5. What can football do about the problems in Qatar? Football and politics don’t mix, right?

Slowly but surely, I’m becoming more and more convinced that there will be no silver lining or happy ending in Qatar. The Gulf State does whatever it wants and isn’t accountable to anyone. But is that really true? If this World Cup is so important to the Qataris, isn’t FIFA in the ideal position to put pressure on them?

The question is if FIFA is the right organization to do something like that. The saying ‘football doesn’t have anything to do with politics’ seems as old as football itself, and certainly as old as FIFA. Football should stay pure, unincumbered by whatever happens in the world and in turn football should not interfere in world affairs. That’s the ideal picture. But is it achievable? Or even desirable?

No politics allowed (?)

FIFA’s ‘Laws of The Game’ forbid players from making political, religious or personal statements on their kits or undergarments. Qatar of all federations was fined in 2017 because their players wore a t-shirt featuring Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani’s likeness before playing an international friendly[i]. Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola was penalized for wearing a yellow ribbon during a game, supporting the Catalan independence movement[ii]. Celtic fans were punished for waving Palestinian flags when their team played against Israeli side Hapoel Be’er Sheva[iii].

But statements against the human rights abuses in Qatar are tolerated, just like captains’ armbands in rainbow colors or the yellow and blue of Ukraine, and ‘Black Lives Matter’ in the place of players’ names. Countries from Great Britain can wear a poppy to commemorate the victims of World War I, but Ireland cannot wear a symbol remembering the deaths during their struggle for independence against the same Great Britain[iv].

During Euro 2020 the rainbow flag was allowed in every venue except those in Budapest and Baku, until UEFA received so much criticism that they allowed them after all[v] (this should be ‘fun’ in Qatar, where being gay is punishable by death). When the Hungarian government issued a controversial anti-gay law, the city of Munich wanted to light up the Allianz Arena in rainbow colors during Germany vs Hungary, but FIFA forbade it, issuing this statement: “Some people have interpreted UEFA’s decision to turn down the city of Munich’s request to illuminate the Munich stadium in rainbow colors for a EURO 2020 match as ‘political’. On the contrary, the request itself was political, linked to the Hungarian football team’s presence in the stadium for this evening’s match with Germany. For UEFA, the rainbow is not a political symbol, but a sign of our firm commitment to a more diverse and inclusive society.”[vi] So, when the city of Munich wants to show support for a diverse and inclusive society, that’s a political statement. But when UEFA does it? It’s not political.

It seems like FIFA and UEFA mainly do what suits them best in any given situation. When forbidding a certain statement might lead to a lot of criticism, they quickly label the statement ‘not political’ so they can condone it. But to retain some credibility, they must fine anyone who is too ostentatious about it, like the Qataris with their t-shirts. And when the interests of important member states might be compromised, like those of Spain (Guardiola) or Hungary (Munich), they also intervene.

FIFA could have pressured Qatar

So, it’s clear that sports and politics can’t be separated. But could FIFA make any meaningful move to reduce Qatar’s human rights abuses? For starters, they could abide by the United Nations’ ‘Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights’, like Amnesty International wants them to. This would compel FIFA to hire an independent organization to monitor all World Cup building projects to detect and prevent any human rights abuses. Also, FIFA should compensate any workers’ damages.

But this is just the bare minimum. Although FIFA doesn’t want to perceive itself as anything even remotely close to a political organization, it has considerable political power. The importance of the World Cup to Qatar gives FIFA a lot of leverage. With relative ease, it could have moved the tournament to a different country and Qatar would have suffer a huge loss of face. If the Qataris were forced to choose between not having a World Cup or treating their workers humanely, there’s a good chance they would have chosen the latter. FIFA could have applied serious pressure to the Al Thanis, if it’s ‘commitment’ to improving the situation in Qatar had been sincere.

And we haven’t even mentioned yet how FIFA could have influenced things through the media. If Infantino had held a press conference in which he would have reprimanded Qatar in no uncertain terms, demanding improvements and threatening sanctions like taking the World Cup from them, Mohammed Bin Al-Thani wouldn’t sleep well for a couple of nights. Then, football could have been what De Boer, Rummenigge and Infantino claim it to be: a herald of progress. This leads me to ask: why didn’t FIFA use its power?

