From the Editors
Iran and Palestine, generally outside the soccer mainstream, have both made FIFA headlines in recent weeks. FIFA declared the 3rd of July a "historic day for Palestinian football" after the Palestinian national team defeated Afghanistan in a World Cup qualifier. In a less celebratory vein, FIFA banned the Iranian national women's team from an Olympic qualifying match against Jordan because of the headgear worn by the players. Another Middle Eastern country, Qatar, has also been embroiled in FIFA controversy, as a successful bid for the 2022 world cup was followed by allegations of corruption. In addition, the debate on Qatar raised questions about FIFA’s attitudes towards cultural diversity and homosexuality. Not only were there serious (panicked?) debates about Muslim attitudes towards alcohol (with observing Qataris told to "go on Umrah" to avoid the inevitable drunken debauchery – soccer hooliganism is non-negotiable), but FIFA president Sepp Blatter is on the record as advising homosexual fans to "abstain" during their visit to Qatar. And yes, this is the same FIFA president who advocated for women to play in "tighter shorts" to bolster the sport’s sex appeal.
All of this reflects poorly on an organization that claims to promote a “global fraternity united in sport” and takes responsibility for using "football as a symbol of hope and integration." The question, however, remains: why should we care about the words and actions of a notoriously corrupt sporting organization? There are many reasons why relegating FIFA to a domain of sporting irrelevance is fundamentally mistaken. In addition to the sheer economic power of FIFA (which reportedly turned over more than a billion dollars in 2009), soccer is a reflection of, and catalyst for, international geopolitics. Racial tensions, ethnic identities, and national divisions have always played a major role in soccer, especially at the international level. Undergirding these dynamics are the vested interests of global capital and the economic legacy of colonialism, which continue to shape the migration of players, prospects of team development, and surrounding political controversies in undeniable ways. While all of this might be stating the obvious, it allows us to ask what lessons might be drawn from the recent FIFA headlines involving Qatar, Palestine and Iran.
Qatar: Flows of Capital, Branding of Islam
Qatar’s bid for the World Cup was viewed as a long shot. Not only would players face extreme heat but many wondered whether the soccer community was ready for an Arab (and Muslim) country to host the tournament. The country’s proposal was nothing short of fantastical as Qatar promised air-conditioned stadiums and vowed to build massive infrastructure that would be donated to poorer countries after the World Cup. Qatar obviously had much to gain by winning the bid, but so did FIFA. Anxious to bring the sport to another emerging-soccer-market, Blatter made a serious push for an Arab country to host the World Cup, much as he had previously lobbied for Africa.
Qatar boasted an “unrivaled commercial market” including a 14 billion dollar earning potential, which does not include direct revenue from the tournament itself. Unlike Iran’s team, with its menacing headscarves, the Islamic culture of Qatar was branded as friendly, exotic, and even hip. In this official trailer, one is wowed by the sheer magnitude of the technical infrastructure even while feeling that the clip could take place anywhere in the world. Yet the global flows of capital must find a way to market, commodity, and sell difference. And so amidst the disco beats, techno music, and three-dimensional modeling one finds … a camel (at 3.30 in the video). A brief pause from the hyper-real points to the tamed exoticism of Islam. No matter that visitors to Qatar are more likely to see a headscarf than a camel.
There has also been a pervasive silence regarding the indentured work force that is likely to build these stadiums. Qatar, an oil-rich country largely developed by the labor of South Asians, offers little or no protection or rights to its migrant workers. And yet Blatter is deeply worried about the exploitation of labor and modern forms of slavery that he sees in the working conditions faced by…. Cristiano Ronaldo. Real Madrid reportedly payed the Portuguese striker 11 million pounds per year, making him one of the highest paid players in soccer. Blatter maintains, however, that the excessive transfer of players represents a form of “modern slavery.”
In an attempt to curb the migration of players, FIFA recently proposed a “6+5 Rule” in Europe, which would force clubs to start six players who are eligible for the national team. This would limit the number of foreign players on club teams. Such a stipulation was deemed to be illegal by the European Commission and many EU governments. In Qatar, FIFA has blatantly disregarded the country’s human rights record, turning a blind eye to the (woefully underpaid and mistreated) “foreign players” who would build the infrastructure. But FIFA’s commitment to humanitarian principles does not extend to migrant labor rights. Nor is it concerned with democratic governance. Indeed, the most recent headlines indicate that Mohamed bin Hamman, president of the Asian Football Confederation, bribed FIFA officials to secure Qatar’s bid for the World Cup while also seeking support for his presidential bid.
Palestine: Normalizing Occupation, Legitimizing the Palestinian Authority
Undoubtedly, the excitement surrounding the Palestinian national soccer team has been palpable. Playing in Ramallah, fans chanted “Palestine, Palestine” at the first World Cup game ever to be played in the Occupied Territories. And yet the words “territories” or “occupied” appear nowhere on the FIFA website that reports the match. Instead, the article celebrates the fact that Palestinian fans can now see “their side in action on home soil” and describes the proud singing of the national anthem.
While this “historic” opportunity occurred in 2011, the Palestinian Football Federation was founded in 1952. Yet it was not recognized by FIFA until 1998, more than 45 years after its creation. Why did the Federation have to wait four decades to be recognized by FIFA? What prompted this prise de conscience? FIFA’s recognition of Palestine was contingent on the creation of the Palestinian Authority, which occurred at the Oslo negotiations. Ironically, the events at Oslo are often held to be responsible for ending any possibility of a viable Palestinian state. Yet these are the very developments that caused FIFA to recognize the Palestinian Football Federation. According to Joseph Massad, Oslo indicated the “end of Palestinian Independence” and replaced the vocabulary of “liberation, end of colonialism, resistance, fighting racism” with “compromise, pragmatism, security assurances, moderation.” In short, it allowed for Palestinian sovereignty and territorial integrity to be replaced by a token Palestinian nation-state. Yet this Palestinian state - demilitarized, economically destitute, politically corrupt and lacking discernible borders – continues to be heralded by FIFA.
