FIFA will surely fear an 11th hour boycott of Qatar

FOOTBALL can be a peculiar game. On one hand, people get outraged about the most trivial of matters and are ready to appoint scapegoats, sack managers and jeer opponents, yet the really serious issues are often ignored.

With less than six months before the controversial Qatar World Cup, there’s no sign of a concerted protest or plan of action to demonstrate the global disgust at the Gulf state’s human rights record and treatment of migrant workers.

Players talk of using a “platform” to send their message, but in truth, there is probably not a single player who would sacrifice the chance to play in the World Cup. The lack of cojones is incredible. Whatever happened to the days of non-aggressive action, where key athletes boycotted the Olympics and countries made a stand?

Premier League players are still taking the knee, still wearing rainbows on their sleeve and declaring their affiliation with just causes. That’s not to criticise their feelings on major topics, but while they will show their support for as nation that has been invaded and violated, they will also quickly line-up to align themselves with the military.

Qatar 2022, as a World Cup, is already tainted beyond belief. The process of awarding the competition in the first place, the state’s politics and social climate, which goes against so many of football’s values and aspirations, and not to mention the environment, make it an inappropriate venue. We all know the score by now.

The hypocrisy goes on; some of the Welsh national team’s staff have openly stated they will not go to Qatar, yet the team will not boycott the event, using that word “platform” as a ticket for non-action. In all probability, and this also applies to England, it would seem probable that the teams will be visible in their messaging other than a carefully-scripted letter full of platitudes and the bleeding obvious. Interestingly, some sponsors of national teams – such as Belgium and Netherlands, have take away their support.

Today, the prospect of a nation acting alone to express its concern is unlikely, but what would happen if a major country did withdraw? It could be a case of a collapsing deck of cards. Why? Because if, for example, Germany decided not to go, any team remaining on the aeroplane would be seen as supporters of Qatar. It would become contagious, with other countries following the example led by that first withdrawal.

Regardless of political stance, the situation in Qatar cannot possibly be seen in any way; acceptable. Amnesty International is calling for FIFA to contribute to workers’ compensation from the proceeds of the competition. When you consider the amount spent on the World Cup some (US$ 200 billion) and the total FIFA anticipates to generate (US$ 6 billion), then the call for around US$ 400 million to make its way to compensation deals seems reasonable.

Let’s not forget how difficult life can be for migrant workers in Qatar. “We work from January to January, Sunday to Sunday. No days off. If you absent yourself, they will deduct two or more days wages,” said one worker.

This is just one example of the hard-line regime. But in this age of increasing acceptance and inclusion, Qatar still lags behind. Homosexuality is illegal and can earn you seven years imprisonment, women are supressed in many ways and are effectively punished for divorce by having their children taken out of their care and freedom of expression is prohibited.

Against this backdrop, it is not only teams that should swerve clear of Qatar, supporters should also consider the wisdom of attending the World Cup. If they have values and believe in freedom of speech and personal choice, they should think again. Many will not, of course and will pour money into an economy that is built on slave labour, discrimination and autocracy. When we will ever learn?

Soccer City: Caracas – amid the chaos

VENEZUELA is one of South America’s least successful football nations, but most importantly and of greater concern, it is currently one of the world’s most troubled places. Once an oil-rich country with one quarter of the world’s proven oil reserves, a period of reckless financial and political policy-making has left Venezuela in absolute chaos, an example of social breakdown and a reminder of what can happen if an economy gets out of control.

The capital city, Caracas, is ranked among the most dangerous cities in the world, a high crime rate with a worrying murder rate of 112 for every 100,000 people. Many of the barrios are no-go areas at night. Around 90% of the country’s population lives in poverty and inflation has hit the one million percent mark.

Over four million people have fled the country, many to nearby Colombia. Money has little value, so much so that people often pay for essentials like petrol with cigarettes, food or cooking oil. Food is scarce in some places, medical care is limited and there are electricity shortages. “It’s the world gone wrong, a tragedy for my country that makes it impossible for me to return home,” Maria, a former resident of Caracas, told Game of the People.

Caracas. Photo: PA

Some economists, such as Kenneth Rogoff, Professor of Economics and Public Policy at Harvard University, believe the prospects for the South American region are dire, although they invariably point to the mismanagement of Venezuela under Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro, along with sanctions placed upon the country, as the main contributors in turning a country that was once the richest in LatAm into a proverbial “basket case”.

Caracas was once a very vibrant city as well as the cultural and economic capital. In the 1970s, Venezuela enjoyed the highest growth rate and the lowest inequality among its population. By 2017, the country had defaulted on US$ 65 billion of debt, the latest in a long line of sovereign debt crises.

Football quickly gets put into perspective when there is crime, civil and class unrest, poverty, debt and political turmoil going on around the people. Furthermore, unemployment is around 35% at the moment and rising.

Venezuelan football has often struggled to make ends meet and has rarely made its mark on the regional map. The major clubs have been unable to make a dent in CONMEBOL competitions like the Copa Libertadores and Copa Sudamericano, even though the money is always welcome. Only very rarely does a team from Venezuela, such as Caracas FC in 2007 and 2009, make it out of the group stage – the teams are simply too weak to compete with clubs from Argentina and Brazil. Caracas reached the quarter-finals of the competition in 2009, losing to Brazil’s Grêmio.

To quote David Goldblatt in his seminal work, The Ball is Round,  Venezuela was always South America’s most backward football nation. This has been partly due to the popularity of baseball, a symptom of historical American influence.

