06/17/14

Corruption, Deceit and a Betrayal of Values: Does FIFA Mirror Sport?

Retrieved from The Guardian. Photograph: Paul Childs/Action Images

Retrieved from The Guardian. Photograph: Paul Childs/Action Images

 

The 2014 World Cup in Brazil has kicked off with a bang and millions have been gripped by football fever. We’ve had goals galore, red cards, last minute drama and rapturous atmospheres. We’ve gone from the sublime to the absurd, from Lionel Messi’s majestic goal for Argentina against Bosnia Herzegovina on Sunday, to the petulance of Portugal’s Pepe and his fracas with Germany’s Thomas Muller on Monday.

We are only six days into the World’s greatest footballing fiesta and we are mesmerised. Mesmerised in a world of fantasy, one that convinces you that watching Switzerland against Ecuador, a game that holds not one iota of personal significance, is the most important event at that moment. There lies the magic of such sporting events. They offer a form of escapism.

In the last week, fans of different nationalities, creeds and colours have united on Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana Beach to dance, sing, party and above all share the World Cup experience. A political researcher in Eastern Europe tweeted that Russia appeared to be a more jovial place; observing that people were more interested in talking about Germany against Portugal rather than their disdain for Ukraine.

If Peter Pan’s ‘Neverland’ were to host a sporting event, it would be the World Cup because while it has the power to unite, it can also make people forget. Forget about the atrocities transpiring in Iraq and the Middle East; forget about the economic disparity which has seen the anti-World Cup demonstrations continue in Brazil and in relation to sport, forget about the widespread corruption and deceit which has not only tainted footballs world governing body – FIFA – but also sport in general.

You are probably sick to the stomach of hearing about FIFA’s transgressions, or should I say ‘alleged’ transgressions in order to avoid being branded a racist. For that is the latest tirade launched by FIFA’s president, Joseph ‘Sepp’ Blatter. Unable to offer any plausible answers to the latest corruption allegations hurled at FIFA against Qatar’s successful 2022 World Cup bid, Blatter resorted to playing the racism card. Addressing delegates from Africa and Asia – two federations who, coincidentally, are said to have benefited most from Qatar’s alleged bribery – Blatter said:

Once again there is a sort of storm against FIFA relating to the Qatar World Cup. Sadly there’s a great deal of discrimination and racism and this hurts me.”

These comments came in the wake of a Sunday Times report accusing Mohamed Bin Hammam, the former President of the Asian Football Confederation, of paying $5 million in bribes to secure the 2022 World Cup for Qatar. Bin Hammam was a member of FIFA’s powerful 24-person executive committee when the vote took place in 2010 and a huge proportion of his payments reportedly went to representatives from the African federation. This, less than a month after similar allegations were directed at the former vice-president of FIFA, Jack Warner, who after Qatar’s successful bid, allegedly received personal payments from a company controlled by a former Qatari football official.

The opacity of FIFA, especially in regards to their decision making processes, coupled with the hubris of Blatter and his cronies will allow them to unabashedly fend off such allegations. Blatter’s chosen line of defence is ironic, given his notoriously laissez-faire attitude towards racism in football. But FIFA apart, the real concern is that sport in general appears to be losing sight of its ethical values.

Sport has traditionally been thought to have a positive role in society. To many it stands as a bastion of physical prowess and moral virtue; abiding by the rules and playing fair is considered to have redemptive and educational qualities. This sporting esprit de corps reached its apogee during the mid-Victorian era in Britain. However has this notion become archaic?

British investigative journalist, Andrew Jennings, will tell you that kleptocracy and callousness is hardly reserved to football’s international governing body. Jennings is a proven bête noire of FIFA and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and has revealed a multitude of their wrong-doings, penned in two of his publications: The New Lord of the Rings and Foul! The Secret World of FIFA: Bribes Vote Rigging and Ticket Scandals. Delve a little deeper and sport has become plagued by a myriad of aberrant behaviours.

Match-fixing and unlawful gambling has grown to unprecedented levels, with football, cricket, tennis, badminton, basketball and motor racing all under siege. Recent research carried out by the International Centre Security for Sport (ICSS) in conjunction with the University of Sorbonne, Paris, revealed that around $140 billion is laundered annually through sport betting.

