06/1/15

World Cup Boycott: “It Doesn’t Smell Good”

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“I am not certain, but it doesn’t smell good,” Sepp Blatter opined.

It was a particularly astute observation. Only, Blatter wasn’t referring to the skulduggery that has landed Fifa in the eye of its most turbulent storm during his 17-year tenure as president. Instead, he was questioning the timing of the arrest of seven Fifa officials on the eve of the federations congress in Zurich. The arrests were part of an indictment led by the United States Department of Justice in which 14 individuals are under investigation for allegedly accepting bribes and kickbacks estimated at more than $150m over a 24-year period. Swiss federal prosecutors have also launched a criminal investigation into the awards of the 2018 and 2022 World Cup tournaments to Russia and Qatar.

Blatter told Swiss television station, RTS, that he suspected the arrests were an attempt to “interfere with the congress” at which he had been re-elected for a fifth term as Fifa president.

“No one is going to tell me that it was a simple coincidence, this American attack two days before the elections of Fifa,”

The 79-year-old continued “Why would I step down? That would mean I recognise that I did wrong. I fought for the last three or four years against all the corruption.”

US attorney general, Loretta Lynch, had said corruption in football was “rampant, systemic and deep-rooted”, yet in spite of this damming assessment, and widespread calls for Blatter’s resignation, his chutzpah was unwavering. “I am the president of everybody, I am the president of the whole Fifa” he triumphed, as obdurate in victory as he was in the face of adversity.

It is worth remembering plenty were happy to see the Swiss football administrator return to office. Blatter holds a strong base of support within many Football Associations outside Europe and North America. As this Bloomberg report details, his work directing power and funds away from Europe to the smaller and poorer countries, has ensured that while Blatter is regarded by many in the West as a cartoon villain, to the rest of the footballing world he is a saint.

Nevertheless, to those calling for reform and hoping that the arrests in Zurich would pave the way for the dawn of a new Blatter-free era, the 79-year-old’s re-election was disheartening. Particularly for FIFA’s most vocal critic, UEFA. Before the election, UEFA president Michel Platini had urged Blatter to resign, refusing to rule out the possibility of European teams boycotting the World Cup.

UEFA’s pre-election gambit aimed at swaying votes in favour of Blatter’s opponent, Prince Ali Bin al-Hussein, has led them into a cul de sac, and Platini has since made it clear that he does not want a World Cup Boycott. That said, he remains under pressure, with calls for such an action having strengthened since Blatter’s re-election. England’s Football Association chairman, Greg Dyke, has been particularity vocal in pledging enthusiastic support, claiming that a boycott would need to involve “10 large countries” to have an impact.

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Dyke (left) said Platini (right) must unite Europe in a boycott 

Speaking on BBC Radio 5 live’s sport week, Dyke said “There would certainly be us, there would certainly be the Dutch, there would certainly be the Germans who have been demanding change. The FA chairman also believes that most South American countries opposed Blatter in the election, but admitted “They [Fifa] would only take serious action if there’s enough [opposition willing to act].”

Danish Uefa ExCo member Allan Hansen is also said to be of a similar mindset and has proposed to stage a new competition featuring sides from Europe and South America. In reality however, there are no guarantees a boycott would achieve any tangible reform in a hurry.

Blatter has demonstrated his intransigence knows no bounds. The man himself said he intends to “leave through the front door and leave with a clean house.” After four terms in office, he is not about to relinquish power, at least not without a long fight.

In addition, Fifa’s World Cup qualifying draw is due to be held on July 25 in St. Petersburg, Russia. Despite the fulminations of Dyke and British politicians, it is hard to envisage circumstances in which significant numbers agree to withdraw their participation from the qualifying draw, especially in a time-scale of just under two months. Then of course their is the risk of missing out on the financial windfall that competing in the World Cup and its associated sponsorship brings.

On Saturday June 6, UEFA will meet in Berlin to discuss their next step. Talks of a boycott will be high on the agenda however it will not be a united ship. Spain, France and of course Russia are three of the 18 European countries who were said to have opposed UEFA’s reform mandate, voting for Sepp Blatter.

Minus the backing of UEFA president Michel Platini and with no guarantees that Europe’s pro-reformers can rely on the support of the South American contingent, the boycott campaign could be derailed before it’s even truly in motion. For example, could England rely on the backing of Argentina given the history of fraught diplomatic relations between the two? And that is where the real problem lies – in geo-politics.