This question is connected to another one: why does FIFA keep insisting it doesn’t have anything to do with politics? The short answer is FIFA, indeed, isn’t interested in politics. Insiders say Sepp Blatter was at least a bit of an idealist, in a megalomaniacal way: he saw himself as a philanthropist using football to unite the world, deserving of a Nobel Peace Prize[vii]. Gianni Infantino however, doesn’t even have such semi-political ambitions. He wrote ‘The Vision: Making Football Truly Global’, in which he makes it clear that his main concern is growing the sport, finding new markets, turning higher profits which are then used to reinvest in football, so it can grow even bigger[viii].

Hence the juggling with political statements on and around the pitch: FIFA is constantly trying not to alienate any fans and keep as many paying customers on board as it can, all around the world.

FIFA’s battle with UEFA

At a higher level, there’s more going on. For while FIFA and UEFA are united in the way in which they handle political statements, they are divided on many other issues. The organizations are embroiled in a struggle for power which keeps escalating. Although FIFA is football’s worldwide governing body, UEFA is at least as influential. The European federation has a four-year turnover twice as high as FIFA’s: 12,5 billion dollars compared to 6,4 billion dollars[ix]. This is caused by UEFA not only having a huge international tournament once in every four years, but also cashing in big time each season with all its European club competitions. FIFA, on the other hand, barely turns a profit for three years, making up for it in one fell swoop by organizing the World Cup[x]. So, UEFA is significantly more well-off than FIFA, which might even make it more powerful.

Infantino tried to level the playing field by expanding the Club World Cup to a prominent 24-team competition held every summer, competing with the Champions League. FIFA presented the expansion as a wonderful plan to make club football more global, but in reality, it would only lead to even more money flowing to a handful of megaclubs (filled up with some teams from other continents who won’t stand a chance against Liverpool or PSG)[xi]. Unfortunately for Infantino, UEFA showed its muscle by blocking the plan.

A year later, FIFA came up with a new, even more far-reaching idea, presented by ‘Chief of Global Development’ Arsène Wenger: increasing the World Cup’s frequency to once every two years. UEFA and CONMEBOL (the South American federation) immediately threatened to boycott, 36 European national federations came out against the planned reforms[xii].

Meanwhile, UEFA is not only competing with FIFA. For years, Europe’s biggest clubs have also threatened to start their own tournament: the Super League. In early 2021 this new competition was finally launched, but because UEFA prepared heavy punishments and fan groups of the clubs involved were fiercely against it, the Super League was abandoned. Still, UEFA feels the pressure and is working hard to transform the Champions League, to ensure major clubs (among which the Super League’s initiators) will profit even more off the lucrative tournament[xiii]. In 2024 we’ll probably see a totally new format with 36 teams instead of 32, and about a hundred additional matches[xiv].

Say what you will about Blatter, but during his rule (and Platini’s at UEFA) the football calendar roughly stayed the same. Of course, the Euros and the World Cup were expanded, and the UEFA Cup was rebranded Europa League, but for many years our sport was setup in a relatively straightforward way. It’s no coincidence that since the ‘old boy’s network’ collapsed, we went to a 32-country Euros, a 48-country World Cup, a Nations League and a Conference League, and we now have to prepare for a totally crammed football season with even more tournaments and even more games. It’s all part of the ongoing battle between UEFA and FIFA. The battle for viewership numbers.

Football is changing

Whether all this extra football leads to more competitive tournaments and a more even competition between big and small teams, is highly doubtful. Research from British sports journalist Miguel Delaney shows how, since more money started circulating in football, European competitions have become more and more predictable[xv]. For example, from 1990 to 1999, the average number of points of Europe’s major league champions was around 80, in Germany it was 70. Nowadays, the league champions of England, France and Italy often get up to 90 points a season while the German champions manage around 80. In Spain, the average amount of points of league champions even reached 94,3 between 2010 and 2019.

Also, in many countries, points records are broken more and more often, while clubs like Bayern Munich, Juventus (until recently), Dinamo Zagreb, Red Bull Salzburg, Olympiakos, and Ajax are setting record league-winning streaks. In France and England, Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City don’t win the league every year, but they clearly dominate. To complete the picture of football becoming less competitive: the richest teams win 21,3 per cent of their games by a margin of three goals or higher, while this percentage was only 12,3 from 1990 to 1999.

