Curtain Raiser

What’s Eating the Beautiful Game, Colltalers

A disturbing Amnesty report about FIFA’s 2022 World Cup, to be held in Qatar, and the death of architect Zaha Hadid, who designed one of the competition’s venue, reminded everyone last week how ugly the business of global soccer has become.
The 2010 choice of the authoritarian monarchy-ruled nation to host the cup ignited a firestorm at FIFA. The report’s adds new details to claims of slave labor at the building of its venues. And for a moment, Hadid got caught in the middle of the discussion.
The first reason why Qatar, a tiny, Sharia law-following kingdom with a big GDP in the coast of the Arabian Peninsula, seemed like a terrible option to host an outdoor sport competition is natural: average temperatures in the summer can reach 120º F degrees.
Rich as it is, however, that’s not a factor for its rulers: weather-controlled stadiums and other measures are in the works. Also, being a country that abide by a strict, male-oriented, religious observance, Qatar is at odds with contemporary Western values.
Which means that, for foreigners, the risk of misinterpreting the law and landing in jail is real. And once there, as many have found, your nationality won’t cut you any breaks: depending of the gravity of your ‘sin,’ you may be up to some long, harsh penalty.
Little of that, however, is at the heart of the turmoil and claims of corruption and bribery that involved FIFA, from top officials in Switzerland to pretty much all soccer federations throughout the world. The crisis culminated with an eight-year ban of its long time president, Sepp Blatter, who had just been re-elected, and

Michel Platini, handed down by the organization’s own ethics committee.
Plus, out of nowhere, the U.S. Justice Department stepped in and indicted almost 50 officials in a continuing investigation into the alleged corruption, which includes the process by which Russia was chosen to host the next WC edition, two years from now.
Even soccer great Franz Beckenbauer may be indicted too, forming with Frenchman Platini the only two legendary players so far mentioned in the allegations. But unlike Platini, who in his retirement years headed UEFA, FIFA’s European division, as a Blatter’s protegé, the Kaiser is celebrated for lifting the trophy twice, as a 1974 player and coach of the German team in 1990.
We’re not far into this probe, even as FIFA has a new president, Gianni Infantino, but cracks and business as usual began to pop up. First, Blatter has been granted the right to appeal the court decision, which however it turns out, won’t include jail time for him.
Boosted by renewed confidence, he went on the offensive and has called the decision to indict him, ‘political’ from the part of the U.S., whose own bid to host the cup again was defeated, a fact not lost to European football officials and analysts everywhere.
Not exactly a nation bursting with soccer tradition, the entry of the American highest judicial authority, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, into the fray raised some flags. Specially in the case of choosing Russia as a host, given its poor relations with the U.S.
Not to be left without a counterargument, now FIFA itself has submitted last week a Request for Restitution of tens of millions of dollars to the attorney’s office, seeking damages from former officials and other organizations cited in the court process.
It’s a bizarre but not completely without merit move. For after all, the DOJ stands to collect a fortune in forfeited funds, sales, seized marketing rights, and a variety of other sources, not counting bonds paid by defendants out on bail or awaiting trial.
So, even if the process winds up sentencing to jail that notorious criminal, the janitor at FIFA’s luxury building in Zurich, and Blatter is rehabilitated, and corrupt heads of national federations, such as Brazil, never spend a day in prison, the enterprise has already generated plenty of cash and actionable global projection, just in case, to all those involved, thank you very much.
‘The Ugly Side of the Beautiful Game,’ on the other hand, the Amnesty International’s 51-page report, tells a brutal, even worse story about FIFA’s practices and what’s really wrong for so long with the way it conducts its global soccer business.
It documents over 200 cases of Asian migrants working at the Khalifa International Stadium, living in squalor, prison conditions, unpaid for months and prevented from leaving Qatar until paying illegally charged recruitment and Gulf admission fees.
A 2014 exposé by The Guardian had already compiled data that showed that Nepalese laborers working at the stadium were dying at a staggering rate of one at every two days. Then as now, Qatari authorities showed no action beyond a few prefab statements.
Such conditions, by the way, echo the harsh realities of modern slavery around the world. Farms and mining pits in Brazil, high-sea pirates, forced to loot tankers and fishing boats for Thai and Somali crime lords, the Indian and Pakistani garment ‘industry,’ cotton pickers in Uzbekistan, even instances in the U.S. and other Western societies, they all share similar horror stories.
As for celebrated starchitect Hadid, who died last week and was part of a generation of high profile, globe-trotting professionals, there would be not mention of her name here, apart from the fact that she’s designed the al-Wakrah, a.k.a. the Vagina Stadium.
But when asked about the Guardian story, reporting the death of more than 500 Indian migrant workers, and the 382 dead Nepalese, all doing construction related to the World Cup, her declarations were perceived at least as insensitive, and at most, callous.
Used to be paid in the hundreds of millions for her work, she saw the laborers’ deaths as disturbing as ‘deaths in Iraq,’ for instance, in what there’s little she could do about it. She said that it was up to the Qatari kingdom to address the issue. End of the story.
It was the typical answer that was given throughout history, with or without consequences, by artists hired to beautify tyrants’ lives, being by building their palaces, hosting their private functions, or entertaining their kids. The question of either accepting or not on moral grounds is thus diluted through some rarefied rationale, of ‘I’m a professional,’ or ‘it’s up to others to do something about it.’
Not doing too much out of it, this lack of empathy, or at least, of scruples while doing business is but one more component of an entire cycle of exploitation and misery, perpetrated by the sport and entertainment industry. Soccer for instance, as striking architecture, remains as loved and important in Yemen or the U.K., in the Palestinian territories as in jungles of South America.
What distinguishes some from the others is exactly that kind of humane dimension that characterizes as transcendent, works of art, while dismissing multibillion efforts to celebrate some powerful personality, political leader, or yes, a sport celebrity.
We all know who are the villains in this story. The Amnesty report is but a portrait, a sketch of a reality that did not come to be out of the blue. Modern slavery is a business model in some quarters, as labor hazards are computed like defective bolts, and subtracted without remorse from the bottom line. The passion of football has turned into a tragedy, and we should take a hard look at it.
Instead of throwing yet more of our hard-earned cash at it, we may consider other ways of keeping our love for the sport within morally accepted conditions. No matter what, injustice and inequality are still fed by ignorance and obliviousness. Have a great one. WC

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