tournaments is going to cause additional problems, with the threat of boycotts increasing and even legal action, while not really solving anything. As if  taking away the World Cup would stop the brutality faced by migrant workers in Qatar or stop Russia’s foreign policy. Issues that existed well before the World Cups were awarded.

What can make a difference is pressure and rationale scrutiny on Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers. Grand sporting events can produce a difference in these areas. While, a reform to FIFA is a necessity, when it comes to select the 2026 World Cup hosts it must herald a new dawn of transparency and fairness.

3 Responses
  1. Stefan Ellender Reply

    While well written and researched it feels like this article has conflated three separate issues.
    1) The corruption at FIFA which has tainted numerous World Cup bids historic and current; and whether this should affect the hosting of future World Cups.
    2) The criticism of letting Russia or Qatar host a World Cup due to their foreign and domestic politics.
    3) The criticism of the practicalities of Qatar hosting the World Cup and the lack of footballing ‘heritage’in Qatar.

    While linked these are separate criticisms/debates and cannot simply all be brushed aside as demonstrations of ‘Orientalism’ or unfair politicking.
    It is not Orientalist to point out that holding the World Cup in a tiny desert country where winter temperatures rarely fall below 25 degrees could present some problems. Or that country with a population of just over 2.19 million may have difficulties hosting a tournament which over 3 million people will attend.

  2. While you are correct that there are various different issues concerning the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, more than the three you stated, I had to attempt to cover the spectrum of debate regarding the issue in a relatively concise way.

    Furthermore, I never suggested such a sweeping statement that all criticism is due to Orientalism and I do illustrate the criticism that is constructive in my piece. The points you have made are ungrounded. Temperatures in Qatar in December reach a maximum of around 25 degrees, not as you suggested rarely falling below that.

    Nonetheless, even if your statement were correct, 25 degrees and above is common to World Cup’s. Tournaments in France 1998, Germany 2006, South Korea and Japan in 2002, all saw temperatures reach 30c. In Germany, David Beckham suffered from dehydration. While last years World Cup in Brazil saw certain games played at Manaus, known for regular temperatures over 30c and sapping humidity to boot.

    Lastly, Brazil witnessed around 1 million tourists for the World Cup last year, so to suggest 3 million is quite frankly foolish. Again, if that number was higher then its is still irrelevant. If the host can provide adequate facilities, and with an oil rich nation throwing millions at it, they likely will then a diminutive geographical size, population or football status should not go against nations that have the resources and facilities to host the tournament. It’s the WORLD cup, it is imperative it goes to different regions and cultures around the globe.

  3. Stefan Ellender Reply

    I think we have a slight miscommunication here, the impression I got from your article was an accusation that there was an inherent Orientalist/ racist bias against Qatar and Russia and that the criticism of the two was based on that. I think some of your more emotive language especially in the second and third paragraphs was the reason for this. Obviously that was not your intent, thank you for clarifying.

    I was unaware of the average temperatures at previous World Cups being so high, seems this won’t be a problem then.

    Perhaps we have been using different sources but based on match attendance/ ticket sales the last three world cups have all seen attendance of over 3 million so it can hardly be foolish to suggest that over 3 million people would attend the next world cup. I agree the number is irrelevant if the host can provide adequate facilities, I am just unsure whether Qatar can adequately cope with a sporting event of 3 million people when it has a population of approx. 2 million and an area of less than 5,000 square miles. I may be wrong but I think it is still a legitimate concern.

    As a note I would have to say that I disagree with you that sport should be apolitical. A prestigious sporting event, be it the World Cup or the Olympics, serves as an excellent exercise in positive PR and political legitimisation for any country. Furthermore by attending national teams and political leaders signal their acceptance/ support of the political regime of the country.

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