FIFA and UEFA must learn from the Russia and Qatar experience

Football was warned about Russia and is being cautioned over Qatar. For a game that goes to great lengths to virtue signal whenever it can and attach itself to causes, from rainbow laces to food poverty, not to mention the black lives matter campaign, football can be pretty naïve sometimes. Or maybe it is simply seduced by money and bullied by professional politicians?

The latest threat to football’s sanity – and credibility – is crypto currency, snake-oil salesmen are pitching up with their beards, tattoos and baseball caps, calling everyone “guys” and promising to make fans beneficiaries of possibly the greatest example of smoke and mirrors since Danny Kaye sang about a Danish king being in the “altogether”.

But this is merely part of a trend of delusion that has engulfed football for some years. Football’s governing bodies have shown they are more than capable of being attracted to shiny things, such as buckets of money from sponsors or backers that will use the world’s most popular sport to launder their image (if not their money).

FIFA were lambasted for awarding the 2018 World Cup to Russia, UEFA were criticised for allowing Russia’s Gazprom for having such an influence on European football. The Gazprom logo became ubiquitous, their strange, partly-animated TV ads were somewhat ominous for as well as lighting up the Champions League, they also had the power to switch off Europe. The willingness to jump into bed with anyone willing to bring along their wheelbarrows full of cash, not only paints people as foolhardy, it also suggests procedures such as due diligence and reputational risk are severely lacking. Notwithstanding the stupidity of continually expanding competitions, increasing fixture lists and greasing-up to nations with dubious human rights records, most of the sensible world has told FIFA and UEFA, repeatedly, they are making very damaging misjudgements.

Football does have a track record of ridiculous errors. It also swims in a sea of hypocrisy and if footballers in England and other countries were really as savvy as they portray, they would walk away from a winter World Cup in Qatar. But equally, the governing bodies allow themselves to be manipulated and no matter how much they try to talk-up 2022, they have miscalculated the impact Qatar (and indeed, Russia), will have on the long-term reputation of FIFA and football.

Football has to think more about reputational and concentration risk. Two World Cups have damaged the governing bodies but also highlight the game’s habit of easily shelving its values.

Gianni Infantino’s message to Russia after 2018 now looks as pollyanna as Neville Chamberlain’s “peace in our time” demonstration. “You welcomed the world as friends and those bonds of friendship will never be broken. This is not the end, it is only the beginning.” Poor old Gianni, he must be very red-faced when he reads that today. Four years later, Russia is at war with Ukraine and millions of people are suffering.

Sadly, there are precedents to consider, such as the 1936 Olympics where Adolf Hitler’s Germany greeted the world. Three years on, Germany invaded Poland and life was never the same. In 1934, Italy was host nation for the World Cup and a year later, invaded Abyssinia. In 1978, a Junta-led Argentina won their own World Cup and in 1982, took over the Falkland Islands and then went to war with Britain. In the case of Russia, everyone was a little nervous about the 2018 World Cup but equally, came away believing the country had embarked on a charm offensive.

The subsequent events in Ukraine have shown that Vladimir Putin was as genuine as Hitler in his outward displays of affection. As a result, Gazprom has been removed from the FIFA partnership group and Schalke 04 are no longer sponsored by the Russian energy company. The impact of the war has extended to British football, most notably with the sanctions on Chelsea’s former owner Roman Abramovich. While the story has moved on and Chelsea are now in US hands, there should be few complaints about the removal of an owner whose links with the Russian regime are well documented. He helped Gazprom’s growth by selling his stake in Sibneft to the Saint Petersburg-based company.

Gazprom are 51%-owned by the Russian state, so their involvement in football around Europe represents a back-door route into expanding their footprint. Putin’s government has exercised systematic control over many aspects of Russian business, namely banks, petrochemicals and infrastructure. Gazprom does not sell gas to consumers directly, it sells its offering to governments and as the world’s biggest natural gas company, it is accountable for 17% of global production and around 8% of Russian GDP. Conversely, Gazprom is one of the biggest producers of Carbon Dioxide emissions, a fact that has made them unpopular with many people, as evidenced at a football match between Basel and Schalke 04 when a huge banner was unfurled sending a message to the Russians – “Don’t foul the Arctic”.

But Gazprom’s strategy in football has actually been quite transparent. Schalke 04, who Gazprom began sponsoring in 2007, are based in the Ruhrgebeit, an area in Germany that produces vast quantities of coal. Gazprom were involved in negotiations with Germany over the constructions of a Russian-German pipeline. Having dealt with that project, Gazprom looked further south and bought a controlling stake in Naftna Industrija Srbije, Serbia’s state-owned and gas company.  From 2010, they also sponsored Red Star Belgrade, saving the club from bankruptcy while strengthening links in Serbia.

UEFA and FIFA have both embraced Gazprom with such eagerness they must be questioning their practices, such was the scope of their sponsorship that you have to wonder about concentration risk. If Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City (and Newcastle United will come under more pressure with regards to their Saudi Arabian ownership) are highlighted for being state-run or controlled, then surely the governing bodies must face similar criticism. Notwithstanding the World Cup bidding process and how Russia and Qatar won their rights, the involvement of Gazprom must border on a form of state-controlled involvement? If nothing else, it also smacks of concentration risk to have such a presence from one company.

