FIFA Still Failing to Provide the Moral Leadership that World Football Needs | Tom McLaren

“It is not the mission of FIFA to solve the problems of the world. The mission of FIFA is to organize football and to develop football all over the world.” – Gianni Infantino, president of FIFA.

In announcing this week that the next Club World Cup will be played in China, FIFA president Gianni Infantino attempted to sidestep awkward questions regarding Hong Kong and human rights, simply stating that it was not in their job description. In doing so, it appears he was attempting to duck the problems that have recently plagued China’s most popular sports league, the NBA. Following comments on Twitter by Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets, the American Basketball league has found itself facing a backlash from both the Chinese authorities and broadcasters due to perceived support within the game for Hong Kong protestors.

Infantino appears to have been hoping that his comments would allow FIFA to move on and focus on the lucrative opportunities on offer in China. Comments from Human Rights Watch however have served to reopen the debate on what role sport should play in international politics.

At its best, Sport can bring people and countries together. In the 1970s Ping-Pong Diplomacy for example, saw a re-engagement between the United States and China that eventually led to the political and economic opening of China. However, it would be a mistake to believe that sport’s role has always been positive. Hitler’s use of the Olympics to showcase his Nazi ideology and the forced doping programs of the Soviet Union are clear examples of authoritarian regimes using the social influence of sports to benefit themselves.

FIFA itself has a far from blameless track record, becoming during the reign of Sepp Blatter a symbol of international corruption. In 2015, FBI investigations led to in 2015 saw the arrest of 18 senior executives on corruption allegations, 12 of whom subsequently pled guilty to a range of charges. As recently as June of this year the disgraced former UEFA President Michel Platini was taken into custody in France as part of a corruption investigation over the awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar.

The Qatar project itself has been dogged by allegations of human rights abuses, with organisations such as Amnesty International reporting serious failings over the pay and working conditions of the migrant workers who are delivering the required stadiums and facilities, The Guardian this year reported that hundreds of construction workers have died as a result of heat stress.

Add to this the failure of international football to address the racism embedded at a national and international level, as witnessed during the recent England – Bulgaria game and at Italian football grounds on a regular basis. Positive steps in recent weeks only serve to highlight the prior depth of failure in this area.

So what has FIFA learnt from its controversial past? Whilst Infantino has attempted to address with a series of reforms, but perhaps the key lesson has been that if they define their remit, narrowly, to expanding the reach and influence of football, they can manage the controversy. Racism that is allowed to fester on the terraces reflects racism on the streets. Overlooking the human rights record of a country in awarding international tournaments gives a veneer of credibility to those regimes.

Infantino’s statement that human rights are not his problem is clearly problematic – human rights is everybody’s problem. By explicitly rejecting any notion of taking a stance on such an important international issue FIFA is denying any obligation to show moral leadership. In doing so they deliberately ignore not only the role that Football, as the world’s most popular sport, plays in society but also the opportunity that they have to effect positive change. It is imperative that they accept that they have a bigger role to play than just promoting the global game. Unfortunately, for now, FIFA is failing to provide the moral leadership that world football needs.

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