7. If I choose not to watch, what difference does that make?

Finally, I thought I’d found the answer. We should collectively boycott the World Cup. It can be that simple. But as soon as I talked about it with my football-mad friends and family, they showed little enthusiasm. Not necessarily because they don’t care about what’s happening in Qatar, or because they really can’t live without a World Cup. No, most of them said: what’s the point? There will never be enough people who won’t watch to really make a difference.

And the facts support this feeling. Petitions, like the one started by Dutch comedian Freek de Jonge[i], or initiatives like Cancel Qatar 2022[ii] barely get any support. Most football viewers are interested to a certain extent, but collectively organizing a boycott is too much effort.

I started wondering if it would make any difference if I, as an individual, would or wouldn’t watch. The World Cup is happening, billions will watch, billions will be made by FIFA, Qatar’s public image gets boosted, and in faraway places in Africa and Southeast Asia, anonymous mothers are mourning their anonymous sons. Does it make a difference if I don’t watch? You don’t even need to ask, the answer is clear: no, it won’t. But instead, a different question kept bothering me: do I want to, in any way, shape or form, contribute to this World Cup?

Football’s fandom

If I tune in this winter, FIFA becomes a little richer and Qatar gets a little more attention. The media companies that paid handsome sums to get TV-rights raise their profits a little because of me. If I watch highlights, read articles, like posts on Instagram, collect Panini stickers, or place bets on matches, the companies circling this World Cup feast on the crumbs. It’s like buying coffee made by slaves or buying clothes made by children. If you stop doing it, these makers of coffee or clothes don’t get higher wages or improved working conditions. But at least you’re doing something. At least you’re not part of the problem.

Like many people who drink coffee or wear clothes, most football fans don’t think about ethical matters all that much. They are the fans you see on TV. Whether they’re in a stadium or in an advertisement for non-alcoholic beer, they’re always cheering happily, totally invested in the game. They’re the idealized consumers for FIFA and their business partners. On the edge of their seat or glued to the screen, they have one purpose: sucking in as much football as possible through their eyeballs, straight into their brains.

The matches are only the tip of the iceberg. They take in analyses, interviews, and press conferences. They buy the newest kits and other merch, read players’ and managers’ biographies. They admire their football heroes’ perfect seeming lives on social media, laugh at funny memes or watch inspiring videos about players and managers. And to create the illusion of being more than just passive spectators, they compete in FIFA Ultimate Team, match predictions, ‘fantasy football’, or betting – all those things just being even more products to consume. A growing number of analysts observe how football – and sports in general – becomes an essential part and a prime example of a world that’s more and more geared towards spectacle, or, as Ramón Calderón called it, showbizz[iii][iv][v].

The spectacle of football

Our society is so fixated on consumption that even ‘having’ things you can buy is no longer sufficient. We’re now one step further, where we’re producing and consuming images, personas. A fine example is Neymar[vi]. The 222 million euros Paris Saint-Germain paid for the Brazilian star in 2017 is not a reflection of reality on the pitch: he’s not ten times better than Kingsley Coman, who joined Bayern Munich for 21 million in the same year. No, Neymar is worth 222 million because of his image as one of the most recognizable, marketable players of all time.

He’s more than a football player. He’s a brand, a company, with a giant audience on social media, countless sponsorship deals, endless possibilities for merchandise, and several biographies. This image has been carefully crafted and managed by Neymar himself and the people around him, ever since he took the Brazilian league by storm as a teenager, sporting a bleached blond mohawk. He earns his money not just because of his qualities on the pitch, but also – and perhaps mostly – because of this image.

His employer PSG, for its part, also has an image to maintain, so it pays Neymar almost 400k a month if he’s well behaved in interviews and kindly applauds the Parisian fans[vii]. Furthermore, the club creates an image of being one of the best in the world by bringing in players like Neymar, Kylian Mbappé and Lionel Messi, while in reality PSG rarely competes for European silverware. But clubs are no longer just clubs, they’re ‘brands’ competing with one another for attention from their potential customers.

The biggest matches between such brands are themselves marketed, like ‘Le Classique’ (Paris Saint-Germain vs Marseille), which was hyped deliberately by Marseille’s owner Bernard Tapie and broadcaster Canal+ in the 90s, to in turn make the French league more attractive to a large (foreign) audience[viii]. Similarly, national leagues are also in competition with one another, promoting their brands as more exciting than ever, even though Miguel Delaney showed how these leagues are in fact getting less and less exciting as the big clubs dominate. International tournaments are also battling with each other for your attention. The World Cup is even more spectacular than the Euros and vice versa, Infantino’s ideal extended Club World Cup would be even more sensational than the Champions League. Sports media, making loads of money, stoke the flames even higher with their clickbait.

