Love Football not FIFA


Mark Perrymanof Philosophy Football argues to understand Qatar 2022 start with how the World Cup is always political 


Today, Sunday, the Qatar World Cup kick off.  As part of the week preceding  'Stadiums of Shame' screamed the Guardian back page sports headline on Tuesday, while inside two pages of facts and figures featuring the plight of migrant workers, former German international Philipp Lahm saying he won't be going because the World Cup doesn't belong in Qatar, plus the launch of a new online resource  beyond the football.        

All of this is being framed by the editorial self-justification 'This is a World Cup like no other.' Meanwhile yesterday, as with every Saturday preceding a World Cup for as long as I can  remember there wwas free with the Guardian their 56-page guide to the tournament full of 'inimitable team--by-team guides' followed on today's with the Observer a free World Cup 'brilliant wallchart'. Confused? We might well be.    

Mmm, or as the terrace chant goes ' If you know your history...'  because the idea Qatar is 'like no other' is the product of a deep-seated ahistoricism. Qatar is simply the latest World Cup to be used as a political platform. In this key regard we cut through both the cultural relativism and the liberal platitudes. To recognise there is nothing remotely 'like no other' about this World Cup, rather it suits the well-worn norm, would be a start. 

To begin at the beginning, 1930, the first World Cup, hosted by Uruguay, the tournament invented by a Frenchman, Jules Rimet, organised by FIFA, founded by another Frenchman, Robert Guérin. The FA, never knowingly described as the English FA, because after all we invented the game, promptly announce they would be boycotting it. Nothing to do with human rights or the like in Uruguay, rather the very idea these Johnny Foreigners might think they can run our game. The next one England boycotted as well 1934, 1938 too before finally entering the 1950 World Cup.  A squad of England legends, including Billy Wright, Stanley Matthews and Tom Finney, promptly knocked out at the group stage. England having been beaten by the USA, at the time a team of amateurs. No, football didn't come back home (sic) back then either, and we've had to live with the ideological legacy ever since. 

The 1934 World Cup, host Mussolini's Italy, his Blackshirts explicitly used the Italian national team to build support for fascism, winning their home tournament, and France 1938 too, the first team to win an away World Cup.  Or Prime Minister Harold Wilson turning England 's 1966 win into a reason to vote Labour ' Have you noticed we only win the Word Cup under a Labour government'. An old Labour pledge that has stood the test of time, in this case more's the pity. World Cup 1970, Israel qualify via the Asian Football Federation (AFC), which its a member of. One World Cup later Israel is forced to leave the AFC because most member countries refuse to play a nation that mistreats Palestine in the way Israel does. UEFA on the other hand welcomes Israel with open arms, the only non-European country it has allowed to join. World Cup 1974 the USSR team are expelled from the tournament for refusing to play Chile following Pinochet's coup, Chile take part in their place. Or the last World Cup, 2018, Putin's World Cup, just four years after his annexation, aka invasion, of Crimea, this time round 2022, all Russian participation banned. Qatar, a World Cup 'like no other', no, in a myriad of ways like all the others, framed by politics, most of it bad.

For this World Cup the England team flew out to Qatar in a plane renamed for the trip 'Rainbow.' A powerful and very public statement of LGBT support in the face of widespread laws in Qatar outlawing both LGBT relationships and a variety of women's rights we take for granted.  Support amplified by widespread coverage of the issue in the sports media too. Good. Though on that plane there wasn't a single out gay male player, nor do any of the squad play alongside any out gay men, none managed by an out gay man. To be gay and out in England isn't illegal, yet to play professional football it might as well be. Perhaps a degree of self-reflection wouldn't go amiss.       

Qatar using, abusing, the World Cup for political ends, it was ever thus. This is the downside of football as the one truly global sport. Yes Rugby (both versions) and cricket (all versions) have their World Cups but they're not truly global are they? These are sports fundamentally framed by the British empire with the odd other international hangers-on who can score upsets but never get remotely close to the latter stages of the tournament. The winners of football's World Cup are a likewise select few from Europe and South America, but in contrast to the cricket and rugby World Cups semi-finalists, quarter-finalists come from every continent, every corner of the world. This is the upside, including Qatar, a World Cup as a festival of popular internationalism. 

I'm lucky enough to have travelled as an England fan to four World Cups including Asia's first, Japan and Korea 2002, Africa's first, South Africa 2010. Never mind, well actually I do mind, a lot, England didn't come close to lifting the trophy, the experience was utterly unforgettable. Yes, it's a holiday of privilege but being there is also hopelessly mixed up with, despite the unfamiliar and difference, what we shared as visitors with our hosts, the love of football, not as tourists, but as fans, united. That's what Qatar should be about. The first Middle Eastern World Cup, good. The first in a majority Muslim country, good. The first that recognises not the entire world follows the European (not even all of Europe) league season calendar, August-May, good. But of course, we all know it won't, and that is a huge loss, barely recognised.  

There are certainly plenty of good reasons to give this World Cup a miss, the mistreatment and appalling deaths of migrant workers who bult the magnificent stadiums teams are so much looking forward to playing in near the top. The corrupt way in which the bid was secured too. Though England were part of that round of bidding too and played an international in Trinidad and Tobago with the sole intention of getting that country's vote.  England won, lost the vote, moral high ground abandoned. 

To boycott or not to boycott?  In the 1970s protests and disruption stopped overseas tours from Apartheid South Africa and led directly to South Africa being banned from international football sport by FIFA, as well as the Olympics. Result. But let's be brutally honest for Qatar it's a non-question. Despite all the coverage, all the exposure of a media determined to expose Qatar as an unsuitable host and give the tournament every bit of coverage they will provide absolutely per usual, there is no mass, popular movement. Because the contradiction is shared by all those looking forward to the games but not having much time, across a wide variety of reasons, not all good, for the country where they're being played, and next to no time for the organisation that chose that country as the host. Best chance of a boycott? England exit in ignominy at the Group stage and the boycott will be unstoppable.  Prospects for solidarity? Wales march on triumphantly to the knock-out stages and there's a tidal wave of Welsh solidarity, with their team. Because when it comes down to it the for next four weeks any moral gymnastics can be reduced to four words. Love football not FIFA.

Further Reading Mark Perryman Ingerland : Travels with a Football Nation  

Mark Perryman is the co-founder of Philosophy Football

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