Corruption, Sexism, and Racism in Soccer. Will Ooi calls out FIFA and its leadership.
Amidst all the clamour and hype of the latest World Cup this past summer in Brazil, where Germany were crowned champions, you may have heard whispers of several controversies surrounding its governing body, FIFA.
The international federation for football – or soccer – has regularly flirted with accusations of corruption, most pertinently following the controversial awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. This time, the outrage centred around the fact that this Arab country has no football history to speak of, is mired in concerns regarding human rights violations of its migrant workers, and is situated in a climate where games will be played at 100 degree plus temperatures. Thought to be a decision made solely in terms of generating revenue – where it should also be pointed out that a condition for hosting World Cups requires that FIFA and its sponsors receive full tax exemptions – an ethics committee was set up to investigate the bidding process for the 2022 and also its preceding 2018 tournament, to be held in Russia, and yet the full report will not be made available to public scrutiny.
To add to these issues, FIFA, as an organisation and led by Sepp Blatter, has on numerous occasions publicly outed itself as being deeply sexist. Indeed, Moya Dodd, the vice-chair of the Asian Football Confederation who is now on the governing body’s executive committee, has rightfully said that the game needed to “take sexism as seriously as we take racism.”
The response by Blatter? That Dodd was “good, and good looking“, for as we all know ability must also be matched by physical attractiveness, but only for women. In fact it was only until June 2013 when a woman was appointed to FIFA’s executive committee for the first time, to which Blatter mind-bogglingly remarked “say something ladies, you are always speaking at home, now you can speak here.”
Football likes to market itself as “the beautiful game”, and as seen recently in Brazil, perhaps has taken that label too literally where camera crew were seemingly specifically instructed to zoom in on female fans during breaks in play, almost to the point of comedy.
The promotion of this beautiful game featuring beautiful women, aimed predominantly at male audiences, places the sport in an awkward position ahead of the Women’s World Cup to be held in Canada next year. Whilst FIFA seeks to, on the surface, promote the women’s game as being of equal bearing to its male counterpart, its issues with actual surfaces lends further evidence to gender discrimination. Playing on grass pitches has always been default in the sport, but not for Canada 2015: with the cheaper solution of artificial grass being brought in for the first time in a major tournament.
The actuality of the priorities of the women’s game can, again, be seen through the words of Blatter, who has previously remarked that to improve its marketability, players could “have tighter shorts”, and generally “play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball.”
To be fair – if indeed ‘fair’ is the right word to use in this context – football is also, to its shame, one of the least progressive sports in terms of its acknowledgement of racism and homophobia. Racist abuse from the stands occurs on an alarmingly regular basis, directed at black players in the form of bananas being thrown onto the pitch and where monkey noises are heard in the stands, to which punishments involve meagre fines or stadium shutdowns for several matches. It is a sport where where only a handful of professional players have actually come out as being gay – and in these rare cases often occurring well after their retirements.
One could expect international sporting bodies to definitively deal with these social issues with authority, where we have seen the NBA’s stance against racism displayed in full following Donald Sterling’s bigoted rant, and all four Australian football codes as well as Cricket Australia uniting to combat homophobia. But for football, in its current form, the profits may explain the lack of action. The last World Cup earned $4 billion, and Europe’s flagship Champions League club competition generates $2 billion per season. So when racism appears from prestigious teams such as Real Madrid, the current holders of the Champions League and the most successful club in the history of the competition, their continued participation is deemed vital to the point that punishments are delivered well after the fact. Certainly, the appeasement of the major clubs by UEFA, the European body of the sport which is closely tied to FIFA, allows the status quo to be maintained and remain unchallenged.
The farcical nature of football’s reply to racism is perhaps best encapsulated in players themselves receiving bans or being criticized for reacting to abuse, where it may even require a major incident in a high profile match before FIFA’s supposed zero tolerance laws are enabled instead of merely threatened. Thankfully a recent ban for the President of the Italian Football Association for making racist remarks hints at evolution, even if 6 months off duty hardly constitutes sweeping changes.
In August, Corinne Diacre made history by becoming the first woman to coach a professional male football team in France, and whilst that represents progress, it is perhaps unsurprising to learn that her short-lived predecessor, Helena Costa, quit before a ball was kicked due to a lack of respect from her male colleagues. The UK charity Stonewall is also gaining traction in campaigning against homophobia by encouraging professional teams in England to wear rainbow boot laces as a small step towards equality, with a poor response in the 2013/14 season improving promisingly this time round.
Football has a long way to go to match other sports in its social responsibilities, however these gradual and long-awaited changes mark positive new initiatives for the game, in spite of what football’s custodians, Sepp Blatter at its head, may lead us to believe. One can only hope that it continues to entertain as a spectacle and no longer disappoints in its other expectations.
(Photo Credit: Associated Press/Frank Augstein)