FIFA, Men’s World Cups, boycotts and integrity: public secrets and moral claims among football’s preening élite

The first week of June 2015 turned out to be a busy time for those of us who feel a need to pay attention to the shenanigans and machinations, twists, turns and twirls of international sports governing bodies. As with the previous week, all eyes were on football (or soccer as it is called in those parts of the world where football is played with some form of oval-ish ball that may be picked up by more than one person in each team). After the previous week’s drama of arrests and elections, falls from grace and (unsurprising) survival it looked at the outset as if things would carry on as usual – the slow grind of legal proceedings, the posturing of politicians and the stubborn but resilient grasp on power of the remnants of the FIFA élite.

How wrong we were. By the end of the week Sepp Blatter had indicated his intention to stand down (but also is seems his desire to redefine his ‘legacy’ not as the one who let corruption become publicly alleged, but as the one who laid the foundations for FIFA to recover from its crisis of integrity – just look at all the images and listen to all the talk of Blatter hard at work), schisms were beginning to appear in several of football’s national governing bodies (consider Brazil) and it was becoming increasingly clear that the smug North Atlantic alliance of bits of UEFA and the FBI were talking past each other as well as past those in the world of football who argue that the Blatter leadership era (and by implication Blatter) was a good time for football development outside its traditionally dominant areas – Europe and Latin America. All this has, without a doubt, generated a mass of comment in the blogipeligo, the twittersphere and elsewhere; much of it facile, some of it sharp and a tiny amount so good as to pop the bubbles of the egos of almost all the rest – at the time of writing and from an English perspective, top marks got to Marina Hyde’s call in the Guardian for the FBI to investigate the 1966 World Cup, if only to make Greg Dyke, from the (English) Football Association, shut up.

Alongside all of this, the 2015 Women’s World Cup was getting underway, only to start more with a whimper than a bang as a tussle on artificial turf in Edmonton saw the home team desperate to win, unable to get it together and only redeemed in the dying moments, and the People’s Republic of China playing dull defensive football desperate for a draw: it was, to my outsider’s eye, not a good advertisement for football in a week it desperately needed one. Scrappy as it was, I quite enjoyed some of the Canadian play but I’m inclined to wonder what the ‘Great Helmsman’ would have said of the PRC performance, and reflect on a comment in 1947, at the height of the Civil War, where in a report to the Party’s Central Committee Mao Zedong wrote: “We should grasp our own destiny in our hands. We should rid our ranks of all impotent thinking. All views that overestimate the strength of the enemy and underestimate the strength of the people are wrong.” (Selected Works, Vol IV, p173) If nothing else, the Chinese team’s defensive tactics in their opening match are a metaphor for the Party’s abandonment of Communism in favour of one-party state capitalism – the goal was not to win but to not lose in the global struggle.

The one really intriguing thing, for me as one who cares not for football/soccer, that has run through the week has been the rumbling talk of boycotts of the Men’s World Cups in Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022. I’ve not been surprised by the talk even though it has remained conventional for many, especially those on the political right or otherwise allied with power, to argue that boycotts don’t work. Yet at the same time northern European states and others have imposed selective sanctions on élites in Russia, Zimbabwe, Syria and elsewhere while the US maintains its comprehensive sanctions on Iran: the point here is that a boycott is a form of sanction.

Amid all the talk of boycotts there have been two dominant strands; the loud one is that the 2018 and 2022 bids were corrupt (remember here, a bunch of people have been arrested – no-one has yet been convicted; these remain allegations, but you wouldn’t think so from the way they’re being discussed) and if ‘we’ (I’m not sure who that is, but I’m pretty sure it is those making the statements being made to sound like all of ‘us’) can’t get them taken away from Russia and Qatar, ‘we’ should boycott them; the quieter one is an argument that the horrific working circumstances in the Qatar construction industry mean that the 2022 Men’s World Cup should be relocated or boycotted. My concern is with the loud call – the one based in the struggle for decent (as in, survivable) working conditions does not in any way fit the rest of this column: to my mind it has integrity and should be supported.