Doping  and use of performance enhancing substances continues to be a widespread problem and the sophisticated and professional nature of the Lance Armstrong doping scandal – uncovered back in 2012 – prompted The World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) Director General, David Howman, to admit the problem is getting “too big for sport to manage.” Furthermore, the Lombardian ‘win at all cost’ ethic often espoused has led athletes, coaches and administrators to flagrantly neglect the moral codes of sport in pursuit of success and riches.

Money and power are at the nexus of our society. These values have trickled into sport. Thus, does FIFA merely reflect a modern sporting trend? Or can we blame the suits in charge of sport for the corruption of its moral ideals. Mathew Syed, a sports columnist for The Times, has suggested that it appears to be the latter, especially with regards to football.

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“The real ugliness in football is to be found not amongst those who play it, but among those who run it: the corruption, the complacency and ticketing policies that, at this World Cup [Brazil 2014], have disenfranchised millions of ordinary Brazilians.

In the same article, Syed also highlighted the heart-warming sight of the camaraderie and spirit that sport can inspire when Italy’s Claudio Marchisio and Giorgio Chiellini spontaneously helped relieve Englands Raheem Sterling of cramp by stretching his legs. A part of FIFA’s mission statement reads verbatim:

“FIFA’s primary objective is to improve the game of football constantly and promote it globally in the light of its unifying, educational, cultural and humanitarian values, particularly through youth and development programmes.”

Revisiting FIFA and the World Cup, there is nothing wrong with major sporting events which, paraphrasing Karl Marx’s words, “provide an opiate for the masses.” The World Cup presents people with an opportunity to escape from the banality of everyday life. However the problem arises if people start to accept that corruption, deceit etc. are ingrained in sport. In order for football – and sport in general – to return to the halcyon days of fair play and morality, organisations such as FIFA need to start practicing what they preach and we need to continue making our voices heard. Getting rid of Sepp Blatter would be a start.

02/14/14

Random Rambles Part II: Anelka’s Appeal and More Brazilian Protests

As I said I would be posting a couple of articles with my thoughts on a few current issues and here is the second part of my random rambles, focusing on Anelka’s appeal against the FA’s charges regarding his quenelle gesture and yet more social unrest brewing in Brazil.

Anelka’s appeal carries no weight.

Following Anelka’s ill-advised quenelle salute during a match against West Ham on 28 December, 2013, the FA found the Frenchman guilty of making a gesture alleged to be “abusive or indecent or insulting or improper.” A further statement from English football’s governing body read “It is further alleged that this is an aggravated breach, as defined in FA Rule E3, in that it included a reference to ethnic origin and/or race and/or religion or belief.”

The West Bromwich Albion forward, who faces a minimum five game ban, has launched an appeal against the charges and requested a personal hearing in a move which could see his ban doubled if he is still found guilty after the appeal. In my opinion doubling his ban is exactly the line the FA should take.

Anelka's quenelle celebration vs. West Ham back in December 2013.

Anelka’s quenelle celebration vs. West Ham back in December 2013.

Having written about this incident a few weeks ago in my article European Footall and Fascism, I advocated a severe punishment for Anelka and his appeal merely reinforces my view. Just like his friend and compatriot, comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala (the man who brought the gesture to prominence), Anelka has denied the quenelle is a ‘reverse Nazi salute’ or a gesture with anti-Semitic connotations, instead claiming that its anti-establishment. This is disingenuous.

Whether the quenelle started off as anti-establishment (about which I am sceptical) is largely irrelevant. The gesture has been pictured in front of synagogues, Auschwitz, at the Jewish school where Toulouse gunman Mohamed Merah killed three children, by signs for rue des Juifs (Jews’ Street) and in front of the train wagons that transported French Jews to the concentration camps.

It seems unlikely that this celebration was spontaneous, heat of the moment and without forethought. Especially considering it was during a match Anelka knew was being televised in France. So whether it was a dedication to his comedian friend or not, why did  he feel the need to show his support for Dieudonné on this global stage and in this manner?

