Football is the world’s biggest sport, and perhaps the most state-sponsored sport. In this episode we take a critical look at the World Cup, FIFA and the political and geopolitical debates around the beautiful game. We examine the various forms of overt and covert state sponsorship of football, and how the moral quandaries faced by football fans echo those across the wider world.

In case you haven’t noticed, I am a big football fan – not just the game itself, but the intrigue, the power plays, the politics and geopolitics around football. So, as the World Cup reaches its climax I thought this would be an optimum time to offer some thoughts on this aspect of popular culture, and how it ties into the topics we usually look at on this podcast.

State sponsorship of football takes several forms. The most obvious is what Qatar have done, first by acquiring the rights to host this year’s World Cup, in late 2010. While there is always government involvement in bids to host World Cups (and other major sporting events), and there is always some degree of bribery involved, the decision by FIFA to award the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 World Cup to Qatar was met with astonishment and scepticism.

It is now widely accepted that the FIFA executive committee were bribed and otherwise induced to making these decisions, but the reality is that this kind of extra-curricular payment is commonplace in FIFA, the International Olympic Committee and other self-appointed bodies who, on paper, own these events. I have no doubt that the next World Cup was awarded to the US, Canada and Mexico on the same basis.

Sometimes it’s direct bribery – a brown envelope stuffed under a hotel room door, a payment to a numbered account in the Cayman Islands, and so on. Other times it’s payment in kind – a committee member has a niece who wants to move to England and study at Oxford, so they end up with a full-berth scholarship for four years. Another committee member wants their son, fresh out of law school, to intern for a Supreme Court judge and so on.

Ultimately, this is how all upper class politics operates – they lay claim to something that doesn’t really belong to anyone, and use that claim as a lever of power to gain money, favours and influence. It’s only because people accept that claim that these people have anything at all – if they, like the rest of us, simply tried to make it on their talents and their time and effort, Sepp Blatter would be an accountant no one has heard of.

Getting back to Qatar, the following year (2011) they bought Paris Saint-Germain football club, who despite being the biggest club in Paris weren’t exactly an elite team. They haven’t existed for anywhere near as long as teams like AC Milan and Real Madrid, the true European footballing royalty. Nonetheless, Qatar Sports Investments, a state corporation, funnelled billions into the club, buying no end of big name, expensive players. The highlight was the summer when they purchased the Brazilian superstar Neymar, from Barcelona, for a world record fee of nearly £200 million, while spending close to the same amount on French wunderkind Kylian Mbappe.

Both of these massive investments – the Qatar World Cup, and turning PSG into the Harlem Globetrotters of football – have been branded as sportswashing. But it hasn’t been especially effective, as a return on investment. PSG have spent as much money as anyone but haven’t been able to win the major European club trophy, the Champions League, so all they’ve really accomplished is dominating the French domestic football scene, and upsetting a lot of people in Barcelona when they signed Neymar.

Likewise, the World Cup hasn’t met with any kind of outpouring of affection for Qatar or the Qataris, there’s been quite a lot of focus on how they’re just a super-rich city state whose economy is dependent on migrant workers, who they treat very poorly, and their conservative attitudes towards alcohol, women’s rights, homosexuality and so on. In the English language media, this has backfired quite badly.

The twist in this story is that maybe it doesn’t matter that it has backfired, for two reasons.

  1. The Qataris don’t necessarily care what ordinary, mainstream media consumers in France or Britain or Spain think of them, this is about arriving on the world stage and gaining influence among the international ruling class. The notion of ‘sportswashing’, defined as using sports to launder your reputation among ordinary people, is probably not relevant here.
  2. All this coverage is massively hypocritical, and given the generally depressed, fed up, cynical attitude in Western society these days, all this critical coverage of Qatar’s World Cup hasn’t stopped anyone from going, or watching on TV.

Then, in the first week of the World Cup, stories began coming out that they’re planning to sell PSG, because after the World Cup is over it’s no longer much use to them. Qatar is getting out of the European football club business, though whether anyone will want to pay the asking price is another matter.

