Jonny Singer ponders the rights and wrongs of FIFA’s latest controversy, the Russia and Qatar World Cup bids…
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past five years, you’ll probably know that there have been a few allegations of corruption against FIFA.
Since Qatar was announced as the 2022 World Cup host, to an air of general surprise and disappointment, football’s governing body has rarely been far from the headlines.
And, if the headlines you see most are written in English, and in particular if they’re written by Englishmen, you’re likely to have a pretty strong view about the issue.
As the news broke on Thursday that FIFA’s corruption report not only absolved Qatar of any wrong-doing, but also made accusations of corruption about the Football Association, the English press were almost falling over themselves to criticize, and mock, Sepp Blatter and his organization.
The response of almost everyone I’ve spoken to in this country is the same – FIFA are so corrupt that they’re attacking the only people to call out their corruption.
But are we right?
It’s really not that uncommon for a society, particularly one that’s not very popular with the rest of the world, to solidify unorthodox beliefs into the orthodox. To allow them to become not only the mainstream, but the only significant voice. To convince themselves that they alone are seeing the truth.
This may all sound a bit too much like a conspiracy theory, so let me put some examples out there.
Last summer, Israel launched a campaign against Hamas in Gaza, variously known as the Gaza war, the Gaza massacre, or Operation Protective Edge, depending on who you ask.
While some nations defended some aspects of the Israeli Defence Force’s actions, the overwhelming international response was one of outrage, and criticism.
Even in Britain, a traditional ally of Israel, the response was stronger, and more negative, than ever before, with the deputy Prime Minister speaking out and a senior foreign office minister resigning.
Yet in Israel, support for the war was remarkably high. Even after over 1000 deaths in Gaza, 86% of the Israeli population supported their army’s action.
The world, or at least the vast majority of the world, could see that there was something wrong here – but Israeli society, or at least the vast majority of Israeli society, still supported it.
Are the whole population of Israel bloodthirsty maniacs? Are they all immoral? Evil?
Of course not. It is a largely liberal country, with, for the most part, an exceptionally tolerant political centre.
But, almost every time I speak to an Israeli about the international response to the conflict, they say the same thing: ‘They don’t live here, they don’t understand.’
Every critic which rose up was brushed away – ‘another outsider who doesn’t understand. Perhaps they’re anti-semitic?’. It is a society which believes, completely and sincerely, that they have more, and better, evidence than the rest of the world. They alone know what is REALLY going on. They alone understand.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, however, is pretty complex. And, you might argue, this particular group-think, centred around a bloody and long-standing conflict rather than who should host a sporting event, isn’t entirely relevant to the issue of the English media, Qatar, and corruption.
Another example then, and one a little closer to the situation – Russia, Putin and the Sochi Olympics.
Last winter’s games were, like Qatar 2022, the subject of strong protests and huge political pressure. Vladimir Putin’s anti-gay laws were internationally condemned, while athletes and governments alike sought to pressure Russia to change.
Yet the Russian people stood firm. The vote that brought in the law was passed unanimously in the lower house – 436-0. The members who voted rely on the people’s approval for their jobs – and not one sought to vote against the measures.
The population, as a rule, supported the meassures. And the approval only increased as the Sochi Olympics drew closer and the international condemnation intensified. Are all Russians homophobes? Are they all immoral? Are they all evil?
Of course not. Many believed that they were defending their country’s cultural values against interfering outsiders. Others insisted that the bill was not anti-gay, but about protecting children from early sexualisation. Many pointed out that Russia has a much better record on gay rights than most of the world (after all, homosexuality is illegal in 70 countries).
The world went one way, the Russian people the other. Every new critic that rose up was brushed away – ‘another outsider who doesn’t understand. Perhaps they’re another Westerner trying to control Russia’. They alone had all the evidence of what propaganda was doing to their country. They alone understood the truth of the situation. They alone had the evidence.
You could go through and find more and more examples like these ones; political, cultural and sporting.
But what can they teach us about FIFA? Well, perhaps, they are all red herrings. Certainly sometimes, it is true, one person, or one nation, stands up against everyone else and turns out to be right. The mainstream is not right merely by virtue of being the mainstream.
But when one nation thinks a certain way on a certain issue, with a strength of conviction that drowns out any dissent and a media that solidifies into a single line, while the rest of the world steadfastly disagrees, that nation might well be suffering a similar kind of group-think.
In England, there is no support for Sepp Blatter, and an innate mistrust of FIFA. Yet globally the organization is popular, and Blatter won his last election by picking up 186 of 203 votes. We cut down every defence of FIFA almost immediately, reflexively – ‘They don’t want us to know about the corruption, they’re insiders – perhaps they just hate England?’.
But do we know more than everyone else? Is our evidence really that much better? Are we actually right? Is there no chance that our public opinion might have been influenced by a media with an agenda? Or shaped by a government with certain political aims?
I don’t know what happened at the FIFA Executive Committee’s vote in December 2010. Neither, I suspect, does anyone reading this. I believe, as almost everyone in Britain seems to, that FIFA has major issues with corruption. I can’t understand the decision to award the World Cup to Qatar.
But we owe it to ourselves to take a step back. To ask why we alone (a country that has had its fair share of corruption in the past) can see the evidence that no-one else can. To ask if we are sure the criticism of England in Thursday’s report is FIFA trying to divert attention – or whether it might, just might, be valid criticism that we ourselves are trying to sweep under the carpet.
To ask if, maybe, we are on the wrong side of this one.