BY TARUTR MALHOTRA

“It’s frightening the way the Chinese market is acting right now…I don’t think he’d [Diego Costa] think twice [about leaving].” – Everton winger Yannick Bolasie on rumours that Costa is being tapped up by a team in the Chinese Super League.

The Western world is an odd state of flux at the moment. With Donald Trump ascending to the White House and several right-wing populists aiming to emulate him in Europe, many are left baffled by these seemingly radical moves.

At times like this, I usually turn to football to help distract me from the quite disturbing problems of reality. For some unfathomable reason, screaming profanities at multi-millionaire teenagers seems to calm me right down. However, even that sacred refuge is under threat at the moment.

The invasion of the Chinese Super League in the last couple of years seems to have come to a head recently. With the mind-boggling sums being thrown at distinctly second class footballers such as Graziano Pelle and Hulk, our beloved sport seems to have found yet another depth that it is willing to plunge for economic reasons.

Now, with the departures of players like Oscar and Carlos Tevez and the likely move of the aforementioned Costa, even the best seem to be choosing money over glory. However, the greatest uproar has been reserved for the recent FIFA decision to expand the World Cup to 48 nations – or almost a quarter of all footballing nations on the planet.

This expansion is a particularly bitter pill to swallow considering it was first envisioned by Sepp Blatter, the former FIFA President famous for his vast corruption. His replacement, Gianni Infantino, was supposed to clean up the organisation, not become the Kylo Ren to Blatter’s Darth Vader.

“Mr. Blatter knew and was aware of the acts of corruption, influence and racketeering or, if he did not know – as he says – it’s because he has no skills to lead FIFA. There is no other way to analyze the problem.” – Luis Figo, Portuguese legend and ex-candidate for the FIFA presidency, May 29, 2015

Although suspicions of Blatter’s and FIFA’s corruption dogged his presidency since he was elected in 1998, their dealings have only come under the spotlight since 2010 when FIFA strangely awarded the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar respectively (For an in-depth look at his early corruption ring, refer to Andrew Jennings’ 2006 masterpiece Foul!).

While there were accusations and arrests aplenty in the years to follow, Blatter himself managed to avoid any overly damaging personal controversies. That is until May 27 2015, when the American government sensationally detained 14 FIFA officials in Switzerland. By June 2, Sepp Blatter had promised to step down from the presidency and call for new elections. It seemed like world football had successfully rid itself of a corrupt leech.

However, between those two events was the now ostensibly pointless election for the FIFA presidency on May 29. While Blatter managed to get re-elected for a fifth consecutive term, the media grumbles of the time were quickly satisfied by his subsequent resignation. Sadly, this quick turnaround meant that there was to be no sustained analysis into how a man being investigated for ruining our beloved sport was so comprehensively returned to office.

“I am a Christian and this is blasphemy” – Guinea-Bissau FA president Manuel Nascimento Lopes on anti-Blatter rhetoric, May 28, 2015

Blatter had worked at FIFA since 1975 – first as a technical director, then as General Secretary from 1981 to 1998. It was in this second role that Blatter really began to understand the true potential of the FIFA presidency.

João Havelange, his predecessor and occasional mentor, was in his own right a corrupt and dictatorial president. However, the Brazilian’s most important lesson to the young Swiss was his ability to maintain power at the top of the game.

The expansion of the World Cup from 16 to 24 nations in 1982 caused major protests among the footballing elite, as well as the general media. Nevertheless, their anger was anticipated and ignored by Havelange because they didn’t have the power to affect real change within FIFA. He knew that only the votes of member nations posed a threat, and that the European minority would be largely overwhelmed by the grateful masses in the footballing hinterlands of Africa and Asia.

Blatter took this idea and ran with it. In the lead-up to his successful candidacy for the presidency in 1998, he pushed through legislation that further expanded the World Cup to 32 teams, as well as supporting the joint South Korean and Japanese bid for the 2002 World Cup. Coupled with his support for bringing the tournament to South Africa in 2010, Blatter’s presidency came to be known as one of diversity and opportunity for those footballing outposts that had been traditionally ignored.

His real moment of genius, however, was the creation of the Goal Programme in the first year of his presidency, which invested immense amounts of money in nations starved of funds. According to an analysis by Bloomberg in 2015 (https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2015-sepp-blatter-fifa/), FIFA had spent US$1.56 billion on development in the previous four years. Undoubtedly, a lot of the money went into the pockets of the corrupt, but much was also effectively spent.

