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For the Love of (the game) Money

I would like to start with some clear and certain positions: I love sport. I love playing sports and I love feeling fit and healthy. I love winning – I love that I hate losing. I love seeing people who have poured every grain of their energy in the pursuit of sporting excellence and I love seeing them succeed. I love that sports have rules – you can’t be offside, you can’t tackle someone’s throat, you can’t steal someone else’s golf ball. I think most people align themselves with at least one of these sentiments on at least some scale. Some get into a frenzy when their sport’s team does a sport, some casually check the score the next day, some are apathetic. Nevertheless, even the apathetic are not immune – they still must declare their indifference to their peers of whom fandom is of great concern.

This is, of course, nothing new to you. We are a nation obsessed with sport. We proudly declare ourselves as a nation that punches above its weight in the Olympics; as the spiritual home to Rugby Union; as the home of Jack Lovelock, Peter Snell, and Dick Quax. Sport possesses a mythical dimension in our historical tapestry, it is where we demonstrate that we too can slay dragons, and win treasures. Unfortunately, this is also nothing new to (as Dewey Finn from School of Rock would put it) The Man. For the uninitiated, The Man is “in the white house… The Man ruined the Ozone, and he’s burning down the Amazon… The Man is going to crush your soul”. In a sporting context, The Man is the corruption which has been operating behind the scenes of sporting goliath’s; FIFA and the Olympics. The Man is the malevolent force which made Naomi Osaka feel she had to withdraw from the French Open after blowback from her prioritising her mental health. Put simply, The Man is how to characterise the once sacred fulfilments of life which have become commodities. Empty calories in cheap, neon packaging ready to be consumed by the time-poor and the emotionally exhausted. 

I like to imagine the decision makers who constitute this loose definition of The Man all meet in a dungeon with hooded robes and incantations, conducting blood sacrifices of child workers from one of their many unethical, unchecked factories. Creating pantomime villains makes it a lot easier for me to unpack how poorly organised sport has become. It gives me a large, uncontested canvas to paint a poor imitation of a Hieronymus Bosch piece – the egotistical elite bathing in the blood of the financially feeble and partaking in mass orgies while the world burns behind them.

But really, none of the conglomerates above are run by just some guy. They’re driven by data. They’re driven by geopolitics and socio-economic factors which I can’t pretend to understand. It’s easy to say the human skid-mark, Sepp Blatter is corrupt. It’s harder to explain why FIFA is systemically corrupt. But fuck it, I’m going to try.

First, I should try to outline a modern example of corruption within a sporting organisation. The FIFA World Cup is scheduled to take place next year in Qatar. The FIFA World Cup is the most viewed sports event in the world during the 21st century, garnering the attention of literally half of the world’s population. Usually, when we consider viewership we segregate it by nation, but imagine if that viewership manifested as such; every woman in the world watched the World Cup, and every man didn’t. That’s how many people watch the World Cup. Qatar’s successful bid was announced in 2010. As a nation, Qatar has only recently announced itself on the geo-political scene and sporting events have always been strategic methods of exposing the new face of your nation to the world (look no further than the Swastika-laden 1936 Olympics in Berlin). Since the announcement of Qatar’s hosting status, it began nation-wide infrastructural reworkings – building new stadiums, hotels, roads, and healthcare services in preparation for the massive influx of football-mad tourists, and corporate stakeholders. 

Most countries have a pretty dim view on Qatar’s legislation surrounding employee rights and immigrant status. They have adopted the ‘kafala’ system for migrant workers wherein the employer sponsors the migrant employee as a citizen of the nation. It gets a bit confusing, and I don’t want to be reductive; however, this system has historically led to widespread worker exploitation. There are instances where the employer will have possession of the employee’s passport, preventing them from leaving the country, let alone their job. This system has led to a blatant disregard of employee welfare. In New Zealand, we may complain that our employee welfare is being ignored because we miss our lunch break, or we were asked to work an extra hour. In Qatar employee welfare is literally life threatening. Here is a statistic released by The Guardian: If one minute of silence was held for each worker who has died during the building of the stadium in Qatar – the first 44 matches would be played in silence. Football matches are 90 minutes long by the way. So, an estimated 3960 deaths. Oh yeah, and that statistic was released in 2018. The competition still had four more years of preparation upon release. 

There is an ongoing case alleging that Qatar provided several bribes to the stakeholders of the FIFA World Cup. In researching this piece, it was fun to read what Qatar’s primary news provider, Al-Jazeera, had to say. Al-Jazeera leaned heavily on quotes refuting the allegations, calling them baseless claims, led by enemies of Qatar to paint them as corrupt villains. Al-Jazeera is state owned which means Qatar’s government has full control of what they print. Make of that what you will.

I want to be explicitly clear here. Qatar as a geo-political and socio-economic force is NOT the same as Qatar as a people. Like any nation, there are good people and bad people, benevolent and malevolent individuals alike. The true tragedy of such widespread corruption in sport is that not only do we affiliate the sport with the corruption – we also affiliate the wrong people with the corruption. These bug-eyed greedy salamanders who own Coca-Cola and Amazon are the same lizard folk in Qatar, Russia and the USA. Greed transcends national identity.

If you’re still reading this frantic rant – a rant which is akin to tossing a pebble at an asteroid, I’d like to try to highlight some semi-journalistic integrity here and explain myself, in an effort to demonstrate the virtue of transparency – a virtue which The Man lacks. The Olympics are around the corner, and I appreciate it is more prescient to talk about this year’s Olympics than next year’s Football World Cup. But I didn’t want to. Because one day, I am hoping to work in elite sport. And we’re good at Olympic sports. And we’re shit at soccer. So, it’s better for me to highlight the corruption of a tournament which I’ll likely never be involved in rather than lament an organisation I, one day, hope to contribute to and make better. Because, like I said above – I love sports. And I love athletes. But I hate what it’s become.