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How FIFA Ruined Soccer

Corruption is only the beginning. FIFA has tarnished the beautiful game with its relentless pursuit of profits.

Migrant workers in Qatar preparing the ground for grass at a World Cup pitch.

When the handcuffs went on seven officials of the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) last month, the headline in the New York Times only registered surprise that its president, Sepp Blatter, was not among them.

Two days later, after calls for Blatter to resign from everyone from the progressive NGO Avaaz to British Prime Minister David Cameron, Blatter claimed victory in his reelection campaign for FIFA president in a rambling speech that cited the gods of at least three different religions and included the characteristically megalomaniacal line, “I am the president now, the president of everybody.” Blatter’s triumphalism was short-lived, however. He resigned his post just a week later, saying FIFA needed “profound restructuring” and that his mandate to rule was not “supported by everyone in the world of football.”

So what’s at issue in the indictments of top FIFA officials? The corruption associated with international soccer’s top hierarchy is truly staggering. Indeed, we may never know how much money FIFA has stolen outright or gained via unscrupulous deals, or how much it has spent on bribes across the world.

But the scandal here concerns more than just the reputation of one of the wealthiest and most famous businesses in the world today, which has spread its tentacles into every country and media market where soccer is played. Its legendary corruption, which prompted the US government to finally take action after a five-year investigation, looks positively saintly compared to its long record of direct and indirect exploitation of countries and workers in the Global South in service of the bottom line.

Soccer and Capitalism in the South

FIFA as it exists today is the creation of its last president, João Havelange, who unseated Stanley Rous, long known for supporting apartheid soccer teams. After coming to power in 1974, Havelange presided over FIFA’s transformation into a fully corporate structure, financed by sponsorship deals rather than contributions from national and regional federations. Under Havelange FIFA executed an unprecedented turn toward the nations of the Global South, which it had previously ignored but who were now international soccer’s fan base.

But the turn wasn’t an inclusive gesture. It was designed to capitalize on business opportunities in rapidly growing countries like Mexico — where Havelange’s associates were accused of bribery in connection with the 1992 World Cup and future Olympic games — and Brazil, where Swiss authorities estimated Havelange himself took over $50 million in bribes during the 1990s.

Havelange’s bureaucracy had the means to set up soccer infrastructure in the countries that needed it the least, and could make sure that its own funds and the government development grants it gained ended up in the pockets of those who would protect its interests.

Elites in developing countries saw in FIFA’s aid a Faustian bargain: support Havelange’s Coca-Cola–financed agenda, and receive potentially millions of dollars, some elements of a modern infrastructure, and potential recognition on the world stage.

Take the island nation of Cape Verde. After joining FIFA in 1982, the tiny country’s new soccer federation struggled through two decades of meager means and corruption. But by the time Havelange resigned his presidency, FIFA had enabled it to build numerous grass pitches and multiple training centers, giving a handful of its youth the chance to become star soccer players.

Thus, in a seeming paradox, FIFA’s corruption has also been the source of its stability. This is how the disgraced Blatter (who was Havelange’s protégé) managed to win reelection. The president of the Nigerian Football Association told the BBC, “Blatter feels Africa. What Blatter pushes is equity, fairness and equality among the nations.”

But what they felt in Blatter was in fact the alliance of transnational and national capital, which dissipated former dreams of sustainable development with increasingly expensive soccer boondoggles.

In Mauritania, a country that had barely any history of soccer and whose national team still has never played in an international tournament, FIFA’s aid allowed the nation to quickly construct pitches and infrastructure, and finance the studios and secure the national TV deal that set the stage for weekly televised soccer matches. International aid observers later called attention to the poor audits of FIFA’s assistance, much of which was probably purloined, but this seemed to matter little to the Mauritanian state — which saw any investment as good investment — or to FIFA’s leadership, for which aid served to buy loyalty.

The world empire set up by Havelange and continued by Blatter would eventually pay dividends in Europe, where television and the rapidly expanding marketing of the most popular soccer leagues would propel a further round of explosive growth at the beginning of the new millennium. David Goldblatt writes in The Ball is Round: A Global History of Football:

Blatter’s FIFA bathed in the froth atop the gathering economic boom in European football. The first three years of his presidency coincided with the introduction of digital television, another round of inflated TV rights deals and the expansion of the Champion’s League into its largest and richest format. The transfer market, which had seen a steady inflation in prices, went on a new and steeper curve. [But] in strictly economic terms football’s boom was just a minor current in the wider stock-market bubbles of the early twenty-first century.

Building on his mentor’s successful creation and exploitation of new markets in the developing world, Blatter attracted sponsorship from the wealthiest corporations for “official” FIFA products — official soft drink, official sneakers, etc. — which swelled FIFA’s profits to truly decadent levels.

As Dave Zirin points out in his book on the Rio World Cup, Brazil’s Dance with the Devil, FIFA officials not only forced the Brazilian state to overturn laws prohibiting drinking alcohol in stadiums, but made sure its official beer, Budweiser, had a monopoly. Local beer could not even be sold near the stadiums.

