Power Players: Football in Propaganda, War and Revolution By Ronny Blaschke (Pitch)
It’s over two years since we talked to German author Ronny Blaschke, just as his book "Power Players: Football in Propaganda, War and Revolution" was published in German. The book that we described as “lucid, exhaustively researched, and thoroughly absorbing,” has now been published in English, and is a perfect read for anyone casting a critical eye on the imminent 2022 World Cup.
One of Blaschke’s many strengths as a writer, as we wrote back in April 2020, is that “he does not polemicize, but allows readers to draw their own conclusions. His interviewees speak for themselves, while he carefully examines the cultural and socio-political environment in any given country.” Because of the globalized, inter-connected paths of commerce, it may not be enough to simply announce that you are boycotting a particular tournament or competition. The book shows that there are many other positive and creative ways that individual fans or lobbying movements can hold their clubs and federations to account, and demand wider changes for the better in the sport.
Our original interview with Blaschke is here, but the author has kindly given us permission to re-print some answers he gave in more recent interviews with German media.
On whether fans should be boycotting Qatar 2022
I believe that every individual should develop their own relationship toward this World Cup. We have this dualistic view of evil, autocratic Qatar and worthy, democratic Europe, but it's not that simple. We get outraged that Bayern Munich takes €20 million ($21 million) in sponsorship every year from Qatar Airways, but Qatar has invested more than €300 billion ($310 billion) in the western markets in companies like Credit Suisse, the London Stock Exchange, Barclays, Volkswagen and Deutsche Bank. Where's the outrage about that? The World Cup in Qatar is a symptom of the globalized economy. That's becoming especially painful with the energy crisis and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Now Germany's buying Qatari gas, and that's why criticism in Germany about Qatar 2022 has gone a little quieter.
On how to change FIFA
A lot of people would rather see the World Cup hosted in Scandinavia or Switzerland. But FIFA is structured like the United Nations, and democratic states are in the minority. Many governments appoint technocrats from their own regimes to high positions in their soccer federations. If you want to stem that, then you have to form alliances that reach beyond democratic countries in order to criticize FIFA. You need to re-think the criteria by which World Cups are awarded and propose something better than the current rotten system. I believe that the Qatar World Cup has given rein to a huge amount of creativity via human rights organizations and calls to boycott the tournament, for example. Those are very pronounced initiatives. We should use them to cast an eye on soccer's structures. European clubs have sponsors such as Gulf state airlines. We should examine individual chains of supply and ask ourselves how those chains of supply reach the clubs we support. The shirts and balls are not produced in Luxemburg, they're produced in Bangladesh and Myanmar. The outrage about Qatar obscures the game's structural problems, and that's not a good thing.
On FIFA and its struggle with ethics
FIFA signed off on a human rights policy after Qatar won the right to host, but how credible are mere documents? The Club World Cup was transferred from corona-plagued Japan to the United Arab Emirates without a blip. That's a country with an even worse human rights record than Qatar, in many respects. There's an ethics commission in FIFA, and there are debates, but FIFA has yet to show that it pays it any attention. In general, it's a very European discussion, but Europe can't change anything because in FIFA every country has one vote — so the German federations has the same amount of say as the Seychelles. I recently talked to a colleague in Japan, and I was told that in Japan there has been no discussion at all about human rights violations in Qatar. Qatar's principal clients are Japan, China and India. There are no critical media reports in these countries about human rights and democracy. If we want to change something, the European federations have to look to Africa and Asia and forge alliances. But it's unlikely that FIFA will ever properly tackle these themes.
In 2015, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch put the cat among FIFA’s pigeons with the multiple arrests in Zürich of functionaries in their bathrobes. At that point, we all thought FIFA would finally be exposed. In the following years, FIFA President Gianni Infantino has survived multiple scandals and seems to be unassailable. True, the World Cup is no longer awarded by Executive Committee but by the whole Congress, and that's a step forward. But it's still not particularly credible. I'd make the case for not just looking at FIFA, though, but at the many social and civil initiatives that use the World Cup as a platform for protest and for spreading information. Perhaps it's time to rip FIFA’s monopoly of the World Cup out of its hands. I'm not exactly sure, though, who should do that and how we'd go about it. How did Infantino, and Sepp Blatter before him, become so powerful? Because many small countries stood to profit from FIFA’s development funds. Recently I was in Namibia and Rwanda, countries where FIFA is associated with 'development aid.' That's how soccer functionaries in those countries have been able to get stuff done. We could have done something after the World Cup was awarded to Qatar in 2010. The big federations in countries like England, Germany, France and Argentina could have forged an alliance. But even that's unrealistic, because these federations all have their own self-interested functionaries too — just look at (disgraced former Executive Committee members) Franz Beckenbauer and Michel Platini. People like us who want to engage critically with the World Cup don't represent the soccer majority. The biggest soccer players have many more followers.
