The opening round of the soccer World Cup is under way in Russia. If you’re lucky, you won’t have noticed. The US men’s team failed to qualify this time around, after some difficulties in a qualifier against the mighty twin-island team from Trinidad and Tobago. There’s been a bit of shirt-wringing about this in the media, but not much. Americans already have their own football, and they have baseball and most of basketball too.
Then again, the media aren’t much interested in the triumphs of the US women’s team, who currently stand at the top of the FIFA world listings. There’s even less media coverage of the US women’s rugby team, who currently rank fourth in the world, and are within a kick and a gouge of overhauling Canada and England. If the men’s team are ignored out of patriotism, the women’s teams are simply patronised.
We shouldn’t be too hard on the men’s soccer team for their feeble performance against Trinidad and Tobago, a team from a state so small that it has trouble filling the subs’ bench. In fact, the US men have done their fellow Americans a favor. For the next month, while the rest of the world goes soccer mental, American life will retain its usual tranquility. And at a time when the rest of the world likes to point at America’s moral failings, the World Cup allows Americans to point the finger in the other direction.
On my occasional visits to the vast, crowded and poorly air-conditioned shambles that is the world outside America, I notice the odd downside to globalisation. The soccer World Cup is right up there with Islamism and human trafficking. The global game is run by a quasi-state, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). As a global institution, FIFA combines the inscrutability of the European Union with levels of corruption that make Sierra Leone look like Switzerland.
Perhaps Switzerland is the wrong comparison. It was a Swiss, Sepp Blatter, who presided over the globalisation of the soccer business as FIFA’s president between 1998 and 2015. He was toppled after the US government investigated leading FIFA officials for bribery and money-laundering. Blatter wanted to globalise the game at all costs. Much of the costs seem to have been covered by donations in brown envelopes. In 2010, Blatter’s FIFA awarded the hosting of the 2018 World Cup to Russia. In the same year, FIFA awarded the hosting of the 2022 competition to the liberal, democratic, gay-friendly, Jew-loving, feminist state of Qatar. Not to be confused with the illiberal, anti-democratic, homophobic, Jew-hating, misogynist state of Qatar.
Building the stadiums for the 2022 World Cup, Qatar has shown as much regard for worker safety as the pharaohs showed when they built the pyramids. As usual in the Gulf, indentured foreign laborers do the work, and in disgraceful conditions. Within four years of Blatter granting the cup to Qatar, at least 500 Indian and 382 Nepalese workers were dead. The centerpiece stadium, the Al-Wakrah, is a $575m vanity project designed by the late British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid.
‘I have nothing to do with the workers,’ Hadid explained when asked about the casualty rate. ‘It’s not my duty as an architect.’
Hadid became quite litigious whenever anyone pointed out that she was talking through her hardhat. But now that she is late rather than living, we can safely say that Hadid, in her greed and hypocrisy, was heir to the legacy of that noted sporting architect Albert Speer. He also knew how to glamorise thuggish pomposity.
People who defend Israel by mentioning that while the neighboring states criminalise gay sex and persecute gays, Jerusalem has a Gay Pride parade and Tel Aviv a giant gay scene, are accused of ‘pink-washing’. There is no term for whitewashing your human rights record by buying the rights to host a World Cup. Perhaps it should be called ‘ball-washing’.
Blatter’s error, apart from getting caught offside with his pockets full of cash, was that he spent too much time reading the sports pages and not enough time reading the news. He thought that FIFA, succeeding where the UN failed, could handle Putin’s Russia. This was before Russia’s annexation of Crimea, its invasion of Ukraine, and its systemic attempt to worsen the already parlous tone of Western politics. Blatter also thought that Qatar’s human rights record wouldn’t be a problem. Asked about whether gay fans would feel welcome in Qatar, he quipped that they should ‘refrain from any sexual activities’ during the 2022 tournament.
In 1980, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the US had the integrity not to attend the Moscow Olympics. Today, no democratic government has the integrity to refuse to send its national team to the Russian World Cup, because no democratic government would dare alienate the voters. The sportswear companies and sponsors look the other way, too. No doubt all concerned will look the other way in 2022. FIFA still has four years in which to smooth the diplomatic turf and persuade the Saudis to lift their embargo on Qatar.
FIFA takes the bread, and we get the circuses. The World Cup is corrupt, and FIFA pimps the ‘beautiful game’ to tyrants and television networks. Americans aren’t missing out when the World Cup is a collusion between opaque fixers, pretentious autocrats and the global entertainment multiplex. In soccer, as in much else, Americans have no need to go to the rest of the world. They’ve already got plenty at home.