One of the problems PSG face is that they have an extraordinary wage bill, even by football standards. The only way they’ve been able to operate at something like break even is due to financial doping. For anyone unfamiliar with this idea, let me explain: football clubs have essentially three sources of income – the stadium, TV and prize money, and commercial operations which is mostly sponsorship and licensing deals.

The state-owned clubs, most notably PSG and Manchester City, have been posting massive commercial revenues on their annual financial statements, when neither club has a huge fanbase and neither club has won Europe’s biggest trophy. So why are these companies paying them so much for sponsorship and licensing deals? The main reason is that these companies are owned by the same people who own the clubs – the Gulf oil aristocracies, their sovereign wealth funds, their nation states.

So, Etihad, the airliner, pays Manchester City around twice as much for the rights to their stadium name as any other company pays any other football club in the world. That money is then used to pay big transfer fees and wages and commissions for agents so that the club can sign some of the best players in the world and win lots of trophies.

This is getting increasingly obvious, and increasingly dodgy. Man City have been caught multiple times in the last couple of years taking money from companies that don’t exist, are shell companies or fronts. In some cases the company websites included pictures of supposed executives that aren’t real people, or at least aren’t the people the websites claim they are. One reverse image search found that one of these pictures was widely used for profiles across the internet, included for a dancer and webcam girl.

Now, is it possible that a former dancer and webcam girl made it big and set up a company whose sole purpose is to funnel money to a football club owned by the Abu Dhabi government? Yes, it’s possible. But it doesn’t seem especially likely. However, no one appears to be doing anything about this – these commercial deals just get rubber stamped as being legitimate and of fair market value, even though they’re obviously not.

So, when it comes to eventually selling these clubs, as the Qataris are now doing with Paris, who is going to buy them, knowing that their revenues are artificially inflated, their ongoing costs enormous and likely unsustainable, and their record on the pitch not quite up there with the genuine European mega-clubs?

My point being that from the point of view of establishing yourself as a major player in the modern world, hosting a World Cup and owning a big European football club is a pretty sound move. But in terms of national branding and PR it has been a failure, or at best a mixed bag, and by turning these clubs into something they’re not, they’ve lumbered the next owners with an impossible problem. So, will they even be able to sell PSG for anything close to a price that makes the deal make some kind of sense?

Double Standards, Human Rights and the Qatar World Cup

Returning to the World Cup – it’s easy to say that the critical coverage of Qatar is hypocritical, but I’d like to unpack exactly what I mean by that. We’ll start with the low-hanging fruit: you’re not allowed alcohol in the stadiums. Obviously, the British tabloid media have made a fuss about this but there are a bunch of countries where this is the norm, including Scotland, which is about as nearby as could be.

The most serious issue discussed around this World Cup is the use of migrant workers to actually build the stadiums, the hotels, the new train lines and stations, all the infrastructure necessary for an event on this scale. It is fair to say that without these workers, Qatar would not have been able to host this World Cup. It is equally fair to say that hundreds, if not thousands of workers have been killed in construction accidents, through dehydration and other heat-related injuries and sickness, and beyond this they simply haven’t been treated according to Western regulatory standards.

However, migrant workers are treated pretty badly in many countries, and I haven’t heard a single English pundit or journalist talking about this. Over and over I hear that not a single person should have to die so that we can have a World Cup – the sort of emotive, social media-friendly rhetoric that dominates coverage of almost everything.

True, no one should die in the building of a World Cup stadium. But no one should die so that we can drink cheap Spanish orange juice. No one should have to die so that we can buy endless sweatshop-produced clothes that we don’t need. No one should have to die so that we can afford to drive around in our own cars all the time. No one should have to die so that we can order something online at 2 a.m. and find it delivered before we’ve even woken up the next day.

And yet, people die for all of these things, because capitalism’s a bitch. If you make the world into a zero sum game, if you divide the world into winners and losers, then in order for the CEO of Disney to live in a $200 million oceanside mansion complex, a whole bunch of people have to die. And a whole bunch more have to suffer in poverty, without access to decent healthcare or in a lot of cases healthy water to drink.