There is an argument suggesting the gesture was more anarchic then anti-Semitic as the celebration did not occur in a specifically Jewish place, a fact pointed out by Roger Cukierman, president of the Council of Jewish institutions in France. However this is flimsy at best. Anelka used this argument in a Facebook message in which he asked the FA to “kindly remove” the charge made against him, however Cukierman has further clarified his comments saying the player’s sympathy for the gesture is “clearly suspect”. He hits the nail on the head. Anelka is a 34-year-old man and a close friend to Dieudonné, so the theory that he was oblivious to the gestures more sinister nuances or lacked the foresight to predict the potential fall out from his celebration lacks credibility.

The symbolism of a gesture remains whatever the setting. Take Prince Harry’s ill-fated decision to dress up in a Nazi costume for a party back in 2005. It was a naive faux-pas from a juvenile 20-year-old. However this did not save him from a public backlash, the media running headlines such as “Harry The Nazi”. Of course a gesture is more provocative and offensive in certain environments than others, but that doesn’t negate its symbolism. As soon as the quenelle became associated with anti-Semitism, it developed a symbolic power and a Premier League footballer in today’s society, right or wrong, is a role model to millions across the globe. Therefore Anelka should have known better.

You can bet your bottom dollar there was a young child somewhere across the globe imitating Anelka’s celebration. Even young Romelu Lukaku (on loan at Everton), came out in staunch defence of a man he identifies as one of his footballing idols. The FA lost the initiative having failed to respond with immediate repercussions. They must now look to set a precedent by banning Anelka for a minimum of eight to ten games.

“Protests and more protests in Brazil”

“There Will Be No World Cup”. This was the slogan of one of the recent protests in Brazil. The economic fragility and gross social inequality has seen malcontent spread throughout the country and the public furore concerning government expenditure on this summer’s World Cup has by no means been alleviated. Add this to the fact that 2014 is not only a World Cup year in Brazil, but also an election year with Dilma Rousseff set to run for a second four-year term as president, and the stakes are higher than ever.

Protests flare up in the streets of Sao Paulo. 'There will be no cup' (Photo from www.therepublic.com)

Protests flare up in the streets of Sao Paulo. ‘There will be no cup’ (Photo from www.therepublic.com)

The political protests tainted what was a very successful Confederations Cup for the host nation on the field and they remain a real concern to the Brazilian government who fear that similar unrest could severely disrupt this summer’s tournament. Since the demonstrations witnessed last June, Rousseff’s government have been unable to assuage public discontent. Although recent outcries have been smaller in scale, they have still resulted in vandalism of banks and violent clashes with police, as hardcore groups of protesters nationwide, some of whom call themselves ‘Black Blocs’, cause disruption within some of Brazil’s major cities. The latest development’s in Rio de Janeiro have seen hundreds of people clash with authorities during protests against increased fares for public transport. The skirmishes have been brutal with six people left injured, twenty arrested and a journalist left in critical condition in hospital after he was struck by an explosive device.

Reports have claimed Brazilian security forces are implementing a stringent crackdown, using undercover agents, intercepting emails and meticulously monitoring social media to try to ensure this summers World Cup is not remembered for the battles on the streets rather than the battles on the field.

Having already commented on this issue – Brazil, Stadiums and Protests – all I want to add is this. It is all very well making sure the World Cup runs smoothly and everyone wants to witness a successful event which celebrates football. However as an emerging nation in the world’s global economy, the Brazilian government and FIFA must not attempt to conceal and neglect the country’s social and economic shortfalls under the guises of a footballing fiesta.

Using the words of the recently deceased Nelson Mandela “Sport has the power to inspire and unite people” and football is such a vehicle. Despite the protesters slogans, the ‘show will go on’. But it is the government’s responsibility and FIFA’s (despite their mumbling) to make sure that once the World Cup comes to an end, these social and economic ills are not swept aside once again in preparation for their next major sporting event – the 2016 Summer Olympics. The World Cup has provided the Brazilian government with an audience, they now need to prove the country is worthy of one.

12/14/13

An Anglo-Italian Perspective

 England v Italy - UEFA EURO 2012 Quarter Final

It has been a week since the World Cup draw and the dust has settled on what was a fascinating event. Last week I discussed the social and political implications of the World Cup in Brazil however the prospect of Italy – England has forced my hand to write something a little more light hearted and certainly closer to home.

