The World Cup is the football tournament I gladly set aside time for. It is a joy finding out every four years who are the new rising stars of men’s football. And four years later, it is a welcome surprise to see who among them has now matured to become anchors of their teams.
France’s Paul Pogba comes to mind.
In his first outing as one of les Bleus in 2014, Pogba was positioned as a striker, and struggled playing against Brazil despite sparkling in club football earlier that year. On his World Cup return four years later, Pogba played as an attacking midfielder, demonstrating flair as a playmaker and didn’t struggle one bit with goal scoring, showing he had matured as a footballer.
There are, of course, the disappointments of seeing players fizzle out after showing so much potential in previous tournaments. And each World Cup offers the bittersweet moment when we have to acknowledge that the latest tournament is the swansong of someone who had joined the pantheon of the greats.
Robin van Persie’s 2014 World Cup is an example.
During that tournament, van Persie scored an unbelievable header for the Netherlands in a grudge match against Spain. He went on to be the talisman for his team that reached the semi-finals.
This year’s World Cup, however, is not going to bring unlimited joy. It is difficult to ignore how Qatar won the right to host the World Cup and just enjoy the game. Qatar was awarded the 2022 World Cup hosting rights on the same day Russia was named the host of the 2018 World Cup. This was not the normal practice of FIFA. Previously, the executive committee of FIFA voted on bids for a single World Cup every four years.
In the years before the 2010 decision to award two bids at the same time, FIFA had tried different formulas to award bids to host the World Cup in part due to pressure to give the opportunity to countries that had not previously hosted the tournament. These experiments in choosing a World Cup host could have also been a way of Sepp Blatter, then FIFA President, trying to gain favour with the people who would be voting on whether to give him another term come the next election.
What all these changes did was provide an environment for FIFA’s worst habits to thrive. For one, these changes also meant there were no clear rules or guidelines on how bidding countries should conduct their campaigns. So, Qatar sponsored the January 2010 Congress of the Confederation of African Football (CAF). This meeting of African football administrators took place almost a year before the vote on the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bids. Qatar demanded as sponsor, and CAF agreed to, the exclusion of all other bidders from the meeting. This allowed Qatar to spend quality time with a key voting bloc at FIFA. And it was all permissible. No rules or guidelines were broken.
Since the December 2010 announcement of the World Cup hosts for 2018 and 2022, nearly half of the 22 members of the FIFA executive committee that voted at the time have been investigated for corruption or suspended or banned from football administration. The investigations did not centre on what happened in the lead up to that December 2010 vote.
A culture of malfeasance was so entrenched in the upper echelons of FIFA that investigators and prosecutors found evidence of other alleged corrupt acts and built cases in the United States, Switzerland and elsewhere. Blatter was re-elected as president in 2015, only to be forced to resign within days. Separately he was investigated in a different FIFA-related corruption case and acquitted in July this year. Blatter, however, remains banned from FIFA until 2028.
There are those who believe the investigations into FIFA corruption would not have happened had the United States bid to host the 2022 World Cup won. Or as we would put it in Kenya, the US Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) was “weaponized against allies” of Qatar and Blatter as FIFA president. (For the record, Blatter said he voted for the US bid.
Underlying the process of bidding to host the World Cup is the public’s assumption that the country with the best plan wins. After all, each team that qualifies to participate in the tournament has had to compete for the limited places available. Qualifying to play in the World Cup was not always as straightforward as this.
The first time Africa got its “own slot” at the World Cup was at the 1970 tournament. Before that, the European-dominated FIFA made African countries compete with Asian, Middle Eastern and Oceania countries for a single slot. The 1982 tournament was the first one when Africa got two slots and things have progressed to the current five slots for African teams.
To say, FIFA has not always lived up to its fair play principles. The struggle for a fairer, more equitable and corruption-free world of football continues.