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The Ugly Side of the Beautiful Game

Ciara Garcha analyses football's issues with dirty money.

Football is often heralded as having the potential to bridge cultural and linguistic divides, bring people together as a community and act as a force for good in a number of ways. As one of the world’s most popular pass times and a multi-billion pound industry, football holds immense power and significance around the globe. But, away from the million-pound contracts and the screaming fans, football continues to be complicit in awful violations of human rights across the world.   

During recent World Cup 2022 qualifiers, players from a number of Men’s National Teams posed wearing shirts with various human rights slogans on them. The intention was to highlight the awful abuses of Human Rights that have taken place in the run-up to, and preparations for, the 2022 Qatar World Cup, making a public statement to the organisers and football’s governing bodies. Amnesty International has detailed a litany of examples of Human Rights abuse relating to what they term “the World Cup of Shame”, including forced labour, exploitation and negligence. Migrants rebuilding stadiums to be used in the tournament have been subject to “appalling living conditions”, violent threats and the confiscation of passports or ID, in order to entrap the workers. Outside of football, Qatar is an absolute monarchy, in which free speech and free assembly are criminalised

All of these disturbing details contrast with the financial gain that will be made by FIFA, football’s international governing body, and the Qatari organisers. Firms have been paid approximately $90 million to refurbish the Khalifa Stadium, whilst FIFA’s total revenue in 2014 (the year of the Brazil World Cup) amounted to $2 billion. This is in stark contrast with the average monthly salary of labourers at the Khalifa Stadium, of $220, notwithstanding the fact that a number of workers have reported having their pay delayed or withheld entirely. The Guardian calculated that 6,500 migrant workers have died in Qatar since it was awarded the World Cup in 2010 – an average of 12 people losing their lives a week. But yet, in spite of this sickening fact and the extensive catalogue of human rights abuses reported by various organisations, the 2022 World Cup will go ahead as planned. FIFA, the Qatari organisers and the corporations involved will face no penalties for the lives lost and abuses committed in the name of football. The dichotomy encapsulated by the situation in Qatar is embedded in football around the world: the flashy wealth and fame of football are built on abuse and suffering. Profit is increased at the cost of human lives. 

Qatar 2022 will not be the first time a World Cup has been mired in controversy over Human Rights. It will not be the first time that droves of fans from around the world will descend on a country, enjoying the beautiful game, while something far more sinister lurks below. The 2018 World Cup took place in Russia, just over a year after domestic violence legislation was amended to effectively decriminalise certain forms of abuse. Under the reforms, passed in February 2017, violence against a child or spouse causing bruising or bleeding was punishable by 15 days in prison or a fine equivalent to £380 if it did not happen more than once in a year. The dire state of LGBTQI+ continues to draw international condemnation, as members of the community are subject to communal, police and state violence. Concerns were also expressed that ethnic minority and LGBTQ+ football fans travelling from the UK to Russia for the tournament would be at risk of harassment and abuse. Yet, even as the Russian government stripped back the rights of women to be safe and free from abuse, even as it continued its violent campaign against LGBTQ+ communities, even as certain spectators were told they would face “heightened risks”, the tournament went ahead. FIFA made an estimated $6 billion from the 2018 Russia World Cup and the footballing world promptly moved on, with little thought given to the context, environment and cost of the tournament. Similar claims have been made with regards to Human Rights abuses connected to the 2014 Brazil World Cup and the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, before that.

A pattern emerges of football’s international leadership effectively ignoring appalling Human Rights abuses in the name of making profit and hosting an enjoyable tournament. FIFA claims that it “remains steadfast in its commitment to protect and promote human rights across football” and seeks to use the power of football to “make a wider positive impact in the lives of people around the world”. But, for at least the last three tournaments, Human Rights have been pushed aside and forsaken completely. Qatar 2022 and the shameful abuses linked to it are, it seems, nothing new. 

Such flagrant violations of Human Rights do not just happen internationally, but within a European and domestic context too. Manchester City was bought by Sheikh Mansour in 2008, who promised the sky blue side of Manchester investment, support and, as a result, success. City won the Premier League title only three years later, ushering in a trophy-laden period, which has seen the club become one of the most successful not just in England, but in Europe too. The cost at which this success has come at, has not been adequately interrogated. Only a year after purchasing Manchester City, Sheikh Mansour assumed office as Deputy Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates, a post he still holds today. As the son of the ruler of Abu Dhabi, also the first President of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Mansour came from a notable family and had already enjoyed a lengthy career in politics by the time he became embroiled in the footballing world. Along with Paris Saint Germain, which are owned by Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, the ruler of Dubai, Manchester City are a state-owned club, the only two in Europe and the footballing world.

Though Sheikh Mansour is celebrated and praised for the manner in which his lucrative investments transformed Manchester City’s fortunes so completely, his role at the heart of a government generally hostile to Human Rights is overlooked. From limits to free speech and women’s rights to the continued use of the death penalty, the current UAE government has committed a catalogue of Human Rights violations. As of 2020, 25 prisoners of conscience continued to remain in jail for peacefully dissenting against the government, whilst women continue to remain on unequal terms with men under Emirati law. Beyond this, democratic participation in government is severely limited and Freedom House, an international organisation, which seeks to promote democracy and liberty, officially considers the UAE “not free”. At the heart of this undemocratic, patriarchal regime is Sheikh Mansour who, as Deputy Prime Minister occupies a not insignificant position in government. 

As one of the few state-owned clubs in the world, Manchester City are funded and supported by this regime; the million pound signings that are splashed on newspaper front pages and the luxurious stadium and facilities, are all at least partially derived from this worrying state of affairs. The cost of City’s undeniable success of the past few years has been tacit endorsement of a regime that denies fundamental human rights. 

Perhaps most shockingly, there is a general failure to highlight and criticise these ongoing issues. A clear disconnect exists between football and the enjoyment of the game, and the suffering and pain upon which the game is built. FIFA, Manchester City and others distance themselves from Human Rights abuse and the ugly side of the beautiful game and yet do little to challenge ongoing abuses. The lucrative contracts, flashy football boots and even the flamboyant haircuts, distract us from what lurks beneath the surface and what football is truly built on.

A large part of the problem lies in acceptance. There has been an acceptance that this state of affairs exists and an unwillingness to challenge it. By voicing our opposition to FIFA’s collusion in Human Rights abuses or to Manchester City’s links with political repression, Human Rights will be forced back on the agenda. So far, they have slipped, been overlooked or even blatantly ignored. But for football to ever truly have any kind of international power, it cannot be complicit in abuse and suffering. The beautiful game cannot be built on a foundation of violence and brutality. 

Image Credit: mjtmail via Wikimedia/ License: CC-BY 2.0.

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