When Sir Geoff Hurst picked up that little plastic ball on Friday the 6th of December at Costa do Sauipe a wry smile came to my face. It just had to be, Italy versus England.

It is a tie which should provide me with the ultimate internal conflict, something akin to your alter egos, sitting on each shoulder, whispering sweet nothings in your ear. “Italia, tifa Italia – Italy support Italy, no its got to be England you should support England” (the conversation would go something like that). Hailing from England with an Italian father who like many on the peninsula has a vehement passion for football I should be experiencing an International schism. Not the case. For reasons little known to my self, apart from the fact my mother isn’t the biggest of football fans, I have always had a stalwart attachment to the Azzurri. Call me unpatriotic, question my ‘love for my country’, apparently something politicians do these days to besmirch a journalists reputation, however it does not make an iota of difference to me.

That said the point of this article is not to discuss the mundane topic of my own allegiances but to compare and contrast two nations whose footballing history makes them behemoths of the World Cup arena.

Whether its Forza Italia or Come on England I will be juxtaposing the media reaction surrounding these two European heavyweights of Brazil’s World Cup Group D.

Press Reaction 

England

It is safe to say the English media quaked at what was undoubtedly a cruel draw. Not only were England condemned to face  Italy and Uruguay (two nations in the top 10 of the FIFA rankings) but they would also have to play their opener in the sweltering heat of the Brazilian Jungle.

Greg Dyke's reaction to the bad news (Photo from The Guardian)

Greg Dyke’s – Chairman of the FA reacts to the draw (Photo from The Guardian)

For much of the press, Greg Dyke’s reaction to the draw said it all. He was caught on Camera pulling his finger across his throat. In typically English fashion this already signaled doom. For Matt Dickinson of The Times the gesture “perfectly captured the story of England’s anguish” while The Guardian described the group as “probably as treacherous as anything Hodgson could have dared imagined”.

It was not just the quality of the group, which also included a potential banana skin in Costa Rica, but also the location of England’s first game – Manaus. The stadium lies in the heart of the Amazon Jungle where temperatures can soar above 30c and humidity can be as high as 80%. The Sun duly published a double spread headed “Amazon Pain Forrest”. The only consolation if you can call it that is that England will be playing Italy, another side who will be unaccustomed to the perilous conditions.

Generally the media reaction in England epitomised the country’s tendency to veer towards cynicism and pessimism regarding their prospects in major events. Events which are frequently anticipated with a catalogue of woe and a sheepish expectation of failure.  It is in stark contrast to the jingoistic, conquer all attitude of the English during the height of the British Empire, although that said there were some who tried their best to rally this type of sentiment. Steve McManaman appeared positively buoyant after the draw speaking on ESPN “I think we’ll be very happy with that. We know how the Italians play. I don’t think there is any problem there”.

No doubt as the World Cup draws closer and closer, whether it be the fans or the press, there will be some sort of wave of enthusiasm that sweeps England and suddenly you may start hearing “well why not, why can’t England go all the way, at least the Semi’s”.

Italy

In Italy the press reaction to the draw was at times just as sceptical but manifested in a totally different manner. La Gazzetta dello Sport ran the head line “Italy Pays the Price” with the overview reading “After Blatter, Zidane gave us another ‘headbutt’ by picking us Uruguay, England and Costa Rica”.

Apart from the fact that the analogy in this headline could be construed as slightly inappropriate and disrespectful to one of the games biggest names, its real agenda lies in one of the Italian media’s favourite tough luck stories. Corruption and scandal. Anyone who knows Italy well will be familiar with the peninsula’s love for a conspiracy theory. So when it was announced that one of the European teams from pot 4 was going to be moved into pot 2 and face the possibility of being drawn with another of the strong European sides, everybody in Italy ‘knew’ the Azzurri were going to be that team.

Among the Italian media there was a continuation of this theme. The Corriere dello Sport  went with the headline “Scandolo”  – “Shameful World Cup draw gives us England and Uruguay, while France get an extremely easy group despite being a long way back in the FIFA rankings”. The headline tells you all you need to know. While it reveals a similar candid level of uncertainty among the press surrounding Italy’s chances of success, it is above all because the world and its wife are ‘against’ them.