Among the loudest voices in the boycott-because-the-bids-were-(allegedly)-corrupt are leading figures in the losing bids for those events, political leaders who seem to want to be seen to be doing something and others of the morally outraged after the exposure of public secret. These are not meaningful calls for a boycott and should be treated with contempt. Now, don’t get me wrong here – this is not a statement that we as citizens should not be concerned about the circumstances surrounding these two football tournaments or be pressuring sports’ authorities to ensure that they serves the needs of players, other workers in the industry and fans but it is a statement that many of the boycott advocates are hypocritical. From an English perspective we see the FA and the UK’s Prime Minister both speaking of a boycott of the Russian event; these are two figures who condemned the BBC (in David Cameron’s case calling it ‘unpatriotic’) when it broadcast a show exploring precisely the claims of corruption and bribery that are now on the FBI’s radar and that Cameron, Greg Dyke (of England’s Football Association) and others in their crew are now publicly outraged about. The BBC’s show, however, was broadcast in 2010, just before voting on the English bid to host the 2018 Men’s World Cup….. the event political and sporting leaders are now talking of boycotting because of FIFA’s apparent shortcomings: such short memories; such duplicitousness.

The hypocrisy has a second strand; these allegations of bribery and corruption in FIFA relate to a series of events and relations that were (and in some aspects remain) a public secret. These public secrets are essential to the functioning of our social worlds. They are, in the words of anthropologist Michael Taussig (in his 1999 book Defacement) “that which is generally known, but that cannot be articulated”, or as he phrases it elsewhere in the same piece, it is a secret where, “as is the case with most important social knowledge, knowing what not to know” is the defining characteristic. More to the point, for Taussig, all secrecy relies on the existence of these public secrets. So, to a large extent we can see the response of figures such as David Cameron and Greg Dyke as over inflated posturing at the articulation in public of the public secret of suspicions of widespread corruption and bribery in FIFA World Cup allocation decisions. Furthermore, there is good evidence that England’s FA engaged in FIFA’s ‘gift giving’ culture, but that they weren’t all that good at it. This means the sequence of events was:

  1. everyone knew that FIFA’s rules and practice didn’t really line up but no-one said anything;
  2. someone (the US’s FBI) broke ranks and stepped into a fluid space between FIFA’s rules, FIFA’s practice and the rules the FBI works to thereby exposing the contradictions of claim and practice;
  3. leading to howls of outrage from those in FIFA and their chums who’ve spent years ‘knowing what not to know’.

It is in these howls of outrage that we must understand the talk of a boycott of the 2018 Men’s World Cup, but let’s also be clear – this is not talk of organising a boycott to enforce a policy change. Most of the rhetoric sounds as if ‘boycott’ means ‘we don’t like them so we won’t play with them’, leading to action that is seen as a punishment, not an effort to bring about change in the target state (for 2018, Russia – the objection is not to a Russian domestic issue, unlike the Principle 6 campaign at the Sochi Olympics or the argument that Russia’s actions in Ukraine may justify a boycott: these issues are not comparable). The FA and some of its chums are therefore mumbling about the possibility that they might sulk, that they might sit petulantly in the corner while all the other kids play the game.

The study of international sports boycotts and the mass social movements that support those boycotts has been a big part of my academic work for about 20 years now (and of my political work before that), and here’s a little bit of what I know about them. First, a boycott is the cessation or curtailment of contact or relations with a target nation on account of political differences, so as to punish a nation for a political position adopted or to coerce it into abandoning it. Given that the goal seems to be to punish Russia and Qatar for what appears to be following the publicly secret rules it is hard to see what the goals of boycotts of the Men’s World Cups in 2018 or 2022 might be; a sanction that is their relocation is a different story – but in both cases I suspect that this option is not really feasible (and not feasible for 2018, unless it leads to relocation to South Africa or Brazil – neither of which is likely, and in Brazil’s case is almost certainly politically unsustainable). It is most likely that the goal of any boycott would be to assert some spurious claim to English/British/parts of UEFA as morally superior – that may be a consequence of most boycotts, when it is the goal we are in a state of national narcissism.