When it comes to foreign policy, this becomes even sharper. In the 2018 World Cup in Russia, France won – but no one have ever suggested that France should be stripped of their title due to their drone bombing of Mali, or their withdrawal from the Schengen freedom of movement agreement following a couple of terrorist attacks. Or the fact their intelligence agencies have assassinated over twenty African leaders since WW2, and they still collect a colonial tax from over a dozen African nations.

Likewise, when Saudi Arabia, or at least their Public Investment Fund, tried to buy Newcastle United, the deal was held up. But not because of Saudi Arabia’s use of torture, their crushing of dissent, the royal family’s use of religious fundamentalism as a means of social control, their war in Yemen, their integral involvement in big oil and the military industrial complex. No, instead I’ve heard talking points around the state’s assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, women only recently being allowed to drive cars, and brutalising of gay people.

To be sure, none of these things are good, and I’m nothing but contemptuous of the Saudi government and their ruling class. But we can’t talk about these other things without being heavily implicated ourselves, so we talk about gay marriage (something only legalised in the UK in the last decade or so) as though these are the moral standards by which all countries should be judged.

In the end, despite numerous problems with the Saudi bid for Newcastle, the British government essentially forced through the sale. And then, shortly afterwards, forced Russian oil billionaire Roman Abramovich to sell Chelsea football club. Thus, the moral standard appears to be that you can be an in-bred, murderous, homophobic religious lunatic, but you can’t be Russian, because Putin.

Indeed, the accusation the British government used to justify their seizure of Chelsea football club – who were sold for £2.5 billion, money which is now frozen by the British treasury – is because Abramovich allegedly has ties to Putin. These ties have never been evidenced in any way whatsoever. They all originate in a fabrication by US investment banker Bill Browder, who perpetrated a massive tax fraud on the Russian government and then spun the story to make it seem like he was a victim of Russian state corruption. One of his collaborators in the fraud was an accountant, Sergey Magnitsky, who was arrested and died in prison. Browder has since spent years going around saying Magnitsky was a lawyer (which he wasn’t), that he was blowing the whistle on the state’s corruption (which he wasn’t), and that he was arrested and murdered by Putin’s government in order to keep him quiet (which he wasn’t).

Sadly, this story has gone round and round, hardly ever being challenged. In the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, I even heard Browder on The Athletic’s football podcast, selling his usual line of bullshit. Curiously, the presenter said the exact same thing – that he tells the story beautifully in his book – that I’ve heard numerous other presenters say. Almost as though you have to say that in order to get him on your show.

As a result, the Magnitsky Act in the United States and equivalent legislation in other countries enables governments to freeze financial assets of any Russian that they allege is either secretly working for the Russian government or has ‘ties to Putin’. ‘Ties to Putin’ being the new ‘believed to be linked to Al Qaeda’.

The next World Cup will be co-hosted by Mexico, Canada and the United States. I anticipate that we won’t hear anything about the US being unsuitable due to having the highest number of incarcerated citizens per capita, let alone locking up 16 times as many men as women. No doubt if it was Russia who locked up more of their citizens than any other country, and were locking up 16 times as many women as men, that would get mentioned.

Ditto, no one will be saying Canada are an unsuitable venue due to their insane, scientifically baseless, authoritarian zero covid policies. We hear about China’s insane approach to covid, but not Canada or New Zealand’s. No one will be objecting to Mexico hosting parts of the World Cup due to the prevalence and power of very violent drugs cartels in the country. Because that might lead people to talking about how those cartels became so powerful in part because of the CIA, and how without the money from those cartels, many Western banks would be screwed.

I kid, they talk about Mexican cartels quite often and freely ignore those dimensions of the story, but just like with Spectre, the 2026 World Cup will be an effort by Mexico to rid itself of the tag of being a third world, drug-ridden shithole and be accepted as a modern, respectable nation. One might say the same is true of the US and Canada.