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Totti given his second yellow vs South Korea by referee Byron Moreno in controversial circumstances (Photo from espnfc.com

This however should not come as shock. In 2002 after Italy were dumped out of the World Cup by hosts South Korea (in what must be said were controversial circumstances) Pietro Calabrese editor of La Gazzetta and a doyen of the Calcio journalist world wrote “We were knocked out in order to level out some problems between us and the bosses of FIFA and UEFA…Italy has no weight…Shame on them…Shame on the World Cup”. Having read this episode in John Foot’s book: Calcio the author goes onto describe other incidents in which the press became embroiled with such stories. So while the media focused on the cruel draw dealt to Italy, much of the comment was centred around conspiracy.

Tutto Sport opened with a rather less controversial headline – “Italy scare Cavani and Rooney”. This was one of the more positive press reactions to the draw yet the paper were quick to highlight Prandelli’s comments regarding Costa Rica. “Prandelli surprised everyone ‘I fear Costa Rica and the climate'”. This is the last team you might expect the Italian coach to highlight but given Italy’s past failure to get out of a group full of minnows (1966 & 2010 immediately spring to mind) the media were picking up on what  is sometimes Italy’s Achilles heel – complacency against the ‘smaller’ teams.

There is a saying the country gets the press it deserves and in this case the media speaks volumes for Italy and England. While the English press wallowed in the nation’s misfortune the Italian press were quick to apportion some of the blame on FIFA and the system. In one case its bad luck and in the other– its wilful conspiracy.

12/8/13

Brazil, Stadiums and Protests…Where do FIFA’s Responsibilities Lie?

What a draw! In the coastal town of Costa do Sauipe a plethora of former World cup stars including Sir Geoff Hurst, Zinedine Zidane, Cafu and Fabio Cannavaro didn’t disappoint, serving up some mouth-watering ties. Accompanying Italy-England (a game which will split my own household), there will be a re-run of the 2010 World Cup final between Spain and Holland, another clash of the European titans between Germany and Portugal as well as a number of other intriguing ties.

With the groups now drawn, the World Cup is edging ever closer and the reality of football’s most prestigious tournament returning to Brazil brings an excitement to many a football fan matched only by a toddler on Christmas Eve. However behind every reality  there are often unpalatable truths.

FIFA have not covered themselves in glory recently but that is hardly surprising anymore. The Guardian’s revelations about Qatar, where dozens of Nepalese workers have died this summer in conditions akin to “modern slavery” have led to diatribes being launched at FIFA from all quarters. As delighted as we were to see the case of Zahir Belounis resolved, his battle is just a fraction of the overall story. Sepp Blatter has claimed the world cannot “turn a blind eye” to the deaths of  construction workers yet thousands who migrate to the Arab state for work are brutally exploited and are trapped by the country’s oppressive Kafala employment system. Brazil however is a different beast.

Much of the talk has been centred on Brazil’s struggle to meet construction deadlines, an issue compounded by the tragic death of two Brazilian workers when a crane fell and destroyed parts of Sao Paulo’s Arena Corinthians Stadium (the third accident involving fatalities). But while it is likely Brazil’s organisers will stumble over the line in terms of preparation, there is a more pressing issue which must not be glazed over by yesterday’s glitzy draw. FIFA’s insouciant disregard for the expenses of the World Cup has seen Brazil plunged into social and political turmoil.

For the romantic, Brazil is a worthy venue for the World Cup. The country whose history is synonymous with footballing success appeared the ideal candidate. Brazil has one of the fastest growing economies in the world and it was thought a mega sporting event could accelerate social and economic development as well modernise its image in global society. So surely the people of this football mad nation are delighted to have the World Cup. Not quite.

Confederations Cup Protests (Photo from ukzambians.co.uk

Confederations Cup Protests (Photo from ukzambians.co.uk

Fundamentally this is due to the tournaments expenses. It is estimated that the Brazilian government will spend over £2 billion on stadiums alone and the overall costs could exceed £9 billion. A vast majority of this money is said to be coming from public expenditure. So while Brazil’s education and health services are deplorable and millions struggle to get by, the government are accused of being more concerned with preparing for the World Cup. In truth there still remains gross inequalities within Brazil and this melting pot of social problems came to a head during this year’s Confederations Cup in June. Hundreds of thousands of Brazilians took to the streets in protest rallies which were sparked by a rise in bus fares. This malcontent soon grew to include a number of social issues and these concerns were mirrored by the former Brazilian striker Romario.