For obvious reasons, this created long-lasting and unconditional support for Sepp Blatter in remote parts of the footballing world. As Lee Harmon, the president of the Cook Islands FA, succinctly put it in 2015, “Before Blatter became president, you know how much funding each member association got from FIFA? Zero. Is that enough to convince you why we’re voting for him?”

The disclaimer to all the good will he legitimately created is the underhanded methods he used to maintain his personal support. For example, in 2015, all delegates got an annual grant of US$250,000 plus a one-time US$500,000 grant from the profits of the 2014 World Cup. To the richer nations, primarily those in Europe, it was nothing more than a bonus. However, to many others it was money that was sorely needed.

In a similar vein, FIFA’s membership has risen dramatically during Blatter’s presidency. Some are legitimately new entries, such as South Sudan and Montenegro, but many are frivolous to the point that the current total of 211 nations is 16 more than in the United Nations. Members such as the Cayman Islands, who have played less than 10 games in the last decade, were all loyal Blatter voters under the one-member, one-vote system of election.

These semi-legal examples don’t even touch upon the blatant bribery and corruption within FIFA under Blatter – as seen by the downfall of men like Jack Warner and Mohammed Bin Hammam with relation to the corrupt Qatari and Russian World Cup bids. However, they do shine a light upon an issue that is central to the future of FIFA and the sport we love – the historical footballing dichotomy between Europe and the rest of the world.

“If there is anyone bar an army of Swiss bank managers who honestly regard this [the 48-team expansion] as a plan that will improve the tournament, I am sure Infantino will love to hear from them.” – Marina Hyde, writing for the Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/football/blog/2016/oct/19/gianni-infantino-fifa-world-cup-48-teams)

The recent vote to expand the World Cup from 2026 has led to an event almost as rare as a sighting of Haley’s Comet. There has been widespread agreement across the English speaking media – from the xenophobic right to the progressive left – that the new format is bound to fail. Of course, there are varying denouncements, but almost all fall into two categories: that this decision was driven by greed, and that it will drastically reduce the quality of the tournament.

While the former is a serious complaint that we must investigate and condemn, it is the latter that is most confusing. As Hyde writes in the above quoted article, “this is starting to feel like the sort of World Cup my mother might design: one where everyone can join in and win a prize.” This questioning of the meritocracy is never backed up by any explanation of why they think this. After all, you would assume that the proposed smaller groups could only lead to an elimination of dead rubbers? Or, is she lamenting the death of the highly anticipated qualification processes of the modern day?

The alternative to these overtly hostile articles is the more ‘liberal’ articles that are patronising instead. In this mock explanatory article published by the Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/football/2017/jan/10/48-team-world-cup-fifa-plan-2026), the writers condescendingly reject claims that it will help the “less celebrated teams.” They even witheringly dismiss Jose Mourinho’s positivity about the tournament by satirically describing him as “an expert in scintillating football.”

To be fair, these articles are only espousing the views that they believe are universal, and this is where the problem lies. Due to a combination of the traditional colonial centrality of European ideas, the global domination of the English language, and the lack of widespread sports coverage and minimal online presence of Asian and African publications, alternative views of the expansion are suppressed. The only people we do hear are the FIFA and local FA officials, whose opinions are clearly tainted by the enormous financial kickbacks they receive.

“The more, the merrier!” – Amaju Pinnick, president of the Nigerian Football Federation, on the result of the World Cup expansion vote

As can be expected, views from the rest of the world vary drastically. While there are certainly some that bemoan the expansion, most favour the idea to different degrees. At the most extreme end of the spectrum are those who see the criticisms as a UEFA-led conspiracy to maintain European hegemony over the tournament.

They base their views on the hypocritical criticisms of men like Karl-Heinze Rummenigge, head of the European Club Association and chairman of Bayern Munich. That would be the ECA that lobbies for the richest clubs in the world (i.e. in Europe), and the German behemoth whose ex-president, Ulrich ‘Uli’ Hoeneß, was convicted of tax evasion to the tune of €28.5 million in 2014. He was re-elected to the club presidency by a majority of 97% in November of last year.