Second, sports boycotts 1) are effective when they form part of a wider set of political actions (which do not at present exist unless the sports boycott is made comprehensive and linked to the current sanctions régime targeting select groups in the Russian élite), 2) need to take into account the access in the target state to substitutes (so, in the Men’s World Cup, access to teams to replace those who fail to attend) and 3) have an effect that tends to be cultural and to do with national psychological well-being, and determined by the significance of the sport in question (in this case, as David Lewis suggests the geopolitical aspects of the case are likely to overshadow the football significance). In addition, sports boycotts gain legitimacy and therefore support when they are in support of an indigenous call (see my discussion of sports boycotts this draws on, including the definition of ‘boycott’ above). I can see a scenario where, if a bunch of nations boycott in 2018, FIFA just selects the next highest qualifiers and runs the tournament with the same number of teams; sure, there would be a loss of media income but it would also weaken the position of the boycotters in FIFA. On top of that, given the state of relations between Russia and the EU and USA (again, see David Lewis’s piece above) any boycott by UEFA affiliates could very likely play into the emerging Russian ‘Great Power’ national discourse shaped around a goal to reassert balance in a world where one power has had too much of it.

In addition, it is hard to see what the indigenous call for a boycott might be and as such where any legitimacy might be based. There is little likelihood as the FBI investigation develops, given the form of the public secret, that the moral and business integrity of UEFA and CONCACAF affiliates will provide much moral base for the legitimacy of a boycott. Without that legitimacy, there is little chance of a boycott or any other form of sanction having much support or much effect; supporters from a few countries may not attend because their local football guv’nors have unilaterally withdrawn (this is less a boycott than a lockout of their team’s players). Depending who stays in, there is a good chance that TV and other media markets will stay buoyant – we’ll watch other teams play, as in England we do after the group stages anyway.

Boycott/sanctions advocates might try to claim moral integrity on the basis of FIFA’s seeming lack of democracy, or at least a democratic deficit. Doing so would, again, lead to justified charges of hypocrisy unless there is a concerted effort to impose representative democracy and transparency on the old self-perpetuating, self-selecting aristocratic club in the IOC. If that’s not enough, these campaigning élites might also turn their attention to the International Cricket Council where a small handful of test cricket playing member nations dominate and have different political powers and influence than those non-test paying members; once again, the group that decides who gets to be a test playing nation is the current group of (self-appointed) test playing nations. This problem of hypocrisy in global politics is not limited to sports bodies; after all, the over 200 members of the United Nations have only limited power when compared to a self-selected group of five who get to dominate because four of them won a war 70 years ago, and later invited the fifth into their club….. It’s likely, therefore, that if the calls, however muffled, from a bunch of European football federations and politicians carries on as it does, that they will be humiliated in their failure and the exposure of their lack of integrity. Amid all of this, it looks as if talk of a ‘boycott’ is nothing more than a desperate attempt to claim some moral legitimacy for petulance and self-serving claims to some kind of integrity; it is, it seems, quite likely to be an attempt to reimpose a form of public secret about power in football’s governing bodies.

These voices in the current FIFA wrangle seem to be in the obverse position to Hao Wei, the PRC coach in the current Women’s World Cup. Whereas he seems to have ignored the ‘Great Helmsman’ in developing team tactics against Canada on the Saturday of this June week, there is every chance that the increasingly petulant Blatter-phobes are overestimating their strength and making profound tactical errors in the presumption that football supporters in their countries will sacrifice a Men’s World Cup in favour of preening over a public secret: I return to Mao Zedong who, in 1941 and in advocacy of what the Chinese Communist Party once called the mass line, wrote: “It has to be understood that the masses are the real heroes, while we ourselves are often childish and ignorant, and without this understanding it is impossible to acquire even the most rudimentary knowledge”. (Selected Works, Vol III, p13) It may be that Greg Dyke, David Cameron and others in their posse posturing for power and influence are close to overplaying their hand. I expect to see the boycott malarkey disappear soon – but suspect that it will keep resurfacing.

About author
Malcolm MacLean is Reader in the Culture & History of Sport in the School of Sport and Exercise, and is Research Degrees Lead for the Schools of Health & Social Care, Natural & Social Sciences and Sport & Exercise at the University of Gloucestershire in England. He is also University Lead for Research Ethics and Integrity. He is an historian by training with a first degree in anthropology and has worked in the public service and universities in New Zealand and Australia. Malcolm has research and teaching interests in popular culture, popular movements and colonial and imperial history. He is a former Chair of the British Society of Sports History and currently Council member of the International Society for the History of Physical Education and Sport.
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