Update (03/06): Blatter has now resigned as FIFA president
As far as sports controversies go, you’d think blowing the whistle on FIFA’s alleged bribes and the open-air slave mausoleum being constructed in Qatar as a byproduct of erecting stadiums for the 2022 World Cup would be a no-brainer. Thankfully, the world, and sports fandom, will go and fuck that up for you.
Hundreds of millions of dollars in international grease doesn’t just happen because two screw-ups named Mitch and Frankie decided to play around with the company checkbook. And Qatar looks like the hot-weather version of some Stalinist forced-labor dam project in Siberia or a modern update of the whims of Pharaoh. If the 2022 World Cup is a monument to the greatness of Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, he’s projected to have 4,000 slaves to take with him to the afterlife. None of this is new, and the thought that makes you want to go sit down in a darkened closet for a while is that these realities exist because most people are fine with things this way.
Granted, the FIFA indictments are fun to read. The Swiss police arrested 14 FIFA executives and charged them with racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering tied to over $100 million in bribes to assign rights to FIFA-sponsored soccer tournaments in Latin America. Deadspin excerpted all the funniest bits: there were literally people stuffing envelopes with cash and trading briefcases full of bribes. It’s such a dumbfoundingly obvious collection of white-collar crime stereotypes and B-movie cloak-and-dagger that you almost expect all of them to have been walking around with color-coordinated trench coats and fedoras, like extras from Spy vs. Spy.
Hell, the American snitch is a gift from the comedy gods. His name is Chuck Blazer. Chuck Blazer. That name can do anything. Chuck Blazer is a career WWE jobber, getting squashed at every house show by men with 18-inch jawlines. Chuck Blazer advertises his personal injury attorney services at the bus stop. Chuck Blazer is the most-ejected junior high school basketball coach in Alabama history. Chuck Blazer is the manager of a knockoff Burlington Coat Factory and can get you a sweet bargain on some imitation “Century 21 gold” sport coats. Chuck Blazer is the name the American Gladiators video game gives itself when it becomes self-aware.
Instead, in real life, Chuck Blazer is a 450-pound dude from Queens with beard enough to reassemble at least two Jerry Garcias, the former General Secretary of CONCACAF (the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football) and so flush from graft that he charged $29 million to credit cards and maintained apied-à-terre in Trump Tower for his cats. His fucking cats. I mean, if nothing else pisses you off, that should. They’re cats. He could have gone to Home Depot, gotten them a fencepost, a slab of patio and a palette of grass, then set them all down next to a midden of dead rodents the cats could rub themselves all over, and the beasts would’ve been way happier. Chuck spent all that money fucking up being the owner of the worst kind of pet.
All of this is shitty and stupid and funny, of course, but how we know about it and what it means in context takes some of the shine off the gleeful schadenfreude. In context, it’s almost nothing. FIFA is so grandiosely historically corrupt that busting them for this, finally, feels like ignoring reports on Jeffrey Dahmer for years and then raiding his kitchen for health-code violations. Hell, John Oliver kicked off the World Cup with a 13-minute celebration of how ludicrously evil FIFA is. (Go watch it; summarizing its contents would be unfair to comedy.) As much as people might want to liken this to busting Capone for income tax evasion because that’s “how we could get him,” it almost feels like this is the first time in America anyone chose to give a shit, which only brings up the unpleasantly convenient timing of this FBI investigation and the United States losing out on the 2022 World Cup bid to a Qatari armada of overstuffed briefcases. And just how far across this earth do potentially tenuous links to crimes committed by persons from the United States in places that might not be the United States enable the U.S. Attorney from the Eastern District of New York to arrest people? Is this how we flex now? We will ford any river and cross any expanse on this globe if it means revenging ourselves on those who deprived Anheuser-Busch of primo ad space in American cities that were destined to lose money on a quadrennial event most Americans still don’t care about?
There are more indictments coming. Nike might be involved! Did you realize that persons from Nike might have spent millions of dollars trying to influence sports outcomes? And, of course, there is the suspicion that these charges were brought within the statute of limitation to get the ball rolling on eventual charges over Qatar, though it’s likelier they’ll address the emirate stealing America’s sports toy rather than a massive human rights catastrophe.