The more reasonable advocates tend to focus on the practical positives that this brings to many countries around the world. The obvious and most important new change is the larger number of countries that can qualify from outside Europe and South America.

fig1

As can be seen by this graph depicting the number of qualification spots to total number of nations for each region, the European (UEFA) and South American (CONMEBOL) regions hold a distinct advantage. While granting complete equality would be foolish due to the drastically different levels of quality between continents, it seems indefensible that 55 member-UEFA has as many spots as 56 member-CAF (Africa), 48 member-AFC (Asia) and 35 member-CONCACAF (North America) combined. In a year where no Oceanic (OFC) country qualifies – such as in 2014 – UEFA provides as many nations as the rest of world, barring the 10 nations of South America, together. To be fair, these figures don’t count the one spot granted to the host nation – which is the UEFA member Russia in 2018.

fig2

In the proposal for the new qualification system, some of these unfair inequalities are addressed. Asia and Africa are granted four extra spots each, while Oceania finally has the dignity of at least one representative at every tournament. Additionally, UEFA, CONCACAF and CONMEBOL all receive extra delegates as well. Theoretically, it should be quite difficult for the better nations to miss out. Then again, Netherlands and Greece both somehow failed to get out of their qualification groups for the expanded European Championship last summer.

fig3

One major problem with the new system will be the unfair proportion of CONMEBOL members that can potentially qualify. As the above graph shows, 60% of participating nations will find themselves in the group draw for the World Cup. One solution that is currently gaining traction is combining the qualification for North and South America, and granting them 14 spots. As depicted, this would bring their overall proportion down to 31%, just slightly above UEFA’s 29%.

This development was actually first proposed during last summer’s Copa Centenario, and advocated by ex-USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann and Argentine midfielder Javier Mascherano. However, recently it has been rejected out of hand by the few UEFA officials that have deemed to comment on it. As the more astute of you may have noticed, the current proposed allocation for North and South America combined is 12.5 spots. If the combination of CONMEBOL and CONCACAF were to go through, the extra 1.5 spots might possibly be taken from UEFA’s allocation.

Of course, in contrast to these advantages are the very real competitive and structural problems that arise from a 48-team tournament. For example, three team groups would mean final group games that are not simultaneous, and thus create inherent inequalities.

Additionally, how many countries have or can build the requisite infrastructure to host such a bloated tournament? After the horror stories that emanated from Brazil and South Africa, we certainly don’t want to increase the burden on host nations. One mooted solution has been jointly hosted tournaments, but that opens a new can of worms, from visa requirements to the extraordinary costs of airfare.

“If I’m going to put myself in Costa’s shoes, it’d be like ‘I’ve come from Brazil, I’ve been around Europe and I’m at Chelsea now, and I’ve got this Chinese team offering me this. From the favelas to something [like] this, it’s incredible’…It’s not like he’s English. He’s just thinking, ‘What’s best for my family goes’.” – Everton winger Yannick Bolasie on rumours that Costa is being tapped up by a team in the Chinese Super League.

It’s not the fault of the English media that they haven’t incorporated the opinions of non-English speaking views or print media from other parts of the world. Rising political dangers and global wars mean that media resources are better spent on topics other than sports.

However, this doesn’t give journalists carte blanche to ignore opposing views and their merits. The European media have sadly been deaf or dismissive to alternative views, and are pushing back against change without analysing whether it is needed. The stubbornness has been so strong that there are even journalists starting to become embarrassed by the creeping xenophobia and racism in some of the statements.

Bolasie’s recent interview about Diego Costa had more nuance than most English articles about the Chinese Super League’s splurge on players. In less than five sentences, he explained several different attractions of a Chinese offer, while providing a rebuttal to those who continue to espouse the unquestionable attraction of European football to non-Europeans.

In the end, this refusal to accept change is dangerous to the European game itself. By ignoring obvious signs of football’s popularity outside Europe – such as the fact that the inaugural season of the Indian Super League averaged a higher attendance than Serie A – journalists are willfully creating a bubble that could burst at any moment.

Perhaps the worst part of this ignorance is that we are not living through an unprecedented situation. South American leagues faced the same exodus to South Europe in the 1950s and ‘60s, and North Europe in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Even the Premier League itself continues to provide a similar chastening experience as the CSL to the rest of Europe, as it continues to hoover up talent at extortionate prices.

Worst of all, this ignorance continues to perpetuate the footballing dichotomy between Europe and the rest of the world. Without allies in the richest footballing nations who want to try to develop the sport in Asia and Africa, they will forever be forced to turn to the corruptive influence of FIFA for assistance. As Simaata Simaata, the ex-president of the Zambian FA, stated, “[People] will take houses from Pablo Escobar using drug money. Unfortunately, that is what the Goal Programme [and other FIFA initiatives] has been.”

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