Human Rights Hypocrisy

If chants and protests in Brazil left egg on FIFA’s face, Russia and Qatar are cooking up an omelet.

Yuri Cortez / AFP / Getty Images
Yuri Cortez / AFP / Getty Images

RIO DE JANEIRO — With the world still reeling in disbelief from Brazil’s shockingly one-sided loss to Germany, it can be hard to put the bigger issues surrounding the World Cup into perspective. Yet as Brazil joins dozens of other teams now training their sights on Russia 2018, there are some very serious questions to be answered — not just by the coaches and players, but by FIFA itself.

Before each World Cup quarterfinal, the captain of each team read out a statement condemning discrimination in all its forms. Their declarations were part of an initiative that has been running since 2002, and its aim, as stated by FIFA’s Secretary-General Jérôme Valcke, is "to use the platform of football’s flagship events to send a clear signal to the millions of people around the globe that follow the event to join the fight against all forms of discrimination." Furthermore, continued Valcke, "because of its impact, particularly through the influence of players on the younger generations, football can play an important role in this quest."

Valcke’s comments represent important steps toward a more inclusive sport and society, yet they also place FIFA’s actions elsewhere into an uncomfortably sharp focus.

For starters, consider what has been happening inside Brazil’s stadiums. During several matches, there have been blatantly racist activities and homophobic chants by fans. These hardly reflect FIFA’s supposed values, and yet the organization took no action during the tournament.

Jeffrey Webb, the president of CONCACAF and a member of FIFA’s executive committee, criticized his organization’s approach to racially offensive supporters at World Cup grounds. "There is no reason why someone should be entering the stadium clearly displaying their intent," said Webb. "We at FIFA and the local organizing committee should be doing a much better job."

This is only the latest reason to question how firm a line FIFA is truly taking towards discrimination in football. FIFA’s primary stated objective is "to improve the game of football constantly and promote it globally in the light of its unifying, educational, cultural and humanitarian values, particularly through youth and development programs." Yet it has awarded the next two World Cup tournaments to Russia and Qatar, two countries whose human rights records have been brought under withering scrutiny in recent months.

FIFA might respond that it is precisely the job of football to go where diplomacy perhaps cannot: to build bridges, to engage, to bring otherwise hostile groups together. The problem is that this argument only works if FIFA uses the considerable political leverage provided by its multi-billion dollar income, and all too often it does not.

FIFA might further respond that it cannot overstep the sovereignty of host nations, but this has not stopped it from demanding changes in legislation in order to achieve its commercial goals. In any event, sovereignty would not need to be threatened if FIFA were to make the award of the World Cup conditional upon the existence of specific laws safeguarding the rights and dignity of citizens. In such a way, FIFA would be holding potential hosts to the highest ethical standards, as espoused in its very own constitutional documents.

But FIFA’s own officials often fall short of those same standards. Sepp Blatter’s remarks about gay people travelling to Qatar to the World Cup had a worrying flippancy, as they displayed a reflexive inability to grasp the gravity of the issue. More broadly, FIFA has been criticized for its consistent failure to support gay players.

Though football tournaments may be a useful tool to help a country’s social progress, FIFA seems to discourage such development as often as encouraging it. This is a shame, since when FIFA does want to show its teeth, it is unafraid to do so. Witness, for example, its ban of Franz Beckenbauer from all football-related activity for failing to comply with its inquiry into World Cup 2022 bribery allegations.

The consistent picture, though, is of an organization that too often ducks the hardest questions, ensuring that footballers and other protagonists make the right noises but ultimately shirking the details that will make the difference. And that, contrary to FIFA’s mission, is a disservice to football and the world as a whole.

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