This is yet another illustration of the rule of propaganda – never acknowledge your own, always call out the other’s. Our PR events aren’t PR events, they’re sporting events, but their sporting events are obviously just PR events. And how dare they? How dare some tinpot Middle Eastern gas station of a country use our propaganda techniques? How dare they host a major cultural event as a means of projecting positive images of their nation? Don’t they know their place? We’re the only ones allowed to do that, so when they do it, we have to wreck it.

Hence, when the 2010 World Cup was awarded to South Africa, we got endless criticisms about whether they’d be able to get it organised properly. The old colonial attitude that blacks cannot be trusted with anything valuable reared its very ugly head. In the run-up to the event we got endless predictions about how the first African World Cup would be beset by crime and terrorism. In reality, it was a very good World Cup and the only terrorist incident was in Kampala, which is in Uganda, a different country. And, apropos of nothing, those bombings were carried out by Al Shabaab at a time when Samantha Lewthwaite was deeply involved in the gang.

The 2014 World Cup was in Brazil, and while the media coverage was less critical (due to Brazil being one of the truly great football nations), there was still a lot of sneering ‘look at these Third World idiots’ stories. Again, there were endless predictions about violent crime and gangs roaming the streets targeting World Cup fans. In reality, it was a very good World Cup and the only major crime was Brazil losing 7-1 to Germany in the semi-final.

By the time of the 2018 World Cup in Russia, it had become clear that the decision back in 2010 to award events to Russia and Qatar were beset by corruption. Almost everyone involved is now either dead, or has been indicted. But that wasn’t really the concern that Western media highlighted – instead we got the Salisbury poisoning, the world’s dumbest false flag event. Put simply, the story isn’t true: Novichok doesn’t take three to four hours to affect people, there isn’t enough Novichok in a perfume bottle to contaminate two whole houses, an ambulance, and half a seafood restaurant. Anyone looking at the story with a mildly sceptical eye would recognise that the British government simply lied about what happened there.

But instead, the event was used to characterise Russia as a nation of blood-soaked gangsters, which went a long way to counteracting any positive nation branding they obtained from hosting the World Cup. Just as it was designed to do. And now, years later, people refer back to the Salisbury poisoning as an example of why Russia shouldn’t have been allowed to host the World Cup, how letting them do that emboldened the evil Putin and that’s why he invaded Ukraine. As though Putin isn’t a puppet of the Russian deep state, and the ‘he’s a madman who wants to take over Europe’ narrative is actually true.

As such, we’re looking at a situation whereby these double standards are so firmly embedded that no one even recognises them as such. The British government poison a Russian defector and his daughter in order to blame the Russians, but because they lie and blame the Russians, that’s actually an example of how evil and dangerous the Russians are. The American government keep the Guantanamo Bay detention and torture centre open for two decades, but look, here’s Qatar criminalising public displays of homosexuality, which we’ll make a big fuss about while completely ignoring GITMO.

To give you an illustration of this hypocrisy in action, we’ll turn to the Athletic Football podcast. The Athletic is a relatively new arrival on the European football media scene, funded by an American investment firm they turned up, full of money, and hired a whole bunch of established talent, and bought up a load of smaller, independent channels. Do you think this might be why the American investors in European football don’t get the same kind of criticism that Middle Eastern, Russian or Asian investors receive? Because an awful lot of the people doing the talking are being paid by either British or American paymasters? Why yes, I think it might be.

Hence, we’ll get discussions such as this one, where the state sponsorship of Arsenal and PSG football clubs by the Rwandan tourism ministry is criticised.

Note that among the criticisms of the Rwandan government is that they lock up people on terrorism charges without fair trials, and the source cited is the US State Department. And we should believe them, not just because Rwanda’s government are a bunch of bastards, but because when it comes to locking up people on fake terrorism charges without a fair trial, the US government knows what it is talking about.

