The rules for playing football are well-known and fixed: spectators can reasonably expect 90 minutes of fair play. The rules for running international football organizations are secretive and broken, supplanted by deal-making. Under FIFA’s guidance, the World Cup became defined by corruption, authoritarianism and getting away with as much as you can. When the stench of corruption became too much to bear, FIFA sanitized its act—but only to a degree.

Even as the world’s best football players leave everything on the field for a global audience, the seedy side of the sport, FIFA, is the World Peace Foundation ‘employee of the month.’

At the opening match in June, the FIFA president Gianni Infantino was flanked by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman. They were joined by heads of state from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bolivia, North Korea, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Moldova, Paraguay, Panama, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Tajikstan, Uzbekistan. The Guardian commented, ‘It is a short list, which probably illustrates the extent to which the tournament has become diplomatically toxic.’

FIFA is the flagship for global sports and an insight into how corruption meets tribalism to make a global political marketplace. It is where we can find early warnings of the direction of world politics. And it is disturbing.

The first pervasive feature of global football is corruption, from top to bottom. Corruption at FIFA was so well known it was scarcely even concealed: those who bribed and threatened were exposed but still got away with it, with only a passing nod to pretend otherwise. Nobody believes that Russia and Qatar won their bids to host the World Cup by anything other than bribery. Just before the 2010 meeting at which the committee members cast their votes, two members were suspended after being caught in a sting operation offering to sell their votes. The Guardian described the role of former FIFA President Sepp Blatter, in these terms:

‘[Blatter] grandly pledged to distribute $250,000 to each member association as a bonus, plus $2.5m to each confederation. It was the kind of naked patronage that had earned him the adoration of many of Fifa’s 208 members – a larger assembly than that of the United Nations.’

‘After a dozen years in office, and 17 years before that as general secretary, Blatter had grown acutely aware of the cost of maintaining power in an organisation as wealthy, diverse and cutthroat as Fifa. More than anyone, he had mastered the darker arts of administering the world’s most popular sport, and had a hand in many of its most Machiavellian deals and accommodations over the years.’

The investigative articles into FIFA and money laundering operations and other scams are too numerous to list. While FIFA has ostensibly cleaned up its act by firing some officials, and banning Blatter for seven years, corruption is actually part of the entire system. It affects not just FIFA but national associations, clubs and individual players. Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi share more than disappointing performances in the 2018 World Cup, both have faced legal woes on charges of tax evasion.

And the show goes on. We know it’s a market, that talent and an edge on winning can be bought with money, yet we continue to watch. It’s a global and cosmopolitan market: football stars can’t be manufactured to order, and come disproportionately from poor and minority communities. It’s a particularly strange market in that human beings are commodities: star players are bought and sold.

A second feature of professional football is tribalism. Supporters of football clubs show the most extraordinarily passionate and committed allegiances, including organized violence. Political entrepreneurs envy the loyalties that soccer teams generate, and want to share in it or emulate it.

In How Soccer Explains the World: An unlikely theory of globalization, Franklin Foer gives the example of how the Serbian warlord and gangster Arkan turned Red Star Belgrade’s supporters’ club, which he took over and renamed Delije, into a recruiting vehicle for his paramilitary, known as the Tigers. Schooled in fighting supporters of rival clubs, especially Dinamo Zagreb, Arkan’s fan militia took their leadership, ethos and stadium songs with them into their ethnic cleansing operations. When he became rich from profiteering in the war economy, Arkan wanted to buy a football club as a stepping stone to political ambition. Red Star Belgrade wouldn’t sell up, so he bought up the smaller club Belgrade Obilic, and poured money and aggression into it. It was successful—but only modestly and briefly, as Arkan couldn’t buy foreign players and subject them to the kind of bullying that was possible to do to Serbs.

Football tribalism is a common face for identity politics, and it all-too-often veers into outright racism. But it’s also more complicated than that, and that complexity shines a light into how exclusivist identity politics is constructed. All credible analyses of the role of identity in ‘ethnic’ conflict hold that those identities are historical-political constructions, but nonetheless the narratives that take hold in society consist of ‘everyday primordialism’. This is strikingly true of soccer tribalism: because every fan wants his or her team to win, and the best players may be found anywhere, of any race or nationality.

In Scotland, the two big Glasgow football clubs, Rangers and Celtic, have fierce sectarian identities—Protestant and Irish Catholic. But these are origins stories, which are no longer reflected in the line-ups on the pitches. Like other big European clubs, Rangers and Celtic buy their high-cost squads from all over the world, but the identity-allegiance of their fans flourishes regardless. It’s a tribal solidarity with players whose origins are often foreign, and whose identity is adopted and often transient, a vivid illustration of how in-group identity is honorific not primordial. Chelsea FC is owned by a Russian oligarch and was the first English club to field a team that didn’t include a single British national. But it’s still ‘Chelsea’. Liverpool FC’s star striker is an Egyptian but no less beloved of the club’s supporters for that—in fact Mohamed Salah seems to have made them into Islamophiles, at least for as long as he scores goals. By dint of being based in a part of London with a large Orthodox Jewish community, Tottenham Hotspur was labeled ‘Jewish’ and abused by anti-Semitic fans of rival clubs, which its mainly working class supporters, very few of them Jews let alone Orthodox Jews, then turned into a badge of honour.

The same principle operates for national teams: German fans will cheer for German players who have Ghanaian or Turkish ancestry. Qatar gives citizenship to Kenyan long-distance runners and will doubtless assemble its squad for the 2022 soccer tournament on the same mercenary principle. In the qualifying matches for the 2018 tournament, the 32 competing teams played 97 foreign born players. In France, the preponderance of second- and third-generation immigrants from Africa in the national squad has been particularly notable. This cosmopolitanism generated a backlash. In 1998, National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen complained that the ‘Black, Blanc, Beur’ team that won the World Cup that year did not look sufficiently ‘French’, leading to an ongoing controversy. Zinedine Zidane, born in Marseilles of Algerian parents, who captained that 1998 team, responded to Marine Le Pen’s candidature in the 2017 election by urging voters not to back her.

Any social scientist wishing to debunk the popular ‘primordial ethnic hatreds’ view of civil war need only take football club rivalries as a case study to illustrate that identities are transferable, tribalism is constructed, but the passions are extraordinarily powerful.

As Andrei Markovitz and Lars Rensmann explore in Gaming the World: How sports are reshaping global politics and culture, global sports is the leading edge of counter-cosmopolitanism, serving as the focal point for resurgent aggressive maleness and ultra-nationalism. They argue that this occurs because team sports provide a place where ‘bonding capital’ can go wild. Supporters assemble at matches for rituals and reject all but an aggressively and regressively defined in-group. In short, what links a corrupt and globally-integrated market to intolerant localism is the way in which it provides the means for self-defining groups to organize and legitimize violence.

Eight years ago, we should have seen the FIFA ‘vote’ for Russia and Qatar as a harbinger of the direction of global political culture. If the award functions as harbinger of global politics, perhaps we could find some solace in Fifa’s decision to grant the 2026 World Cup to a shared bid by Mexico, the USA and Canada — a North American solidarity under considerable strain at the moment. But the larger question of how the organization will patch up its image, will only be answered if it focuses on moving beyond the sport’s superficial cosmopolitanism to address deeply-entrenched political culture that tolerates corruption and violent tribalism.

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