In FIFA’s article there was no mention of the fact that Palestinian athletes still require visas from Israel to leave Gaza or the West Bank. Or that the chief of the Palestinian Football Federation, Jibril Rajoub, spent 17 years in Israeli prisons. All of this would be rain on the “global game” parade. Moreover, prior to 2011 the information on the official FIFA website glossed over the occupation more egregiously, claiming that Palestine comprised the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza - effectively neutralizing the continued realities of conquest and occupation.
Iran: Taming Difference, Disciplining (Female) Bodies
Unlike the Palestinian team, the Iranian women’s team was prevented from playing in any capacity. The team was disqualified when their uniform was rejected by FIFA officials because of a specially designed head coverings worn by the players. Initially, FIFA defended the ban by citing the fourth article of the FIFA constitution, which stipulates that clothing must be devoid of political or religious signs. Yet an earlier version of the uniform had been approved by FIFA, and the only subsequent change involved the shirts, which were given higher collars in an attempt to cover the necks of the players. Bizarrely, FIFA officials then cited concerns regarding the health and safety of the players in a clear attempt to detract from allegations of discriminatory behavior.
Why did FIFA, which has spent millions of dollars to promote multiculturalism, find it unacceptable for a Muslim woman to play soccer while covering her head? Certainly the safety risks are minimal - of equal or greater danger are the headbands and flowing locks sported by many of the top male players. In the eyes of FIFA the hijab, unlike the Vuvuzela, represents a form of difference that is unassimilable and unmarketable. If FIFA is speaking in the name of a unified global culture, the message is that certain Muslims, even those women who are fighting for empowerment, fall outside the fold. In a sport that claims to forge global understanding through the shared language of soccer, wearing the hijab still gets a red card.
[FIFA launched a ‘Say no to Racism’ campaign in 2006. Image Source: transgriot.blogspot.com]
“Say No to Racism”? The (Il)logics of Capital and Religion in the Middle East
It should not be surprising that the trajectory of colonial racism (from biological to cultural) is reflected in the evolution of FIFA’s attempts to police soccer. Indeed, there would be no “global game” were it not for imperialism’s reach in the nineteenth century, when colonial officials instilled moral and physical virtue through sport. With the waning of the British Empire, the white man’s soccer burden fell to Europe. In 1904 seven European nations formed FIFA, choosing to give the organization a French name, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association. As the geopolitics of power shifted again the post WWII era, membership in FIFA became dependent on national recognition by the UN (an exception has been made in the case of Palestine).
What is most striking is that FIFA, much like liberal colonial officials of a by-gone era, couches its mission in lofty principles and moral aims. Moreover, soccer officials are quick to claim that while offensive statements are unfortunate, they are not racist. For example, as British fans chanted “Your dad washes elephants” when Emmanuel Adebayor was on the pitch, the chairman of England’s “Kick It Out” anti-racism campaign claimed that “it’s not racist,” even as he acknowledged that the words were offensive and had “racial undertones.” In short, racism is now considered to be something so deplorable, so intolerable, that we are blind to its most obvious manifestations.
Given the recent headlines, how are we to make sense of FIFA’s highly visible “Say No to Racism” campaign? FIFA has sponsored numerous ads with prominent soccer players and children – of all colors – holding hands and carrying a banner that says “Say No to Racism.” Moreover, Article 3 of the FIFA Statutes says that “Discrimination of any kind against a country, private person or group of people on account of ethic origin, gender, language, religion, politics or any other reason is strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion.” Yet even while FIFA claims to fight racism, it relies on a set of practices and institutions that encourage various forms of racial exploitation - the nation-state, multinational corporations, and neo-liberalism, to name a few.
What we are faced with then, is a “raceless racism,” to use David Theo Goldberg’s term. It is a racism that operates without invoking the terms of that exclusion, which erases the geopolitical, economic and historical structures that enable and foster certain practices and attitudes. Moreover, while “raceless racism,” or the “post-racial” articulates itself in and through the nation-state (in its occupied/Palestinian, rogue/Iranian, or neo-liberal/Qatari forms), it is increasingly policed by transnational organizations that supersede the nation-state. FIFA controls the rules of the game in the name of a “global fraternity,” disciplining forms of nationalism, race, and religion in order to prevent the flows of capital from getting stuck in the knotty politics of occupation, resistance and religion. As a result, a nation-state is foreclosed in Palestine, while in Iran cultural practices are banned in the name of religious freedom. In Qatar, on the other hand, the international capitalist system is bolstered by the rebranding of Islam.
Yet this is not to suggest that soccer is merely an example of cultural imperialism. One element of the game that continues to attract fans in the global South is soccer’s ability to articulate resistance against colonial powers – both old and new. Because soccer can effectively express these grievances, it also provides an opportunity for political mobilization. Analyzing the post-racial pitch encourages us to push back against FIFA’s supposed “humanitarian values” and question the forms of discrimination that are often normalized in liberal political discourse.
 See David Theo Goldberg, The Threat of Race: Reflections on Racial Neoliberalism. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2009.
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