There is also a colonial aspect to all this that bothers me. Rwanda is a poor country, and tourism is one of the few ways it can become a less poor country. But the point that’s endlessly reiterated is ‘wouldn’t they be better spending that money on their own people, on public services?’. It’s curious, in a rich country we can waste all sorts of money on nuclear weapons, covid jabs that don’t work, overpriced energy resources, rather than the things people actually need. The excuse is that you have to speculate to accumulate, gotta spend money to make money.

But why does the same broadly Keynesian, capitalist logic not apply to Rwanda, or any other poor country? Why can they not speculate to try to accumulate? Because they need to know their place, which is to be poor, and to be criticised for being anything other than a monument to a misunderstood genocide largely caused by Western colonialism. But we don’t mention that last bit.

What we don’t want is a major transfer of wealth from the richer nations to the poorer ones, we certainly don’t want rich Londoners going on holiday in Rwanda and deciding to invest their money in a business in that country, rather than here. So, we call out their sportwashing and nation branding, even their efforts to attract more tourism, because we’re so progressive that we just cannot stand for poor countries to be anything other than places we feel good about not having to live in.

Gianni Infantino’s Speech and the Hypocrisy of Western Journalists

This all came to a beautiful crescendo at the start of the World Cup. No, I’m not talking about the opening ceremony, though it was quite amazing. The mascot for this World Cup is a disembodied head that looks like the Stay Puff marshmallow man from Ghostbusters. While a bodyless head is a bit ISIS youtube video for my liking, it does look pretty cool.

What I’m talking about is Gianni Infantino’s speech at the beginning of the tournament, which was hideously embarrassing.

Infantino is the new head of FIFA, the guy brought in to try to clean things up after the mess left by Sepp Blatter, Jack Warner, Chuck Blazer and the rest. A bit like when the CIA brought in Stansfield Turner in the late 70s.

Naturally, this speech from Infantino was an effort to counter a lot of the critical noises made around this World Cup. As tone deaf and stupid as it may have been, that is his job, so I did find the flurry of criticism directed at him echoed most of the criticism of Qatar. We’ll go back to the Athletic’s football podcast for one of the best examples.

What I enjoy about this response to Infantino’s speech is the total lack of self-awareness this journalist showed. By dismissing Infantino’s points about Europeans being in no good position to criticise other nations, he denies all the suffering caused by European governments, including a lot of ongoing suffering. He also criticises Infantino for not carrying his logic through, when that is exactly what he’s doing.

The better way to respond is not engaging in a tit for tat argument or accusing someone of ‘whataboutery’, which is a common deflection used to ignore relevant context in an argument, but to rise above it. The better person does not become defensive, but admits that if they truly care about human rights, workers rights and so on that Western society has a lot to answer for. That it’s a matter of moral principle, and hence being from the West makes no difference to the validity of the criticisms of Qatar.

But you can’t do that if you’ve spent your life being a hypocrite who ignores the crimes of their own while pointing to the crimes of others and demanding other people only look in that direction. Because journalists, on the whole, don’t actually care about human rights, they just want to use them to bash specified targets, they don’t have any basis of principles on which to fight back against accusations of hypocrisy. That is to say, because they’re hypocrites they can only respond to such accusations with defensive deflections like this.

I also felt that his dismissal of Infantino’s claim that he can empathise with people’s suffering because he was a migrant who was bullied at school was downright nasty. People commit suicide because of this stuff. People walk into their school and shoot 13 people because of this stuff. Acting like being bullied within a government institution doesn’t give you grounds for empathising by others being brutalised and exploited by government institutions is just stupid. It also reveals, again, that this journalist lacks substantive empathy, and simply uses it as a weapon to criticise others.

The Elephants in the Room: Politics and Football

One of the phrases I hear over and again from football fans is that we should ‘keep politics out of football’. Why do people say this?

Well, part of it is a kneejerk reaction from people who either do or don’t realise that by ‘keeping politics out of football’ they are supporting the status quo. Because politics is already in football – politicians and royals turn up at matches, FIFA is essentially a political entity, the sport is used to promote the military, in some cases nation states own football clubs. If you only say ‘keep politics out of football’ when it comes to things like kneeling to protest against systemic bigotry, or criticising the decision to give a World Cup to an authoritarian monarchy, then you are supporting one kind of politics while protesting another. Which is a political act. Thus, saying we should keep politics out of football merely reveals that, at this point, that is impossible.

