Qatar 2022 and the Western World – matters arising
By Femi Olugbile
The Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the body that controls World Football, was formed on 21st May 1904. Its first President was a Frenchman, Robert Guerin. He was succeeded by an Englishman, Daniel Burley Woolfall, who was to stay in office for twelve and a half years. Cornelius August Wilhelm Hirschman from the Netherlands next occupied the seat, followed by Jules Rimet of France, who became the longest-serving FIFA President, occupying the office for more than 33 years. After him came some forgettable names, from Belgium, from England and Switzerland, who flitted across the stage.
The story begins to get interesting from the time of Stanley Rous, an English man, who occupied the Presidency from 1961 to 1974. Football was essentially a ‘white man’s game’. Rous saw nothing wrong in fraternising with apartheid South Africa, protecting it from sanctions, and allowing the country to participate in FIFA activities.
The culture and ‘ownership’ structure of the game of football changed for ever when a Brazilian businessman Joao Havelange contested and won the Presidency in 1974, taking over from Rous. He was to become the longest-sitting FIFA President, after Jules Rimet. He put a focus on expanding the membership of FIFA, bringing in the newly emerging nations, and extending the reach and influence of football to all the continents.
In June 1998, Sepp Blatter won election and became President of FIFA, succeeding his former boss. He would remain in office for seventeen and a half years, until he was impeached and bundled out under a cloud of corruption allegations in 2015. Blatter built up the finances and structures of FIFA from its headquarters in Zurich. He encouraged the growth of football participation and infrastructure in the furthest corners of the world.
Isa Hayatou, a Camerounian, became the first African to reach that lofty height when he was appointed Acting President for several months.
Finally, Gianni Infantino, the incumbent President, a man of mixed Swiss and Italian nationality, was elected FIFA President in February 2016.
This background is important for anyone who wishes to understand the recent developments enveloping world football, including the scandals depicted in the trending NETFLIX documentary ‘FIFA UNCOVERED’, and the loud protestations of outrage that have accompanied the hosting of the 2022 World Cup by Qatar. The noise rose to a crescendo a few days to the commencement of the landmark competition.
A sea-change in the game of football took place from the era of the ‘Founding Fathers’ to the ‘universalising’ revolution brought about by Havelange and Blatter. The rapid growth meant that the power and money of the game quickly swamped the almost non-existent governance structure of FIFA, as multimillion dollar sponsorships tumbled in. Sepp Blatter, without going through any organisational approval or instituting any monitoring process, could announce off the cuff at a gathering that he was awarding one and a half million dollars to Amos Adamu of Nigeria, and a similar sum to other representatives of several countries and continental federations, for a vaguely defined purpose of pursuing ‘football causes’ in their countries. There was no precise definition of the work to be done with the money, and no accountability for ‘retiring’ the funds. In reality, FIFA’s impunity-riddled, authoritarian management structure would have tempted even a saint to steal, and remains an area that needs to be seriously addressed to bring it in with ‘best practice’.
In the days leading up to the commencement of Qatar 2022, strangely, the focus, in the major Western news networks such as CNN and Sky, and in the big newspapers, was not about football, but about Qatar’s hostility to LGBTQ+ and how ‘thousands’ of migrant workers died in the construction of the Qatar’s stadia (the figures do not stand up. ‘Migrant’ workers, who come to make more money than they could in their countries make up 70% of Qatar’s population, though their conditions of work could certainly be made more humane, especially in the Construction industry. Such practices as employers taking control of their workers’ passports or not allowing to speak openly or form unions should also be abolished).
There was widespread talk in the press about how Qatar had ‘bought’ the hosting rights. Clearly the bidding process for countries wishing to host the games needs to be rigorously appraised and made not only transparent but also equitable, as part of the ongoing reforms of the organisation.
One notorious campaigner named Peter Tatchell, who had once accosted the Archbishop of Canterbury on the pulpit during his Easter sermon because he was not sufficiently supportive of gay people, and who had on two other occasions, attempted to ‘arrest’ President Robert Mugabe in Europe because gays were not well treated in Zimbabwe (getting the beating of his life from the President’s bodyguards) flaunted a ‘gay’ placard on a prominent street in Qatar and got himself arrested and ejected from the country, receiving the massive press coverage he craved.
Qatar is the first Arab Muslim nation to host the World Cup.
Part of the new reality of the landscape is that there are now more people playing and watching football in Africa, Asia and the Middle East than in Europe and America combined. The fact that it is a ‘World’ game and no longer just a ‘Western’ game makes it necessary for the hosting of the World cup to travel round and not be limited to Europe and America. That means people will have to wrap their minds around the fact that they will encounter other cultures and other ways of doing things, and that things that are taken for granted in some cultures are frowned upon in some others.
Africa has hosted, thanks largely to Mandela, and will surely do so again. China, Japan, Korea and other countries are waiting in the queue. The choice of hosts in the world game will not just be based on the best stadia and living standards, though a minimum acceptable level of playing and hosting infrastructure certainly needs to be demonstrated by a prospective host. Nor will it be based on rolling out Prince Williams to bat for England. Hosting rights, the end, will need to reflect the new universal reality of the game.
In the light of all these, Europe cannot ram its culture and quirks down the throat of the rest of the world, or make conformity with its mores a condition for qualification to host the tournament. Even if it feels strongly on an issue, it must approach other people with respect and try to persuade them to its point of view, not demean, disparage, and denigrate them.
The relentlessly petulant, ethnocentric vituperations in the Western media eventually riled Infantino, the President of FIFA, a man not known for radical pronouncements, enough to come out angrily in a long-winded criticism of his own people, telling them in effect to shut up and focus on the football, and reminding them they were themselves no knights in shining armour historically.
Mercifully, the football has now commenced. Billions of people from Botswana to China will be walking about bleary-eyed with lack of sleep for the next few weeks, as they juggle their daytime work with an obligation to watch a feast of 64 matches, day and night. Who could ask for anything more?