With so many stakeholders involved, what is the true purpose of this boycott?

On face value, a UEFA-led protest against FIFA does not appear to be grounded in political pragmatism but rather moral objection. It would be propagated as a boycott against the unscrupulous and corruptive malpractices of Fifa. A means of enacting much needed change and jettisoning Sepp Blatter. However, would such a protest also be based upon the supposition that Russia are a guilty party in the chicanery of the bidding process. It could be a diplomatic minefield.

Some circles have described a World Cup boycott as “Soccer’s nuclear option”, a sure fire way to foment political tensions. Following the arrest of Fifa officials, Russian president Vladimir Putin was quick to wade into the debate, accusing the US of meddling outside its jurisdiction.

“It’s another clear attempt by the USA to spread its jurisdiction to other states. And I have no doubt – it’s a clear attempt not to allow Mr Blatter to be re-elected as president of Fifa, which is a great violation of the operating principles of international organisations.” 

Since his re-election, Sepp Blatter has also launched diatribes at his detractors. The Fifa president highlighted that both England and the US had lost their bids for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar respectively, claiming that, the attempt to unseat him was led by a spiteful media campaign in both countries.

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Both are examples of the shrewd defence adopted by Putin and Blatter. In effect they are playing the role of spin doctors. It is no secret that political relations between Russia and the West have reached their most fractious since the Cold War years. Blatter’s line portrays the US and England as vindictive and irrational, willing to use all manner of subterfuge to prevent Russia and Qatar from holding a World Cup, in turn wresting the event for themselves. Putin is beating a similar drum. Ratcheting up an anti-imperialist rhetoric, suggesting that these attempts to destabilise Fifa and the World Cup are political revanchism, hidden under the guise of anti-corruption.

To some, his line of arguement will resonate. Especially given that calls to boycott the 2018 Russian world cup — as a means of protest against their role in the Ukrainian conflict — have already circulated within Western media and politicians. Only recently, 13 bipartisan US senators wrote to Blatter encouraging him to pull the plug on Russia 2018. Last year, the former deputy Prime Minister of Britain, Nick Clegg, affirmed that a boycott would be a “very potent political and symbolic action”, words that undoubtedly contributed to his inclusion on Russia’s blacklist.

The dangers of a politically charged boycott against Russia are well documented and UEFA will be anxious to distance themselves from such allegations. Unfortunately for Dyke and UEFA however, any withdrawal from the 2018 Russian World Cup would invariably be framed as such. In fact, the significant contribution of British and American politicians in particular, might prove detrimental to the legitimacy of a ‘moral’ boycott or the creation of a ‘Clean Cup’ – a separate competition designed for boycotting nations.

Let us, just for a minute, remove ourselves from our Western bubble. Were the 2018 and 2022 World Cup due to be held in England and the US, would there be the same level of public outrage regarding Fifa’s latest shenanigans? Would we be calling for reform with the same rancour? It all appears a little disingenuous.

Of course, many will argue that the corruption and opacity that we seek to expunge are the only reason the World Cups went to Russia and Qatar. Indeed, a boycott of the Qatari World Cup on humanitarian grounds is well founded given the tragic death of around 1,200 migrant workers, and the continuation of the oppressive Khafala employment system.

There is no doubt Fifa has become a kleptocracy in desperate need of radical rehabilitation. But the problem is, until the Swiss and US prosecutors place key figures behind bars and provide concrete evidence of bribery and corruption, the ground upon which an ‘ethical’ boycott of Russia 2018 would stand, remains shaky.

Admittedly, the indictments and investigations will likely take years to bear fruit. And in this instance, the phrase innocent until proven guilty might be worth heeding. Without robust evidence of Russian wrongdoing in the bidding process, a World Cup boycott could have far-reaching, geo-political consequences. The move would certainly scupper any progress that has been made in reaching a détente with Russia. In terms of the footballing community, it would also create disillusion and frustration among the players and fans of boycotting countries.

Therefore, such talks are neither prudent nor timely. Fifa needs a makeover, but at this moment in time, a boycott would cause more problems than it would solve.

@LH_Ramon25

03/6/15

Russia 2018: Could the World Cup be Boycotted?

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This article is published in full on Futbolgrad. You can also follow them (@Futbolgradliveand their owner (@homosovieticus) on twitter.

 

09/12/14

Political Football: A Force for Good

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“To be honest I was nervous about coming to summer school in England because of this F****** political situation in Russia.  I wasn’t sure I would make friends but I had no problems and everyone was very friendly.”

