Even as football lovers are enthralled by the spectacle unfolding in Brazil, the question, “why is world sport so corrupt?” is worth asking. Olympics, football, cycling, even cricket have been enveloped in scandals of doping, match-fixing, transfer bungs and venue bribery. The Sunday Times has come out with an exposure of corruption in Fifa’s choice of nations to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. Yet Michael Garcia, the American lawyer appointed by Fifa to inquire into previous similar allegations, has said he would ignore it, rendering his inquiry a farce.
Football has become the lingua franca of our globalisation. It is one of the supreme instruments of soft power; thus the desire of nations to host World Cups and of oligarchs and plutocrats to own great football clubs, the “superbrands” of international sport, as we have been coerced into calling them. Brazil, the self-mythologising samba nation, is reported to have spent $11 billion on new stadiums and transport infrastructure. But the nation has been destabilised by riots, strikes, and street protests.
Qatar has said it will spend over $200 billion on its World Cup project. So, decadence and extravagance become more extreme with each tourney. “Winning” a world cup used to be about a game of football. Now, as Orwell said, it is war without the shooting, “bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness and disregard of all rules”. The flashing of yellow and red cards by referees, and now the drawing of white lines during penalty kicks, have restored some civility among individual players. But, as Zinedine Zidane’s head-butting of Marco Materazzi during the 2006 final and Beckham’s kicking of Argentina’s Diego Simeone in 1998 showed, fierce animosity remains a motivating factor in these “purely” competitive encounters. Such passions will forever simmer below the surface as long as fantastic sums of money drive the contests.