It doesn’t matter how exciting the football actually is, what matters is how exciting it appears. And some people no longer get this excitement from matches or competitions, but by correctly predicting them through various forms of gambling, from fantasy football to online betting. The spectacle of football keeps expanding, even up to a point where the football itself becomes less important, as the show surrounding it takes center stage.

Other examples include media circuses during the transfer window, or at (provisional) squad selections of national teams. There’s a growing fascination for football stars’ private lives, or for analyses about analyses (“I thought Gary Neville’s opinion was better than Micah Richards’ opinion”). Secondary concerns become primary concerns. If football itself is the core, it’s now surrounded by layer on top of layer of related show business.

British sports journalist Barney Ronay summarizes this nicely in an opnion piece about Manchester United[ix]: “Good salespeople are endlessly adaptable. When life gives you a bad football team: make bad football team-ade. And so United’s non-success has become the product, a self-sustaining media industry in its own right. At the end of another unremarkable defeat we await impatiently the real match around the lighted coffee table, the cut-aways, the memes, the pornography of legend-rage. Gary’s rant. Micah’s laugh. Scholesy’s pucker of disdain. This is where the eyeballs are now, the clicks, the money.” And then Ronay writes an article about it, which goes viral.

These commodified images, personas and secondary concerns are all part of the show that is modern day football. And the show must go on, without ending or endgame. The footballing world can be viewed as a spectacle par excellence, a show gripping an audience of billions and making huge amounts of money, which are then – it literally says so in Gianni Infantino’s master plan for football[x] – invested into making football even bigger and more profitable. Football – or, rather, the football spectacle – has no other purpose but itself.

The fact of image building being more important than reality in football is not lost on the Qataris. First, they’re paying migrant workers to attend matches of the Qatari international team to create the image of their team having loyal fans. But second, they’re doing something far more important: they know they don’t have to actually change the migrant workers’ situation, as long as it seems as if they do. Abdullah Ibhais, part of their own PR-team, wanted to first change the situation in worker’s camps and then show the world this new reality. He’s now behind bars. Because reality no longer matters, only the presented images count for the football audience.

And this audience, meanwhile, consists mostly of almost hypnotized spectators. That’s us, with our season tickets and pay-per-view. Some fans are so hypnotized they never even think of the possibility of not watching the Qatar World Cup. And even when they do, they might not even be able to live without football anymore. They watch, consume, and are entertained. Nothing should distract them from it, no difficult questions about wrongdoings or injustice. “Let me just enjoy the game!” The show is more important to them than the horrible practices which made the show possible.

Making a difference, or acting morally?

Other fans, who can live without football, might feel like they can’t do anything to influence the direction in which their beloved sport is headed. The World Cup in Qatar is the ultimate proof of this. There’s virtually no football lover who supports the tournament being held there, but still nothing changes. We feel like all we can do is watch and, if there’s no other option, just enjoy the show. Resistance is futile, the spectacle marches on without us.

So no, there will never be enough people who’ll join your boycott to really hurt the Qataris. Not watching the World Cup won’t make a difference. But does it necessarily have to make a difference? Or can we just do something, or not do something, because we know it’s right? Without focusing on the results.

Precisely this obsession with results, profits, numbers at the expense of all else, has led us here. Football has become all about results, financially or on the pitch, and the ends justify the means. Qatar proves how we ignore human suffering in favor of success and profits. If we want to push back against that, I’m afraid the idea of “but will it make a difference?” is falling into the exact same trap as the incessant focus on results.

This focus only gets stronger because of sports-based gambling which has grown steadily in the past decades, writes the American theatre historian Kellen Hoxworth[xi]. He describes ‘fantasy football’ in the US, a phenomenon which made its way to Europe, but we can put predictions, betting and FIFA Ultimate Team in the same category. Practically all football fans have played such a game at least once – with friends, family members or complete strangers. In FIFA Ultimate Team an individual’s skills still matter, but you can improve your chances of winning by cleverly trading players and ‘packs’. In predictions, fantasy football and gambling however, it’s all about probability calculus and risk management.

Hoxworth writes: “The game asks participants not (only) to experience sporting events as live, physical events, but (also) to analyze them as a numbers game in which individual statistical production of an athlete is important.” According to him, this ties perfectly into a way of thinking in which numbers, results, individual success, profits, and money are what matters most. This rationale holds the entire world of football in an unbreakable chokehold, making quantity more important than quality. And Hoxworth says this also changes sports fans’ own way of thinking: “The participants in fantasy football are transformed from a ‘homo ludens’ (playing man) into a calculating ‘homo economicus’ (economic man) – the entrepreneur functioning as a ‘player on the market’, making decisions on a purely rational, economic basis.”

