Politics & Policy

International Soccer Is Governed by Clueless Hacks

Promotion for Qatar’s 2022 FIFA bid in Doha. (Christof Koepsel/Getty)
FIFA, international soccer’s governing body, is not just corrupt but incompetent, callous, and megalomaniacal.

Well, well, well. Seemingly out of nowhere, the U.S. government has entered the fray and done what nobody else would. After a lengthy investigation, the New York Times records today, the Justice Department, the F.B.I., and the I.R.S. have “pledged to rid the international soccer organization,” FIFA, of the “systemic corruption” that has been its hallmark for decades. Describing “soccer’s governing body in terms normally reserved for Mafia families and drug cartels,” the Times adds, the DOJ is focusing on a host of crimes, including but not limited to “racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering conspiracy.” These arrests, the paper confirms, came as “a startling blow.”

How peculiar it is that FIFA should finally be cleaned up by a nation that doesn’t care about soccer.

Rooting out the vast array of criminals that have been operating within FIFA’s grubby little syndicate is necessary and virtuous work — and it is a relief that somebody has finally decided to do it. But, amid all the excitement of the charges, it is worth remembering that even when Sepp Blatter and Co. are ostensibly on the level, they are never too far away from disaster. Once upon a time, FIFA cared primarily about putting on first-class sporting events: If a country had the infrastructure and the will, it could expect a fair shake at hosting a tournament. Now the outfit’s processes have become mired in political correctness, in the quixotic search for “legacy” projects, and in the dirty and hopeless mess that is modern internationalist politics. Because FIFA’s rules are so strict — and because it is more concerned with kickbacks and with infrastructure spending than with soccer — for a given nation to “win” the right to play host is, in truth, for that nation to lose. “Clueless” doesn’t even begin to describe the buggers.

Consider South Africa, which accommodated the 2010 World Cup. Per Canada’s Globe and Mail, the majority of the venues that were constructed for the 2010 World Cup are deteriorating rapidly, at great cost to the country’s government. As of today, “the $600-million Cape Town Stadium” — the flagship of the collection — has been “largely abandoned” and is “losing an estimated $6-million to $10-million (U.S.) annually.” So dire is its future supposed to be, the paper concludes, that “some residents have even suggested that it should be demolished to save money.”

This, apparently, is typical. “Almost all of the stadiums are losing money annually,” the Globe and Mail adds. And why? Well, in part because FIFA “refused to allow some South African cities — including Cape Town and Durban — to use their existing stadiums” during the competition. And so, “eager to win the rights to the prestigious tournament, the host countries [agreed] to FIFA’s terms” and were thereby “burdened with massive costs and perennial operating expenses for the stadiums.”

Barely a year after the last of the fans disappeared, at least four of the 12 stadiums used for international matches are facing severe financial problems.

A similar story has obtained in Brazil, which played host to the World Cup last year. Because the deadlines were so narrow, the Washington Post has observed, much of the infrastructure for 2014 was never finished. Now, it sits incomplete and useless — an ugly testament to a makework project that should never have been started. Meanwhile, much of what was finished has been unceremoniously abandoned. “Several of the stadiums built for Brazil’s World Cup have been underused,” Reuters records, “and at least one has been closed because of structural problems.” For Brazil, laments the PanAm Post, “the hangover” is “not yet over”:

Barely a year after the last of the fans disappeared, at least four of the 12 stadiums used for international matches are facing severe financial problems.

The monolithic sporting complexes, dubbed elefantinhos brancos (white elephants) by local media, have been hit hard by Brazil’s financial crisis and many are now abandoned, face costly structural problems, and are even sheltering homeless Brazilians.

Brasilia’s newly built Mané Garrincha stadium, the second most expensive ever built after the United Kingdom’s Wembley Stadium, is now being used as a parking lot for 400 local buses.

FIFA officials inspect the design for a proposed stadium in Qatar. (Clive Rose/Getty)

Lamentable as these legacies are, even they represent nothing at all when compared with the slow-motion disaster that is at present unfolding in Qatar. Whatever one believes went down in the bidding process — per the New York Times, “a whistle-blower who worked for the Qatar bid team claimed that several African officials were paid $1.5 million each to support” Qatar’s bid for 2022; per a group of senior British parliamentarians, a $2 million bribe was paid to a FIFA vice-president and his family — that the decision has been allowed to stand is nothing less than a moral disgrace.

As we are now learning, Qatar’s bid was built atop a pyramid of carefully contrived lies. Acknowledging that the desert heat could prove to be a problem, representatives from the country promised repeatedly that they would design their stadiums to be fully air-conditioned. This, it turns out, is physically impossible. (The failure has forced FIFA to move the event to the winter — slap bang in the middle of international soccer’s busiest season.) Hoping to attract the more socially conscious among the body’s voters, Qatar vowed that it would build twelve full-scale stadiums for the tournament itself and then ship the parts to poorer countries in the aftermath. This, we have subsequently learned, is almost certainly not going to happen. (Qatar now intends to build eight stadiums and has gone worryingly quiet on their reuse.) Most worrying of all, those who were concerned that to award the competition to a Middle Eastern country would inevitably be to sanction a human-rights disaster have been well and truly vindicated.

In December, the Guardian reported that the “Nepalese migrants” who have flooded into the country to build the necessary infrastructure “have died at a rate of one every two days in 2014.” When one adds in the “Indian, Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi” workers who have complemented them, the Guardian adds, that number reaches almost one per day. In the West, even a small portion of these deaths would have been sufficient to shut down the project. In Qatar, nobody seems much to care. According to the International Trade Union Confederation and the Nepalese and Indian governments, a startling 1,200 workers have died since construction began — most of them from heart attacks triggered by the extreme heat. If current trends continue, the ITUC anticipates this number will rise to 4,000. We haven’t seen that much death ordered in the name of a sporting event since the more enterprising among the Roman leisured class felt a touch bored one day and decided that it might be fun to see how human beings would fare against their lions.

Put in context, these numbers are even more extraordinary than they appear. Not a single person died during the construction phase of the 2012 London Olympic Games, while just six were killed preparing China for its 2008 turn as host. In total, eight workers were killed prior to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil; the 2010 tournament in South Africa took two. Even if nobody else dies in Qatar between now and 2022, the death toll will be 150 times what it was during the last competition. To find a construction disaster that is remotely comparable, one has to go back more than a century — and even then this level of attrition is abnormal. The Chrysler Building, the Statue of Liberty, and Mount Rushmore were all completed without fatalities. Just five people died building the Empire State Building; eleven were killed putting up the Golden Gate Bridge; and between 20 and 59 perished erecting the Brooklyn Bridge. The only recent civilian engineering project that killed people at the rate we are seeing at present in Qatar? The Panama Canal.

Quite the “legacy,” eh, boys?

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.

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