On Qatar's motivations for being a host nation
Qatar already hosted the 2006 Asian Games and other high-profile sporting events. Sure, the World Cup is the most prestigious event by far, but it's not the only one they've staged. Before Qatar we had World Cups in Russia, Brazil and South Africa, where the narrative was always 'the unity of the nation state.' Qatar doesn't need that narrative. It has a small population with 300,000 native citizens, all of whom will be wealthy for a long time thanks to gas exports. So instead, the small emirate is using the World Cup strategically, because it has to transform itself for a future when the demand for fossil fuels has ebbed. It has to build new areas of enterprise: skilled labor, tourism, technology, the service industries. Soccer's a good advertising tool. The country sits in a geo-politically tense spot and will never be truly secure. That's why it's investing in science, sport and culture, to make itself indispensable and immune to attack. That's an element that's working well for it right now.
On mixing politics and sport
Sometimes sport and politics are one and the same thing. For example, Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko was also president of his country's Olympic Committee for a long time, and around the world various government ministers double up as sports functionaries. In Palestine, an important politician is also president of the Palestine federation. In Egypt, former President Hosni Mubarak was often filmed in the national team's locker room but would only approve its broadcast if the team won. And in Syria, Bashar al-Assad kept the domestic soccer season running even during the country's civil war to try and give the impression of normality. And during the Arab Spring, the ultras used the terraces as a cultural space to express themselves. In other places, by contrast, ultras have let themselves be politically instrumentalized.
On why the west needs Qatar
Power in the Middle and Far East has become somewhat entrenched. The new centers of power lie in the Gulf region. There's been a trend now for some years of highly qualified engineers, journalists and scientists gravitating toward Qatar rather than Europe. So, you don't just have two million migrant workers on low wages from Pakistan and Bangladesh, plus tens of thousands of British and U.S. ex-pats, but tens of thousands of workers from North Africa who see in Qatar a socially stable country with a good health system. That's why the west increasingly needs Qatar as a mediator in various countries as a state that has an interest, but which is not ideologically driven. NATO's withdrawal from Afghanistan was negotiated in Doha, and that's something Luxemburg is all too aware of.
On soccer players speaking up about political issues
Of course, it would be great if more politically articulate soccer players would speak up about human rights violations in Qatar. But what happens when an individual player speaks up for an independent Palestinian or Uigur state? That would be a lot more controversial. And who decides what is politically legitimate? We can all agree that we're anti-Nazi and are in favor of constitutional rights. But what about if representatives of the Berber people in North Africa show up at the World Cup? A lot of fans will come from that part of the world. It's interesting that the FIFA security forces are not being schooled about English hooligans, but rather on ethnic unrest in the Arab world.
It would be great if soccer players expressed a greater sense of social responsibility. But most of them are young men in their 20s. They're focused 100 percent on their sport, and any expression of an opinion can wind up creating a shitstorm. Plus, sponsors like adidas, Volkswagen and Budweiser — who are selling not just to Europe, but to the Arab world too — are putting them under pressure. Given that corset, I really have to admire any player expressing themselves politically. But I can also understand why they don't. Not everything has to take place in the public sphere. Bayern Munich's been to Qatar 10 times now. They could have been active in the background, but very little's happened. The absolute minimum should be that Qatar is not glorified, like David Beckham with his tourism video. Better to keep silent than let yourself be filmed hanging out with the Emir like that's normal everyday life.
On journalistic freedom
During these mass sports events these countries are not in a normal state, because tens of thousands of people are travelling in. The whole thing becomes a giant bubble. That's not unusual. We western journalists have it relatively easy. I was in Qatar three times and could move around no problem. True, I had to download a tracking App. But in Turkey, Egypt or China I felt much more heavily under observation. It was much harder to speak with insiders and informants there, and I certainly didn't want them to take any risks that would have endangered their health or liberty. There's censorship there [in Qatar], there's no free press, that's one point. That's why it's even better to show solidarity with local journalists. Because the majority have to stay there [after the tournament] and they don't have it easy. In Qatar you can study critical journalism at Northwestern University. Off-campus, though, it's hard to put it into practice.
On his relationship to soccer
In the early 90s, I was a soccer fan. but my interest has receded over the years the more research I've done. From a journalistic point of view, this tournament is interesting, though. Over the past few years, I've met a lot of people in the Middle East and I see a lot of positive things there for ultras and other fans. There are a lot of positive and creative people there. So, I've come to terms with this World Cup. I'm curious. That it's being staged in winter is something new for us. People in the southern half of the globe, however, are used to that. The theme of human rights violations, on the other hand, is something that we must continue to engage with in a critical fashion.
(Translated from German by Ian Plenderleith)
What a fascinating interview. FIFA is part of a very complex geopolitical system and there don't seem to be any easy quick solutions. Still it's important to clarify the problems and the culprits, and do what we can to help to improve the state of soccer (and the world).
Fascinating---thoughtful and informative.