When a fan becomes more focused on results and numbers, modern football feeds into his newfound fascination: he can celebrate more and more goals records, winning streaks and historical trebles. Precisely these unique results can blind the statistics-oriented fan, who doesn’t notice how football becomes statistically more predictable and less exciting. And these gambling games themselves are also part of the show. They’re putting a kind of extra layer of tension on top of the football itself, which masks the fact that football’s becoming less exciting and entertaining, because the excitement and entertainment increasingly comes from predicting results instead of just watching the game.

The idea of it ‘not making a difference’ when you don’t watch the Qatar World Cup, fits perfectly into this results-oriented rationale which now controls football. When we don’t get anything out of it, we don’t do it. Morality – is this right or wrong – is then cast aside entirely.

This is the logical end point of a rationale in which only quantifiable results matter, and in which everything should have utility. In which ‘professional fouls’, timewasting and theatre on the pitch are all accepted as long as you do it to get results. In which winning is all-important, to earn more money to invest, so you can win even more. On a larger scale, FIFA also wants to make more money to invest in growing football further, tapping into new markets, in order to makes more money to invest in even more growth and to attract even more viewers. Human lives, suffering, and morality no longer matter in this logic of performance and growth.

When doing something doesn’t make a difference, this fact can only stop you from doing it if you buy into the logic of performance and results. Maybe it’s time to ditch this way of thinking and start thinking about whether it’s morally right to watch this World Cup. Maybe it’s time stop asking what we can do to stop these unethical practices, and to start asking if we want to contribute to them.

Personally, my answer is ‘no’. I love enjoying the beautiful show of football and I love to compete in prediction games, but not at all costs. There’s more to criticize about modern football than just the Qatar World Cup, but for me this tournament has crossed the line. I can’t live with the fact that thousands of people were sent to their deaths, tens of thousands were made slaves and tens of thousands more have had to mourn their loved ones, all for my entertainment.

I don’t want to be a passive spectator of such entertainment, but an active boycotter. That’s why this winter I won’t be glued to the screen like the football fanatics in those non-alcoholic beer commercials. Every fan will have to make his or her own decision in this matter, as long is this decision is made consciously and based on the right information.

Still, in the next chapter, I want to discuss one more factor I haven’t talked about before. One final question which has less to do with the horrors in Qatar, the malpractices of FIFA, or the responsibility of us football fans, but which is nonetheless important to many people: when my country competes in the World Cup, I have to see it, right? But before answering that question, I’ll paint the picture of how I’ll experience the upcoming World Cup.

[i] Goed Ingelichte Kring (2021, February 27). Freek de Jonge start petitie tegen WK voetbal in Qatar. [Video]. From NPO Radio 1: https://www.nporadio1.nl/fragmenten/goed-ingelichte-kring/d41f7f51-7c36-4a90-9a8d-4244fa0d6daf/2021-02-27-freek-de-jonge-start-petitie-tegen-wk-voetbal-in-qatar

[ii] Cancel Qatar 2022. From: https://cancelqatar.nl/

[iii] Galeano, E. (2004). ‘Soccer: Opiate Of The People?’ In: NACLA Report on the Americas 37(5), p. 38-43.

[iv] Oriard, M. (2001). King Football. Sport and Spectacle in the Golden Age of Radio and Newsreels, Movies and Magazines, the Weekly and the Daily Press. New Baskerville: University of North Carolina Press.

[v] Finn, M. (2002). ‘From sport to spectacle: the emergence of football as a destination attribute or look what they’ve done to our game: the McDonaldization of football’. In: Tourism in Western Europe: a collection of case histories, p. 171-191.

[vi] Gavroche, J. (2017, August 10). The spectacle of football: A somnambulist’s reflections on a man called Neymar. [Blog]. From Autonomies: https://autonomies.org/2017/08/the-spectacle-of-football-a-somnambulists-reflections-on-a-man-called-neymar/

[vii] Bristow, T. (2018, November 9). Neymar’s incredible clause in PSG contract that sees forward earn €375,000 every month. [Article]. From Mirror: https://www.mirror.co.uk/sport/football/news/neymars-incredible-clause-psg-contract-13564824

[viii] Le Classique, Golden era and scandal. From Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Le_Classique#Golden_era_and_scandal

[ix] Ronay, B. (2022, March 7). Manchester United being bad is now its own self-sustaining media industry. [Article]. From The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/football/blog/2022/mar/07/manchester-united-derby-reaction-roy-keane-media

[x] 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

[xi] Hoxworth, K. (2020). ‘Football Fantasies: Neoliberal Habitus, Racial Governmentality, and National Spectacle’. In: American Quarterly 72(1), p. 155-179.


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