I originally drafted this on April 16 when I was in a very bad mood and never got around to publishing it because I was in a better mood the next day. So uh… enjoy this rant, you guys and gals.
Swindled, injured, indebted, and dead Asian and African laborers in Qatar act merely as an excuse for American soccer fans to bash on a former rival World Cup bid. Claims that Emirati human rights’ blemishes delegitimate NYC FC’s expansion plans into MLS similarly don’t come from a source of social justice. Soccer writers cheaply use human rights’ record of NYC FC’s ownership group to mask their disdain for a foreign ownership group starting another franchise in the New York City metropolitan area while MLS has ignored large swaths of the country.
There are few clear examples of natural crossover between sports and politics in which the narrative is not pushed by someone with only passing knowledge in one or the other arena. FIFA’s World Cup provides ample fodder for these articles as the suffering of human beings on the periphery of the festivities is ubiquitous even if overlooked.
The Republic of South Africa spent an estimated $5bn on the 2010 World Cup while FIFA, enjoying tax-exempt status, netted profit exceeding $3bn on the event. What was heralded as a watershed moment for the continent, Africa’s first World Cup rather replayed the same storyline of a European venture exploiting the Global South while sticking the host nation with an overwhelming infrastructure bill.
Whether FIFA was malicious in its attempts to strap South Africa, a country with crippling unemployment and widespread underdevelopment in the face of epidemics, the footballing organization wanted to make a political statement by awarding the 2010 games. FIFA told the world, and the host nation specifically, that an African country was ready to host the World Cup tournament. Sadly for the people of South Africa, that was not the case. South African cities are still dealing with the costs of long-since idle hotels and stadia.
One might think that things are going well in the cultural home of football, this year’s host nation of Brazil. There have been widely reported violent cleansing of neighborhoods surrounding the designated tourist locations around World Cup stadia. National and regional police forces that were already known for violent conduct doubled down in the two years leading up to kick-off, adding extra soldiers to patrol and conduct evictions in multiple major cities in Brazil. Brazil’s government has decided to revise its existing counter-insurgency training tactics, but rather than improving its public face, these changes have been geared towards increasing the brutality and gratuitous exhibitions of violence in efforts to quell the sentiments of resistance among the native population.
By awarding the 2014 World Cup to Brazil, FIFA again was making a statement to the world that Brazil was ready to host the globe’s most prestigious sporting event. While Brazil may seem like a no-brainer in terms of soccer fanaticism, cities are already stretched to breaking points with faulty or deficient public transportation, a lack of financial commitment to higher education, and inadequate programs to deal with unemployment.
Brazil is country very much in flux from the depths of undemocratic darkness to the glorious enlightenment of representative democracy. Former President Ignacio “Lula” da Silva made grand strides to address income inequality worse than any country in the region and among the worst in the world. Even the relative success of Bolsa Familia and other social programs have made but a dent in the massive wall of ills facing Brazil’s poor families.
Rather than investing in the people of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff’s government has made international sporting events the national priority to show through a festive World Cup this year and Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 that Brazil is an acceptable destination for foreign investment. Little of the funds from these investments will ever trickle down to ameliorate the squalid conditions in which poor Brazilians must survive (or not).
FIFA is set to rake in many billions of dollars from this year’s World Cup while Brazilian tax money props up the organization’s profit centers and tourist destinations.
The point of this piece is not to discourage individuals from becoming active in social justice causes but one has to seriously question the motivation of those joining in the current chorus that Qatar’s human rights record is shaming FIFA. Surely the conduct of the global governing body itself is disparaging the image of the sport we love, but is that really what matters here?
Should the story not be about how Qatar doesn’t deserve to host the World Cup and instead be about the systematic process of human trafficking and modern slavery that is pervasive in Arabian Gulf States? Are you blind to the human story?
Is this really the first time that “soccer journalists” and American soccer fans have heard of human rights abuses? What does it say about the American soccer fandom that we don’t care about the unspeakable suffering of others until the sport in this country can potentially benefit from it?
The deaths of World Cup laborers in Qatar has become a footnote to the chorus heard around the soccer landscape in this country: “Qatar bought votes to win the bid, summer temperatures are dangerous and a winter WC is stupid, the country has an abysmal human rights record*, and alcohol is illegal over there.”
It is rather amusing to see American soccer fans and journalists/bloggers daily cite the human rights and labor conditions in Qatar and the Emirati interests behind Manchester City and NYC FC to complain about their respective soccer entities. Where are these same people when America’s drone program murders children in Pakistan and Yemen? Where are these same people when conservatives actively repeal the power of organized labor in this country?
Are you upset that Gulf States repress women? What are you doing about unequal/unfair pay, shameful sex education curricula, state laws that criminalize miscarriages, acts of terrorism against medical professionals who provide access to reproductive health?
You’re up in arms about the second-class status of South Asian and African migrant laborers in the Gulf? Law enforcement in this country rounds up immigrants (and folks who may happen to look like immigrants) in order to fill quotas in both public and private (for-profit) prisons. If you’re worried about minority rights, what are you doing to address stop and frisk policies and the culture of racialized violence by American police forces? Should you not also care about the piecemeal destruction of the Voting Rights Act and increasing attempts at the state level across the country to reinstate Jim Crow style legal discrimination?
If you feel so strongly that FIFA is dragging the sport you follow through the mud because of rampant corruption, why do you not feel similarly that the elimination of barriers to widespread corruption in American electoral politics is dragging our country through the mud?
The abuses of Qatar and the moneyed interests of the United Arab Emirates are simple narratives. Americans generally know (next-to-)nothing about these countries which allows them to become “the others” in our collective consciousness as if global events were a cheap Mad Libs. Whether it is indeed from a place of genuine concern for the well-being of others or simply a way to spitefully differentiate ourselves from the unknown other (and in doing so argue to host the 2022 tournament), the human rights aspect of the story deserves a better discourse.
The deaths of South Asian laborers should not be a means to argue that Qatar shouldn’t have the World Cup (of course to the benefit of the United States of Soccer); these human rights issues should be discussed on their own merit. Using human tragedy and real life suffering to make a point about sports that benefits yourself is morally reprehensible and disrespectful to the victims.