None of this happened by accident – it’s stimulated by deliberate decision making. Delaney quotes one of the Premier League’s high officials, saying: “We don’t want too many Leicester Citys. Football history suggests fans like big teams winning. A certain amount of unpredictability is good, but a more democratic league would be bad for business.” And so, federations choose not to distribute their revenue evenly, but make sure it mostly ends up at the big clubs.

A shrinking number of teams has a realistic chance of becoming league champions or winning a European cup because the financial gap between top teams and football’s middle class is growing larger and larger. And having more money only becomes an even bigger advantage because of all the extra competitions. The more games FIFA and UEFA keep scheduling, the more important an expensive squad with a lot of quality players becomes, and the harder clubs on a tight budget can compete for silverware.

All these new tournaments make a lot of money for federations and sponsors, which, through prize and TV money, mainly flow to the top clubs, which only strengthens their leading positions. Clubs that didn’t make the cut, fall further and further behind.

None of this means that the overall level of football itself is diminishing, on the contrary. When PSG plays Man City we’ll witness magnificent football, perhaps the best ever played. But the point is, when these clubs face a team like, say, Feyenoord, they easily win while resting their most important players. The gap in quality is bigger, unpredictability is lower.

This dynamic is not as pronounced in international football, where a country can’t simply buy the best players. But an overloaded football schedule still affects the international game. Tournaments are held at the end of grueling seasons (or, in Qatar, in the middle of one), which leads players to enter the competition already exhausted. The countries with the most players of top quality can rest them more easily, making it even harder for smaller countries to get results. And if FIFA’s proposal for a World Cup every once in two years makes it, most teams will probably focus on short term success[xvi]. Whether a coach like Roberto Mancini will still be given years to prepare for an Italian Euro succes, like in 2021, remains to be seen. You can also wonder if this many matches and tournaments might wear down fans and make World Cups and Euros lose their shine.

And then there’s the players. FIFPRO, the players’ union, made a statement at the start of Euro 2020 about the unhealthy number of matches being played. Six hours later, Danish international Christian Eriksen collapsed in the game against Finland. It was his 66st professional match in a year’s time[xvii].

FIFA’s politics: business first

Unfortunately, concepts like fairness, unpredictability, or the wellness of players and fans no longer matter to football’s higher officials. Delaney writes: “A view is that the agendas of Uefa and Fifa don’t seem that different. They are supposed to fundamentally be regulators that safeguard the health of the sport, and take decisions for reasons beyond finance, but so many top-level moves seem primarily motivated by economics. Right now, the two bodies are literally in competition with each other.”[xviii]

In another article, Delaney asks Ramón Calderón, former Real Madrid chairman, if football is a commercial sector par excellence. “Well, maybe, maybe. I think that it’s something you can’t avoid. Football has become show business. The stadiums are big TV sets, where 22 performers are performing. It’s show business, in some ways, more than sport”, Calderón says.[xix]

Viewed through this lens, football and politics don’t seem to mix indeed. Business interests are much more important than political interests. In fact, political statements might only hurt business. In Qatar, FIFA found a very lucrative business partner, an important ally which can even put pressure on UEFA through Paris Saint-Germain. Qatar can help FIFA to make more money and to become more powerful – or, as Infantino says, “globalize the sport”. So why would FIFA endanger all that by reprimanding the Gulf State?

Furthermore, ‘Qatar’ is not a mistake from the Blatter era which Infantino still has to deal with – FIFA would do it again in a heartbeat. Saudi Arabia is said to be a serious contender to host the 2030 World Cup (in a joint bid with Egypt and Greece, strangely)[xx], and the new Club World Cup which was ultimately blocked was supposed to have had its first edition hosted by China[xxi]. For FIFA, human rights are less important than money. That’s just how things are.

