It’s funny where the line ends up being drawn and where we decide that things are truly outrageous. Let’s face it, most of the people who howled with fury at the willingness of Brazil to slash social services and jack up public transportation fees are the sort of lefty intellectuals who are unlikely to watch the World Cup in the first place. Or are the sort of leftists who rage fearsomely on Facebook and then bugger off and watch the football anyway.
And this is how these things work. World Cups. Olympics. They’re all the same basic principle – shift the infrastructure costs aggressively onto the public sector, and then private concerns take all the profits. Why, one might reasonably ask, would anybody sign up for such a rotten deal?
The clue comes in FIFA president Sepp Blatter’s plea in the wake of this summer’s protests against the World Cup’s precursor tournament, the Confederations Cup. “I can understand that people are not happy,” he said, “but they should not use football to make their demands heard.” The obvious response to this is, of course, “why not?” And this gets into the sick heart of these sorts of celebrations.
It’s an interesting fact that FIFA rules declare that football must be entirely above politics. Any sort of political meddling in the administration of national football teams results, in theory, in the expulsion of the national team from all competitions. It’s not entirely clear how that works in the case of a country like North Korea, where it is outright inconceivable that there’s no political interference with football or, for that matter, with anything else. (I mean, this is the country that asserted that its Supreme Leader was relaying advice to the manager via a hidden phone link.)
And anyway, the idea that politics and football aren’t intertwined is ridiculous on the face of it. When public money is a key part of how your business is conducted, you can’t be separate from politics. No, what’s key is that football is invulnerable to politics; that the political concerns of any given country cannot be allowed to affect football at all. Football is holy and all encompassing. Its official policy is that it’s more important than anything else. Hence the breathtaking arrogance of suggesting that people shouldn’t bring it into their protests. After all, don’t they realize football is far more important than silly little things like whether they can afford to eat?
So why would anyone sign up to it? Because there are benefits to the invulnerable absolutism of sports. You get to, as the UK did for the 2012 Olympics (essentially indistinguishable from the World Cup), normalize the imposition of martial law in your largest city and put missile batteries on top of residential buildings. Or Brazil’s use of the World Cup to drive tanks around its slums to aggressively clean them up. Not all the slums, of course – just the ones tourists might see.
The rhetoric here is exactly what you’d expect. The Olympics are necessary. Necessary in ways that the welfare state isn’t. Making sure people have homes and don’t starve? Up for debate in the austerity era. Nine billion pounds for a sports event? (Nearly twice the annual spend on the jobseeker’s allowance) Necessary. Patriotic duty, even. I’d say that it’s a pity Chicago didn’t get the 2014 games, since the necessity of funnelling money towards it would probably have ended the budget stalemate, but let’s face it; Olympic spending is like grabbing people’s crotches at the airport: an essential function of government.
This is the logic underlying our big games. They function by being the most important thing imaginable. Hence the suggestion given, in all seriousness, about what gay athletes and supporters should do at the 2022 World Cup, which is held in Qatar, where same sex relationships are a crime. The answer? “Refrain from sexual activities.” Similarly, the IOC is dead silent on the various possible issues involving the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia, where anything viewed as “supporting” homosexuality is a crime.
All of this is the price we pay for having global sporting competitions. Just like, on the local level, we subsidize the for-profit businesses that run sports teams, often going so far as to bail them out when they go bankrupt. Nobody really gets angry at this. We let it happen.
We’re good at letting it happen, in fact. It’s a necessary skill to learn if you live in the privileged portion of the world. When it’s nearly impossible to get dressed or eat without supporting the exploitation of workers, and when a significant portion of every paycheck goes to funding the police state, one has to learn not to care too much about the consequences of your day-to-day life. It’s outright impossible to care about every fleck of blood on your hands.
And then there’s the construction of the stadiums for the Qatar World Cup. The selection of Qatar for the World Cup was always a bizarre one. That it was a selection tainted by massive amounts of bribery and corruption within FIFA was a given, but again, one of those givens we clearly haven’t let stop us yet. Similarly, the fact that Qatar imports what is basically slave labor from Nepal has been public knowledge for years, so nobody can be surprised, as such, that the death toll for people working on the World Cup stadiums for 2022 is already at seventy, with estimates that as many as four thousand construction workers could die if current conditions continue.
And yet even given all of this context, there’s something shocking about Sepp Blatter’s most recent round of comments about it, in which he flat out said that there was nothing FIFA could do about the working conditions in Qatar, and that it “is not Fifa’s primary responsibility.” Which is, by any measure, shocking. They could, for instance, have considered not giving the World Cup to a country that effectively used slave labor. They could take the World Cup away from said country and give it to, you know, one of the myriad of countries that would be willing to settle for the levels of corruption and authoritarianism we all know and love.
But no. The official position of FIFA is apparently that mass worker deaths is an acceptable price to pay for our beloved and above politics game of football. As I said, it’s funny where we draw the line. Systemic corruption, literally bulldozing the poor, seventy deaths and counting… and yet nobody seriously believes the 2022 World Cup will be boycotted by anyone. Nobody seriously believes that anything will delay or alter it. The World Cup will go on in Qatar, and hundreds of people will die in the course of it.
And that, perhaps, is the really horrific line that we draw. The one we don’t draw at all.