Going forward, both UEFA and FIFA will need to implement far greater intensity around their compliance operations and the basic principles behind placing trust in suspect regimes. This is, after all, not just a case of holding a football tournament, FIFA’s reputation is at stake, and no amount of money can buy a good name once you have lost your credibility. Football needs a strong regulator, robust and value-driven leadership and a clear understanding of what right and wrong look like. In an era of mistrust and scrutiny of business, social and political practices, football should be no different.

Javier Tebas has a point about state-owned clubs, but is there an agenda?

JAVIER Tebas doesn’t like state-owned clubs, but here’s news for you, Señor, not many people do. They unsettle the playing field still further and although their wealth may level-up clubs alongside those who have been at the top for decades, their presence makes imbalances even worse. In other words, they might create greater competition for football’s hierarchy, clubs that feel their place is at the forefront of the game, but they cast-off so many who simply cannot compete anymore.

As president of La Liga, Tebas has to do the bidding of Real Madrid and Barcelona, among others. This is no easy task, you would assume for these clubs like being the Alpha males of European football and don’t enjoy seeing their position threatened. So Mr Tebas undoubtedly comes under pressure from all directions, but he will surely be aware that a successful Real Madrid does more for La Liga’s marketability than any amount of advertising spend. And ultimately, football is an industry where growth is mostly achieved “organically”, mergers are not really part of the equation. As long as clubs stay within their defined financial boundaries, they can go hell for leather in building their global footprint.

Tebas has launched a few clumsily-guided verbal attacks on Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City, questioning many different aspects of their operations. It is not out of the question that some legal action may be coming in the opposite direction, but the simmering conflict between Tebas, PSG and Ligue 1 will do nobody any good, and it could even drive a wedge between top European leagues and reignite the European Super League project. Let’s not forget PSG were not among the clubs advocating the ESL and City were quick to withdraw when PR turned nasty. But Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atlético Madrid were all willing partners to the end. Tebas may actually be sitting on something of a powder keg – if European football becomes more divided, opportunists may decide the big clubs really do need their own party.

PSG were not advocating the ESL but Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atlético Madrid were all willing partners.

Tebas has, in the past, spoken negatively about the Premier League and its broadcasting fees. La Liga have made a lot of positive modifications to their own model in recent years, but it’s a fact their blue-riband clubs, Real Madrid and Barcelona, are not as influential as they once were. They may still have enough clout to remain among the elite and Real’s Champions League victory this past season demonstrated they are always capable of winning the major prizes. And while they keep winning the trophy that is most associated with their history, the state-owned clubs have yet to lift it themselves. Of the “new money” clubs, only Chelsea have won the Champions League (in 2012 and 2021).

Are PSG and Manchester City ruining European football as Tebas suggests? Certainly they have artificially raised the bar in both England and France, although in the case of PSG, their extraordinary financial power does make them the ultimate flat-track-bullies. Tebas was very direct in his criticism, which comes after Real Madrid were gazumped by PSG’s huge new deal for Kylian Mbappé. “Listen, Nasser (Al-Khelaifi, PSG’s President), what you are doing is screwing football. It’s as dangerous as the Super League project.”

The news reports claim La Liga understands that the irregular financing of these clubs is carried out either through direct injection of cash or through sponsorship contracts that don’t make sense. As well as the Mbappé deal, Tebas cites the Manchester City signing of Erland Haaland. Interestingly, Real Madrid and Barcelona were both interested in Haaland at some stage. PSG, aware of the concerns around the Mbappé contract, commented: “The first person who needs lessons on conflicts of interest, financial management and market distortion is Javier Tebas.” Furthermore, Al-Khelaifi responded: “Tebas is afraid of Spanish top flight clubs being inferior to Ligue 1 in terms of quality.”

Ligue 1’s Vincent Labrune called Tebas’s outburst “disrespectful smears” and reminded him Real and Barca have broken the world transfer record six times and their salaries remain huge. Although Tebas may feel he is doing the right thing in “calling out” PSG and City, it also sounds like a case of sour grapes given the position some of his clubs have in football’s hierarchy.

That said, Tebas will have significant support from across the football world for being outspoken. Losing out on both Haaland and Mbappé wasn’t just a blow for the clubs willing to buy him, it was also a setback for La Liga, who are eager to replace the Ronaldo-Messi dynamic that has now gone. Over more than 10 years, these two players represented the face of La Liga. Mbappé and Haaland are the next generation, but they are now plying their well-compensated trade in France and England.

And there’s more to come. Newcastle United are likely to fall into this gilded category in the next year. Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund is behind the consortium that now owns the club, so in theory, they are the richest, or one of the top three richest, in the world. Tebas has already remarked the Saudi takeover was a case of “stealing football”.

The only way anyone can control this type of investor activity is through a type of governance that becomes the antithesis of the free market. Football is, all said and done, a competition and despite the claims the current set of uber-clubs make for an uneven playing field, the game has never been about a level field of play. The more money that is poured into football, the higher the stakes when investors are looking to buy a club. The obscenely-rich come in small numbers, so there’s no way the top 20 or 30 will all be bought by the type of owner PSG and Manchester City have. Levelling up would create the type of league that exists in the US, and that would not sit comfortably in Europe. Salary caps and transfer limits may well have the desired impact, but they, in themselves, would have drawbacks. However opponents of elite football couch it, there’s no easy way to change the status quo. Taking the very rich out of the competition and creating their own plaything may actually help the rest. The inauguration of a super league, perhaps? Whoops, we’re back where we started.

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?