So you could say politics has nothing to do with football. Football is mainly about money, not about politics. But choosing money over other concerns is just as much a political choice as any other. British sports journalist Shirsho Dasgupta even writes about the parallel way in which football and the global political climate have evolved in the past decades[xxii]. Starting in the late 80s, world leaders started aiming at achieving an equal global society, but without using taxes to redistribute wealth to poorer communities. Instead, they put greater emphasis on the personal responsibility of individuals and the role businesses played in improving society. One of the foundational ideas behind this was called trickle-down economics, in which market dynamics would make sure that the greater wealth of the rich would eventually ‘trickle down’ to the poor. This, it turned out, didn’t work.

We can see the same in football. The sport has become a global money machine, but as FIFA raves on about ‘Financial Fairplay’ and worldwide appeal, rich clubs and countries become richer while the poor stay at the same level. Which only makes the difference bigger and bigger, on and off the pitch. Meanwhile, football players have become products being bought and sold, clubs have become corporations and fans are now customers. It’s all about money.

FIFA has, knowingly or unknowingly, bought into a political ideology based on globalization and market dynamics. But, because this political ideology places more importance on letting businesses (or clubs) trade freely than on any other consideration, it’s easy to forget that FIFA’s decisions are, in fact, political and not just for business. Sidelining workers’ wellbeing in favor of economic interests is a political decision. Not speaking up about homophobia or misogyny in Qatar for fear of losing a business partner, is a political decision. Ignoring complaints from human rights organizations because you would rather make a lot of money, is a political decision.

This reality is obfuscated by the saying ‘football doesn’t have anything to do with politics’, which denies the responsibility of Gianni Infantino and his accomplices. FIFA could have very well used its political power to prevent enormous suffering and countless deaths in Qatar, but it deliberately chose not to. Which, too, was a political decision.

Another saying that gets thrown around a lot is ‘money is ruining football’. Considering all of the above it’s an understandable sentiment, but this, too, needs to be nuanced. It’s not true that the presence of a lot of money automatically leads to greater financial inequality. This inequality stems from the way in which the money is distributed and the decisions made by governing bodies. Not to say football officials are all part of some giant conspiracy to suck football dry, most of them won’t intend to ruin the game for all of us. But because they hold a political ideology which tells them not to interfere in the financial market, most of the money flows into the pockets of the biggest players on that market. Had these officials made different decisions, the entire football world could have profited from all the money coming in.

A potential alternative Delaney mentions is the proposal from some English clubs to redistribute most of the money to clubs at lower levels. This way, they would become stronger, lifting up the quality of football across the board and creating more unpredictability in all of the English club competitions. This could eventually lead to a level of competition like in the Major League Soccer, in the United States. There, money is distributed almost equally, and in the past decade eight different clubs became champions.

But as we’ve now so painfully seen in Qatar, FIFA does not care about equality. While saying they have nothing to do with politics, their politics keeps promoting countries with the deepest pockets and the most flexible morals. Because those countries can best aide FIFA in achieving it’s ultimate political goal: letting the football market grow larger and larger.

Let it be clear: nobody is doing anything to improve life for migrant workers and Qatar’s other oppressed people. Football players, managers, and national federations are not boycotting, Qatar is doing almost nothing to improve things and FIFA is not interfering. Maybe it’s time to ask a different kind of question: isn’t it too late? Isn’t there nothing we can do about the abuses in Qatar? In the next chapter, I’ll argue that there’s still something we can do.

[i] Evans, S. (2021, March 26). Politics and protest in sport: Have FIFA’s rules changed? [Article]. From Reuters: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-soccer-fifa-protests-idUSKBN2BI2FN

[ii] BBC Sport. (2018, March 9). Pep Guardiola: Manchester City manager fired over yellow ribbon. [Article]. From: https://www.bbc.com/sport/football/43350447

[iii] McKenna, K. (2016, August 28). Why Celtic fans flew the flag for Palestine. [Article]. From The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/aug/27/why-celtic-fans-flew-flag-for- palestine

[iv] Campbell, R. (2018, March 21). Can You Really Keep Politics Out Of Football? [Article]. From EachOther: https://eachother.org.uk/can-really-keep-politics-football/

[v] NOS Voetbal. (2021, June 27). UEFA: regenboogvlag wél toegestaan in stadion Boedapest. [Article]. From: https://nos.nl/artikel/2386884-uefa-regenboogvlag-wel-toegestaan-in-stadion-boedapest