Because if there is a bummer at the heart of FIFA gloating and global corruption mockery, it’s Qatar and the trail of money that flows in from points around the globe. Under its kafala system, migrant workers are lured to the country with promises of opportunities to raise a lot of money quickly for the folks back home, then watch as their employers withhold both wages and their passports, denying them the financial and legal means of escape. Labor inspections are sporadic and of dubious authenticity, and workers’ conditions are lethal. Workers live in metal shacks in the desert, die from heat exhaustion and heart failure and are routinely exposed to open sewage. Their working conditions double as crime scenes.
These realities were brought into stark relief again recently, when Qatari “employers” refused to let Nepalese workers on World Cup construction sites return home in the aftermath of the devastating earthquakes that have killed over 8,000 people in their homeland. But we knew all this before the Nepalese earthquakes. Amnesty International has condemned the kafala system for years. The International Trade Union Confederation describes Qatar as a slave state. And these observations aren’t the exclusive province of human and worker-rights organizations. The Guardian reported on this in 2013. You can find some discussion of Qatar as a modern Metropolis built on sand and bones on almost any halfway serious sports website. SB Nation – home of “Breaking Madden” and “Hatin’ Ass Spurrier” – sent my friend David Roth there in 2013. And as Roth has pointed out, the only part of this story that goes underrepresented in the discourse is the bizarre expense the nation devotes not to redressing its human rights nightmare but to papering over it with imaging, talking points, guided tours and Potemkin villages – every facet of the neoliberal brand correction to create a safe space for investment.
FIFA isn’t even secretive about its interests in places like Qatar. Here’s FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke in 2013, on Russian authoritarianism:
“I will say something which is crazy, but less democracy is sometimes better for organizing a World Cup. When you have a very strong head of state who can decide, as maybe Putin can do in 2018…that is easier for us organizers than a country such as Germany…where you have to negotiate at different levels.”
This blasé approval of a strongman’s efficiency doesn’t even rate a spit take, considering it’s the same realpolitik line trudged out by every Western power trying to secure its economic interests since the dawn of post-colonialism. As my friend Dan O’Sullivan put it, “There was a joke in the mid-nineties among CIA functionaries about how to brief Bill Clinton on the prospect of regime change in Iraq. ‘Mr. President, we cannot definitively predict the identity of Saddam’s successor, but we know his first name: General.'” This is the story of the U.S. in Central America for over a century, the story of post-Suez Crisis Egypt, pre-gassings Syria, and Kissinger in Chile.
When a bloodbath is this profitably routinized on this kind of scale, chances are, someone in the West is paying for its output, and the story of FIFA in Qatar is no different. You don’t rig games and lives like this without a mark and, buddy, we are all in. Granted, the rest of the world gets its cut – which explains the lockstep devotion of Africa to FIFA’s every idea – but we’re the home of the big conglomerates, big marketing and big payroll. UEFA officials and American commentators can huff about boycotts and moral disgust, but FIFA would have cleared out at least a few smoke-filled rooms years ago if they thought the West would stop dropping by the establishment every four years.
The West’s underwriting of FIFA stems from the same impulse as the Steelers fan pointing fingers at Ray Lewis while shielding Ben Roethlisberger (and vice versa) or the Carolina Panthers fan rediscovering the penal code now that Greg Hardy signed with the Cowboys. It’s the same impulse as Anheuser-Busch and fellow advertisers threatening to pull money over Adrian Peterson, the biggest superstar on a go-nowhere Vikings team, while staying silent about the 49ers or Patriots. Sin, venial or mortal, is only worth consideration after we know we can’t win the big game or turn a profit off it. At the drop of a hat, UEFA and North America could organize a North Atlantic Cup, but neither wants to win one. There is no status involved. Nations will pervert themselves as readily and bizarrely as the average fan when potential glory is this storied and this truly global.
There is no joy here, shameful or not, no pure and easy scorn. FIFA greases itself because it knows everyone wants the machine to run, and a global operation spanning the first and third worlds is going to need monstrous levels of baksheesh and blind eyes turned to strongmen. It would take seeing every body on the news for enough fans and consumers to really care about what the machine chews up, and even though we’ll never see them, there’s still a good chance the images wouldn’t even register. The no-brainer about FIFA corruption and the mass death in Qatar is the same no-brainer about everything else in sports: as soon as the competition is big enough and our chances near enough, we throw ours away.