The Bloody Reign of FIFA

The arrests of nine FIFA officials and five associates in Switzerland and their extradition to the United States are tied to the sites of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups: Russia and Qatar, respectively.

Relatively new to the world of soccer, the tiny Gulf monarchy of Qatar was keen on hosting the World Cup as part of the global economic strategy it shares with other Gulf Cooperation Council members. Capitalists in the Gulf monarchies have extended their holdings across the world — from land in Egypt to sports teams in Britain to federal debt in the US — as beneficiaries of the global thirst for oil.

After sources alleged that FIFA officials accepted bribes from Russia and Qatar to win their bids to host the tournament, law enforcement in several countries began investigating these officials.

Qatar’s FIFA committee, of course, has denied any wrongdoing in its successful hosting bid. But the banning of one of its committee members on corruption charges, combined with an internal FIFA investigation that ended with its author disassociating himself from the clearing of the Qataris of any wrongdoing, does not exactly inspire confidence.

Bribery is only the beginning of Qatar’s problems, however.

In 2022 the World Cup will be played in Qatar’s unbearably hot summer climate, endangering both spectators and players. The country’s strict Wahhabi laws will adversely affect women and LGBT fans. And the lavish preparation for the tournament — after its winning bid, the state announced a $100 billion project to build and renovate stadiums, and construct a new highway system, high-speed rail system, and 55,000 hotel rooms — has been deadly.

Already over one thousand workers have perished at tournament-related sites, and the International Trade Union Confederation has estimated that if the construction goes as planned, as many as four thousand migrant workers can expect to die by the time the games open.

The ability of Qatar to win the Cup bid and fund this gargantuan construction project rests on the unique economic structure of the Gulf states. As scholars like Adam Hanieh have argued, these countries are characterized by an unprecedented fusion of the state hierarchy with private capital, in the form of the ruling families and their entourages.

These despots’ control over oil revenues has allowed them to carry out pricey business ventures at will and set the parameters for all significant economic activity in their countries. The citizens of these countries have been incorporated into a patronage arrangement in which they rely on the state for free education and health care, in addition to lucrative jobs in the public service.

Gulf countries’ rapid economic progress, which has made them some of the richest nations in the developing world (three are in the top twenty richest countries based on GDP per capita, and the other three follow close behind), is not, however, due to oil profits alone. It also depends on the ruthless exploitation of migrant workers.

Qatar is a case in point. A full 86 percent of Qatar’s population has migrated from another country. In 2014, according to reports by Amnesty International, migrants formed 94 percent of its workforce. Following its successful bid, Qatar was expected to need anywhere from five hundred thousand to one million new migrants to build its new infrastructure. In August 2013, an average of twenty new migrants arrived in the tiny country every hour.

As in other GCC countries, migrants to Qatar are registered in the country under the kafala system. In order to work, migrant workers must be sponsored by a Gulf citizen, thus regulating labor through the medium of citizenship. To get a sponsorship, prospective migrants usually have to go through a long application process, pay tremendous fees, and sign away basic rights like freedom to organize at work and freedom of movement while residing in the Gulf.

Kafala is a vast system that controls the migrant labor needed by relentlessly expanding Gulf capital. It grants enormous power to the citizen sponsor, from whom workers have to seek permission before changing employers (who most often are themselves the sponsors). By its very design, this forces millions of workers into the twilight realm of irregularity, putting them beyond formally recognized employment and at risk of instant deportation.

Daily abuse and humiliation of migrant workers is rampant. Reporting on the construction of facilities for the 2022 World Cub, the Guardian found conditions that fit the International Labor Organization’s definition of slavery: brutal hours, cramped and dilapidated living spaces, and deeply unsafe working conditions.

A recent Amnesty International study reported that Qatar had made little to no progress on its promises to deliver migrant rights: workers on Cup projects continue to be paid late or not at all, they are forcibly detained by having their passports confiscated and their exit visas denied, and they have almost no access to basic health care or insurance.

When Nepali workers on World Cup–related construction projects wanted to return home after April’s earthquake devastated their country, Qatar employers refused. Construction companies noted the pressure to erect Qatar’s Cup infrastructure as quickly as possible, but the kafala system also enabled such abuses.

The Ugly Game

International soccer has become the arena and excuse for Qatar to push Gulf capitalism towards its most brutal consequences for those who build and maintain it.

Calls for reform or fine-tuning are deeply inadequate. For its part, Amnesty International argues that there will be no real progress for migrant workers until the kafala system is abolished. This would fundamentally undermine Gulf monarchies’ social systems by according migrants rights they could use to secure a permanent and secure place as the builders of the Gulf.

The international media misses these injustices with its undue focus on corruption. Even if FIFA officials’ greed was likely a factor in assigning the World Cup to Qatar, the real scandal is the deadly exploitation of migrant workers, which is directly linked to FIFA’s model of growth. FIFA has made the beautiful game ugly.