It was intriguing to hear the insight of this Russian teenager while working at a British international summer school. The student had arrived in England with preconceptions. He was well aware of deteriorating diplomatic relations after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and believed that forging new friendships might prove difficult.

His situation was thought provoking. The rise in nationalism and political tensions across the world mean sport is faced with a similar conundrum. Prior to the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games, several English athletes approached Team England asking for guidance on how to respond to heckling from a partisan crowd. With the Scottish referendum on independence just weeks away there were fears that Scottish nationalists would use the games to voice animosity to the ‘Auld Enemy’. A spokesman for the Glasgow 2014 games reassured Team England that such an event would not materialise. “While friendly rivalries will exist between athletes on the field of play, we look forward to Scottish crowds expressing their passion for world-class sport in a family-friendly atmosphere.” Indeed the English athletes received a warm welcome but such security concerns are increasingly salient.

From the most egregious example of the murder of 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team by Palestinian Nationalists at the Munich 1972 Olympics, to the political shenanigans surrounding the Olympic boycotts of the Cold War era, athletes’ apprehensions regarding their security are not misplaced. Such overt political statements are inimical to sport’s integrity as well as security.

Ahead of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics there were real concerns regarding the safety of gay and transgender athletes, spectators and campaigners after the Russian government passed a law which criminalised support for ‘non-traditional’ relationships. During preparations for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, England manager, Roy Hodgson, expressed his concerns for the safety of both fans and players after violent protests had marred the Confederations Cup a year earlier. In 2012, ahead of the Euros in Poland and Ukraine, the British Foreign Office and ex-England defender, Sol Campbell, advised fans of a different ethnicity to stay at home because of entrenched racism and violence. When asked on a Panorama documentary – Euro 2012 Stadiums of hate – whether fans should travel to Poland and Ukraine, Campbell replied “Stay at home and watch it on TV…Don’t even risk it…you could end up coming back in a coffin.”

This sense of insecurity is bound to have a knock-on effect. The family of England footballer, Theo Walcott, decided against travelling to Euro 2012 after heeding the warning of Campbell and others. Walcott’s brother, Ashley, tweeted:

“Unfortunately my dad n i have taken the decision not to travel to the Ukraine because of the fear of possible racist attacks and confrontations.

 ‘Something’s aren’t worth risking but begs the question why hold a competition of this magnitude in a place that cannot police itself for foreigners of any creed to feel safe.”

Furthermore, is it possible for athletes to give their best performances in such hostile environments? Some of the responsibility lies with international governing bodies and their decision making processes when choosing venues to host major sporting events. That said with the proliferation of nationalist sentiments across Europe, it is likely that new cultural, social and political tensions will erupt in host nations. Following the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 back in July, Russia once again came under intense scrutiny with politicians – notably the UK’s deputy leader Nick Clegg – calling for FIFA to axe Russia as the hosts of the 2018 World Cup. “…You can’t have this – the beautiful game marred by the ugly aggression of Russia on the Russian Ukrainian border.” Clegg declared.

A World Cup in Russia could certainly stir feelings of tension and apprehension among those involved, especially if Ukraine were to qualify. However as David McArdle (co-founder of Futbolgrad) argues, stripping Russia of the World Cup would further isolate an already isolationist country and would also act to strengthen Putin’s rhetoric against the West. This is the crux of the debate. It’s yet another illustration of the old canard that politics and sport should be kept apart. This is a beautiful but romantic ideal. Sport and politics are inseparable as demonstrated in FIFA’s belief that rather than boycotting Russia 2018, the tournament can be used as a “force for good.” A political statement if ever there was one. What FIFA are backhandedly suggesting is that football should be used as a political tool. Thus rather than pretending there is no ‘political football’, the solution lies in tackling the problem head on. Shaun McCarthy, ICSS Director of Research and Knowledge Gathering, has suggested that the most prudent way forward involves forging some form of convention that protects sport from corrosive aspects of politicisation.

Event organisers, national and international governing bodies must attempt to seize the opportunity to use sport to bridge divisions. As with the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, it must be a priority to ensure that all those visiting the 2018 World Cup in Russia feel confident that the utmost is being done to uphold the integrity of the sport but also the security and well-being of all those involved. Let’s stop pretending we can keep sport free from politics and rather focus on how we can harness a positive relationship between the two.