I also feel that this is another manifestation of a problem I’ve mentioned before – that our economic and technological evolution has far outpaced our moral and emotional evolution. We’ve reached a point with our high-tech globalised petrochemical energy economy that a country like Qatar, which barely plays football, can afford to host a World Cup. But this puts footballers and football fans in a difficult position, with a difficult ethical quandary. Do they support the World Cup despite it being hosted by a morally criminal state? And not just any morally criminal state, one that is crap at football.

So, we either disengage and deflect any question of this ethical quandary and just enjoy the football as usual, or we demand that players and teams manifest our protests for us. The one podcast that I have found that has actually discussed this in a deep and meaningful way is the Tifo Football podcast, which is also part of the Athletic.

One thing they dwell on in this episode is how rich and powerful people make these decisions, but defer moral responsibility onto others – in this case, footballers. And then the debate becomes about which players have said what about which issue, rather than about the people responsible for these decisions in the first place.

This is what I mean about us having the economic and technological capability to do things that we lack the moral and emotional skills to consider deeply. We’re so concerned with whether we can do this that we don’t stop to think whether we should do this. And then it happens, and we expect other people to protest on our behalf because we don’t have any other obvious routes to hold the decision-makers accountable.

However, there is another elephant in the room of this whole discussion, namely the environmental cost of hosting a World Cup in Qatar. They’ve not only built a whole new international airport to handle all the air traffic, but revamped and rebuilt their existing international airport too. In a couple of weeks, most of that infrastructure will be useless. But the environmental damage caused by all the construction materials being produced, let alone shipped to Qatar and assembled, is permanent.

While there has been some attention on the fact that Qatar is basically a gas company run by an aristocracy, this has mostly devolved into the usual shrieking about the ‘climate crisis’. The pollution of the air, land and water on which we depend to survive has never come up in any coverage I have read, watched or listened to.

But that, to my mind, is the greater concern. We’ve been poisoning the earth, and hence ourselves, fairly consistently for the last three centuries. In recent months the number of excess deaths in much of Western society has skyrocketed, often higher than at any point during the pandemic. Curiously, there has been no big mobilisation, no media scare campaign, no political consensus that we must respond immediately and on a massive scale.

Theories on what is causing all these extra deaths vary, but I wonder if we’ve reached a point where we’ve simply dumped so much toxic shit into the water and the air and onto the land that people are getting sick and dying. But of course, we can’t even have a proper discussion about human rights in Qatar, there’s no way the world is ready to embrace the horrifying idea that we might have reached a tipping point where we’re killing ourselves on an unprecedented scale.

One final thought on more covert state sponsorship of football. The two biggest trends in European football over the last 20 years, leaving aside tactical and financial aspects, are the arrival of US investment firms and the coming to prominence of big data. Another common talking point is that European football lags behind US sports when it comes to using data, but it’s a fool’s argument. For one thing, Billy Beane never won a World Series. For another, baseball in particular is not a fluid sport, it’s a series of set pieces. So statistics are far easier to use to make marginal gains in a sport like baseball than in a sport like football, which is far more continuous and unpredictable.

Then, we’ve seen US investors behind media ventures like the Athletic, which is very data and stats-focused. Some of this is interesting and useful, but a lot of it is just data-bombing people in lieu of genuine insight, relying on people being blinded by the numbers and mistaking them for the truth. Likewise, the arrival of specialist sports data analysis firms who provide services to football clubs is an American-led process.

To my mind, this is a covert means for the vastly overvalued US tech industry, especially the big data bubble, to create a new market for itself. And given how involved the CIA and NSA are in that vastly overvalued US tech industry, is this not another form of state sponsorship? And given the enormous electricity consumption required by the tech industries and the resulting environmental damage caused, are we not looking at something that in moral terms is equivalent to Qatar hosting a World Cup?