With World Cup 2022 dominating opinion columns and threatening to destabilize a competition still nine years away from us, the World Cup has never faced such an uncertain future. With the embers still warm from the fires that accompanied the Brazilian riots this summer, even the once untarnishable brand of the franchise is looking weathered, as slowly the media’s coverage associates it more and more with corruption, profiteering and civil meltdown. If the present appears overcast, the future looks downright bleak for a tournament usually so warmly anticipated for a host of sporting, cultural and economic perks.
Perhaps though, instead of all the gloom, the authorities should look at the reasons to be positive about Brazil and Qatar. At least those responsible for keeping order have a fairly accurate idea of what they’re likely to be up against and can plan accordingly. The Confederations Cup has shown FIFA a retina-scorching glimmer of what’s to come in 2014 – a bucket load of bad publicity, gross public unrest and perhaps a handful of unlucky martyrs fighting domestic injustice in Brazil — is unlikely to leave a mark on either the governing body’s good reputation or conscience, principally because there’s very little factual evidence for the existence of either. The country will likely revolt but the FIFA Executive Committee PR machine will confidently churn out just the right sound-bites to deflect the brunt of the attention to the Brazilian political and economic leaders, which is probably where it has belonged right from the start. So that’s one reason to be cheerful at FIFA HQ.
In Qatar, there will be an equally choral organized mass movement to resist in the form of the major European league bodies when the tournament is inevitably shifted into the uncharted territory of the winter months, but that battle won’t be fought with sticks, stones and barricades – more likely with an entourage of solicitors and legal loopholes as the various parties try and grind each other in to the dirt through the international courts. Neither will be causing too many sleepless nights in Zurich, where whitewashing public outcry with bellicose propaganda and shredding formal opposition with spirit-crunching legal attrition is old hat. But what of 2018, and Russia?
As Vladimir Putin continues apace, his iron fisted crusade against cultural variance — the LGBT community — have become the most conspicuous target for public humiliation. Meanwhile in the major European cities the murmurings about gay representation in professional sport are growing louder. Spot the link? As the game’s governors pat themselves on the back over limp reforms of the disciplinary process to deal with racial abuse on the pitch, the questions over why the world of professional football counts among its number only three openly gay members aren’t going to go away. With the issue a slow burner – the hesitancies that keep scores in the closet surely also holding back many would-be vocal lobbyists for change from really launching the debate – what odds it comes to the boil just as the world turns its gaze to Putin’s ferociously anti-queer autocracy in five years’ time?
For some, World Cup 2018 represents a golden opportunity for Sepp Blatter – or very likely his successor – to make a deafening statement about how FIFA sees its relationship with the LGBT community developing over the next decade. Whilst there are those that are calling for a boycott of the 2014 winter Olympics by fans and athletes over the government’s brutal execution of its anti-gay legislation, soccer’s governing body has a chance to enforce a boycott of its own with unbearable force by simply removing, or threatening to remove, Russia’s right to host the tournament. Only by excluding Russia from its working relationships can the governing body be seen to be taking steps to create a more inclusive community for its minority groups.
But this is where the whole thing gets messy. Part of the problem with withdrawing the tournament at this stage, nearly half way through the eight year preparation period as it was in 2010, is that it will hit industry and parts of the economy hard. Some of this impact will be felt high up in the corridors of power although it’s doubtful that it will send Putin or any of his extended circle of cronies – well protected from the vagaries of the market – reeling from the blow. Where this blow will be felt however is much lower down the pay-scale. Provincial industries with a local focus whom have already made big plans for 2018 – constructors, manufacturers, service providers – all far enough down the path of business blueprints that it would be impossible to turn back without saddling their organizations with crippling losses. Economic fortunes turn on a sixpence and to whip away the World Cup now – the object of major investments for some over the last three years and the heart of mid-term planning – would be to create a helter-skelter of fiscal uncertainty for those ordinary Russians who are least able to bear it. How then is the world body to take effective aim at the state hierarchy without risking the safety of the lower-middle and working classes held in its vice?
The answer to it all lies, somewhat retrospectively and more than a little defeatistly, in the thought that FIFA should have had a firmer grip on its moral compass back in 2010 when then key decisions were being made, and at a time when the situation in Russia was, if no less dire, at least less internationally conspicuous. Now the options on the table are limited. FIFA owe the stagnant Russian economy a World Cup but it cannot hope to deliver one without implicitly endorsing the Neanderthal tactics of a bullying regime and tearing up its own prospective agenda to work towards an inclusive future for the game. A glimmer of hope comes in the form of an innovative alternative circulating among the international LGBT community currently.
The proposal, voiced by Ari Ezra Waldman, is that the best way to defend and emancipate the queer movement in Russia is for dissenting voices from abroad to use the approaching Winter Olympics to descend upon the country and celebrate freedom of sexual expression openly and in the epicenter of the Russian mass consciousness. The idea taps into the theory that the problem in Russia is a grassroots one, rather than a plague that is being transmitted top-down, and that it is on the streets rather than in the Kremlin that the battle needs to be won. The idea is a thoughtful one, that acknowledges the reality of life as an openly gay Russian – a daily struggle to dodge the hate that zigzags its way through Russian culture – but it offers little guidance to football’s ruling body on how to manoeuvre out of the tight corner they’ve wiggled their way into. Lending its support to a street movement that guarantees civil carnage is not an avenue of recourse open to Blatter and his policy makers.
Because FIFA is accountable for the partnerships it creates and the ethics of its practice, but that accountability requires strict definition. The governing body is responsible for developing the game such that it is inclusive, responsive and proactive about change but the limits of that responsibility are enshrined in the abstracted understanding of the sporting ethic. Soccer, in other words, must get its own house in order before it can expect to approach the lectern in the global debate on social health, and only in its capacity as an effective guardian of the game can it make a useful difference in Russia or anywhere else.
How it goes about this is a matter for fierce debate, but it’s a debate that must remain divorced from the wider questions about how a country like Russia treats its citizens. Any interactivity between the two must occur through the right channels and in the allotted space or else neither cause will find the focus and clarity it needs to fight its battles. But make no mistake, the war for social justice is being waged just as fiercely in the boardrooms of the FIFA Executive Committee as on the streets of St. Petersburg. It’s just a key part of the formula that these battle lines not be allowed to blur. The game needed a hero back in 2010 but FIFA opted for the quick buck and invested in a nation it knew to be incompatible with the game’s inclusive future. Now it’s up to a brave community of protestors and activists to take to the streets in 2018 and make the statement that Blatter couldn’t muster.