La Vinotinto,  the national team, has never qualified for the FIFA World Cup and has never won the Copa America. There are great hopes that the country’s current batch of youngsters may take Venezuela to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Venezuela not only reached the final of the 2017 Under-20 World Cup, they also performed well in this year’s Copa America, losing to Argentina in the quarter-finals. Some observers are predicting that the 2020s could be the country’s time.

On the domestic front, football – which does provide a distraction to the struggles of everyday life –  is almost teetering on the brink of collapse, hampered by the economic backdrop. Some players have not received their wages on time. Caracas has a number of clubs, but they are not always among the best supported in the country. The average crowd in the Clausura stage of the Primera División in 2019 is 1,683 which represents a 22% drop on 2018, and is actually lower than the Apertura stage’s average of 1,733.

Last season, the Championship final attracted 28,000 over the two legs, much lower than the combined 50,000-plus that usually attends these games. Caracas FC have averaged under 1,000 in the Clausura, while Atlético de Venezuela (329), Estudiantes de Caracas (146) and Metropolitanos (591) have even lower average gates. Deportivo La Guaira, who play in Caracas, attract around 1,200 to their home games. Quite simply, in the current climate, which shows little sign of improving, many people cannot afford to buy tickets.

Politics and football have overlapped, notably when Caracas travelled to Zulia, one of the poorest parts of the country. The team from the capital, Los Rojos del Ávila, had problems getting to the stadium and also found their hotel lacking air conditioning. The stadium had no lights, no TV coverage and the teams were reluctant to play. They were forced to take the field but when the whistle blew to start the game, both teams refused to move for 90 minutes, despite physical threats from the football federation. The game, needless to say, ended 0-0.

Caracas are the most successful club in Venezualan football history with 11 league titles, the last being won in 2010. They were the last Caracas team to win the championship. Since 2010, Zamora, from the city of Barinas, have won it five times, Deportivo Táchira of San Christóbal have won twice and Monagas (Maturín) and ACD Lara (Cadubare) have been champions once apiece. Caracas are the only capital city club currently in the Primeira División to have been crowned league champions.

Venezuela’s current situation and its impact on young people puts football firmly in its place, but the game does offer a way out for a select few, not least in the form of charities that encourage children to get off the street and into a healthier life that involves participation in sports.  To some it offers genuine hope and inspires a dream or two. A 14 year-old caraqueño, Jose Angel, told a reporter from England: “When I grow up I want to play soccer like Neymar. That guy plays super good.”


Main photo: Ederik Palencia, CC BY-NC-2.0

Football Media Watch: Opportunity knocks for France

FRANCE may have gone wild with delight in response to the country’s second World Cup win, but there were still some dark clouds to contend with as Didier Deschamps and his players danced in the rain. CNN said France’s World Cup victory, with a team made up primarily of black and Muslim players, “may have been perceived internationally as a collective celebration of an ideal of social mobility and racial equality, but that vision is deeply contested”.

Over half of French people believe that Marine Le Pen, leader of the far right in France, represents a “nationalist and xenophobic” party. Worryingly, a lot of folk look to her idea of “nationalism” as the way ahead. CNN added that if French nationalism needed a focus for its inspiration, starlet Kylian Mbappe fits the bill. “He is, in many ways, the embodiment of the ‘French dream’.” Writer Myriam Francois warned, though that, “in today’s France, it simply isn’t enough to hope this victory can plaster over the cracks”.

Back in 1998, when France won the World Cup on home turf, the team was nicknamed, “génération black, blanc, beur (the black-white-Arab generation)”. This “rainbow team”, led by Zinedine Zidane, of Algerian descent, was supposedly the future of France. The Guardian’s Andrew Hussey commented that, “this moment did not last long and since then French society, under threat from terrorism and its own internal problems, has undoubtedly become more splintered than ever”.

MOSCOW, RUSSIA – JULY 15, 2018: France’s President Emmanuel Macron (C standing) celebrates a goal as FIFA President Gianni Infantino (L) looks on at the final match of FIFA World Cup Russia 2018 between France and Croatia at Luzhniki Stadium. Alexei Nikolsky/Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/TASS

Another Guardian writer, Iman Amrani, said France squandered the unity created by the 1998 win. “The World Cup wasn’t enough to fix the underlying problems and, 20 years on, France has the same ingerdients of terror attacks, the far right – and a diverse, winning national football team.”

She added: “The fact is that, as wonderful as football is as a sport, the jubilation of a World Cup win can only be ephemeral, so long as politicians don’t build on the energy it creates. This national win could only be a catalyst for change if Macron decides to act on it.”

Bloomberg reported that while the feel-good moment of a World Cup win can bring the nation together, it won’t necessarily translate into a sustained economic boost. Nathalie Henaff of Limoges University, said:“The victory will clearly impact the social cohesion in France: It brings people together, it creates a sense of national community. French people will consume differently, spend more time outdoors to celebrate, change behavior for some time, so we will witness a transfer of consumption. For the economy, it will be marginal. It’s a wash.”

Hermes’ Ludovic Subran forecasted the success may add 0.1 percentage points to France’s GDP. The economy expand 1.9% instead of 1.8%. France’s finance minister, speaking before kick-off in Moscow, said: “A World Cup victory gives French people confidence. There is a part of irrationality in economy, that thrives on confidence, desire and enthusiasm.”

Meanwhile, the Independent wrote that French president, Emmanuel Macron, is hoping for a popularity boost following France’s triumph. He was conspicuously in the limelight throughout the competition and staged a dramatic celebration in the VIP section as France won. Truly, he recognised that football is the game of the people!

Photo: PA