[vi] Westwood, J. (2021, June 23). ‘UEFA respects the rainbow’ – European football’s governing body releases statement after Allianz Arena controversy. [Article]. From Goal.com: https://www.goal.com/en/news/uefa-respects-the-rainbow-allianz-arena-controversy/1khfcit4vr5a91x61fm608za3y

[vii] The Week. (2014, September 9). Sepp Blatter dreams of a Nobel prize as Fifa bows to his ego. [Article]. From: https://www.theweek.co.uk/football/60337/sepp-blatter-dreams-of-a-nobel-prize-as-fifa-bows-to-his-ego

[viii] FIFA. (2020, February 26). FIFA President announces his vision for the period up to 2023. From: https://www.fifa.com/about-fifa/president/media-releases/fifa-president-announces-his-vision-for-the-period-up-to-2023

[ix] Philippou, C. (2021, September 17). Why does Fifa want a football World Cup every two years? [Article]. From Scroll.in: https://scroll.in/field/1005665/why-does-fifa-want-a-football-world-cup-every-two-years

[x] Reiff, N. (2020, May 14). How FIFa Makes Money. [Article]. From Investopedia: https://www.investopedia.com/articles/investing/070915/how-does-fifa-make-money.asp

[xi] Delaney, M. (2020, January 21). Fifa and Uefa set for bitter Club World Cup showdown that will decide the future of football. [Article]. From The Independent: https://www.independent.co.uk/sport/football/world/fifa-uefa-club-world-cup-champions-league-liverpool-tebas-future-a9293851.html

[xii] Ingle, S. (2021, September 9). Uefa threatens World Cup boycott as Coe joins chorus of disapproval. [Article]. From The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/football/2021/sep/09/uefa-ceferin-threatens-world-cup-boycott-as-sebastian-coe-joins-chorus-of-disapproval

[xiii] Delaney, M. (2021, September 14). You think the European Super League is over? Think again. [Article]. From The Independent: https://www.independent.co.uk/sport/football/super-league-uefa-fifa-world-cup-b1919711.html

[xiv] Stone, S. (2021, March 30). Champions League 2024: Decision on new format with 10-match first phase delayed. [Article]. From BBC Sport: https://www.bbc.com/sport/football/56573883

[xv] Delaney, M. (2020, February 12). How modern football became broken beyond repair. [Article]. From The Independent: https://www.independent.co.uk/sport/football/premier-league/champions-league-superclubs-liverpool-man-utd-barcelona-real-madrid-a9330431.html

[xvi] Straus, B. (2021, September 20). The Overlooked Consequences for National Teams in a Biennial World Cup Universe. [Article]. From Sports Illustrated: https://www.si.com/soccer/2021/09/20/biennial-world-cup-national-team-future-fifa-lalas-bradley

[xvii] Dunbar, G. (2021, June 13). Eriksen emergency follows union’s warning of too many games. [Article]. From AP News: https://apnews.com/article/serie-a-europe-international-soccer-soccer-health-ef06c5dbf92729f32924dea7bad5ed6f

[xviii] Delaney, M. (2021, September 14). You think the European Super League is over? Think again. [Article]. From The Independent: https://www.independent.co.uk/sport/football/super-league-uefa-fifa-world-cup-b1919711.html

[xix] Delaney, M. (2020, February 12). How modern football became broken beyond repair. [Article]. From The Independent: https://www.independent.co.uk/sport/football/premier-league/champions-league-superclubs-liverpool-man-utd-barcelona-real-madrid-a9330431.html

[xx] Walker, A., Stamouli, N. (September 14). Greece faces backlash over joint World Cup bid with Saudi Arabia, Egypt. [Article]. From Politico: https://www.politico.eu/article/greece-criticism-joint-fifa-world-cup-bid-saudi-arabia-egypt/

[xxi] BBC Sport. (2019, Oktober 24). Fifa Club World Cup: China to host first edition of expanded tournament in 2021. [Article]. From: https://www.bbc.com/sport/football/50164728

[xxii] Dasgupta, S. (2017, December 14). Want to understand politics in the last 25 years? Look at football. [Article]. From The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/football/in-bed-with-maradona/2017/dec/14/politics-football-premier-league-capitalism-neoliberalism


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