Once a World cup winner and now a Socialist Party politician, Romario has launched a stinging attack on government expenditure. In an interview with the Mail on Sunday he stated:

“Our hospitals and schools are underfunded and there are huge social divisions, yet we are wasting billions of pounds of public money on mega-events starting with the World Cup”

Romario also lambasted his government’s relationship with FIFA:

“Our government should have recognised that the country should have given priority to health and education. The government should not have complied with the diktats of FIFA on stadiums, for example”. 

With teachers striking and thousands protesting the Brazilian police have resorted to the use of brutal tactics to quell unrest. When Brazil faced Spain in the final of the Confederations Cup on the 30th June, the streets outside the Maracana witnessed a face off between irate crowds and an uncompromising police force equipped with riot gear and the air choked with tear gas. Brazilian journalist and campaigner Afonso Morais has stated he expects demonstrations like this to flare up again during the World Cup next summer. Morais also claims much of the population’s anger is down to ex-president Lula da Silva and former head of the Brazilian FA Ricardo Teixeira, a man now disgraced and in the midst of tax and bribery scandals. Both had promised that the majority of the expenses would come from private funders. In reality this was a lie.

FIFA stands to make a staggering $4 Billion from the World Cup yet with the very real possibility of the event being marred by political protests there have been whisperings of regret. Speaking at the start of a two-day conference on sports, media and economy in Austria, Sepp Blatter commented on the political protests in the Confederations Cup:

“If this happens again we have to question whether we made the wrong decision awarding the hosting rights,”.

However he was quick to shirk responsibility and relinquish any blame that might be placed on FIFA.

“It’s not we who have to learn lessons from the protests in Brazil – politics in Brazil have to do that, FIFA cannot be held responsible.”

Romario former World Cup winner turned Brazilian politician (Photo from www.footballsmash.com

Romario former World Cup winner turned Brazilian politician (Photo from www.footballsmash.com

Furthermore FIFA have tried to assuage public discontent by stating that according to official Brazilian government data, public expenditure on both the World Cup and the Olympics amass to only 0.15 percent of Brazilian GDP from 2007 to 2016. Nonetheless the sceptics still remain. Romario’s final comments in his interview were to the point “The World Cup will not leave the legacy it should”. But again, apparently this is not FIFA’s problem. In an ESPN article by Tim Vickery (BBC’s South American correspondent) I read comments made by FIFA’s general secretary Jérôme Valcke. “One thing is the World Cup and another thing is the legacy, which is not the responsibility of FIFA”. So if the political protests which have arisen as a result of expenditure on the World Cup aren’t their responsibility, and the legacy (a key reason for nations hosting a World Cup) is also not their responsibility, then what is?

Unfortunately the World Cup in Brazil has, thus far, proved to be a poisoned chalice exemplified by a conflict of interest. FIFA’s primary concern obviously lies in ensuring Brazil host a successful World Cup , generates revenue and takes place without incident. The Brazilian government is keen to showcase their development and create a legacy which will guarantee a prosperous future (although with the ongoing stadium saga they may be content with, quite simply, not cocking it up). And the Brazilian people, well of course they would love to enjoy this footballing fiesta but not at the expense of their quality of life.

On the one hand I am behind FIFA’s attempt to distribute hosting rights among developing countries. However with this in mind, once FIFA have awarded the World Cup they cannot simply wash their hands of any social or political fallout. I am no expert and at this point in time cannot offer any concrete solutions. But let’s not make this mistake again and again. Indeed Qatar is evidence that FIFA have just done that, not least because they seem to have forgotten a Qatari summer is…. HOT!

There aren’t may who are privy to FIFA’s deliberations but it seems that football’s international body must be more meticulous when exploring the ramifications for a nation’s bid. That said out of this maelstrom comes a glimmer of hope. Mega sporting events such as the World Cup bring global attention to social inequities about which we are often profoundly naïve.  One can only hope they will not be suffocated by FIFA’s bland utterances.