Ronald McDonald calls for a global ban on sandwiches with meat products. Bears condemn tree feces. David Beckham rails against the morally boring celebrity music industry. And in other news Emmanuel Macron, President of France – yes, really, France – has declared on the eve of Qatar 2022 that we should all keep politics out of sport.
As we enter four weeks of mind-bogglingly politicized football theatre, sporting nation-building on a scale the world has barely seen, this has become an increasingly common line of power. It was the core of Gianni Infantino’s pre-tournament letter to European football associations. And, frankly, Infantino himself so zealously adhered to this line in Russia four years ago that he ended up in the Kremlin with a medal pinned to his chest, and Vladimir Putin declared himself a friend of the world and an emissary of love. History will judge Infantino accordingly. We have, as they say, the receipts.
In the meantime, as Qatar 2022 accelerates, it’s a line we’ll be hearing more and more in response to concerns about construction violence, birth corruption, and host fitness. Don’t look up. Keep staring at the light. Shut up, proles. We’ve already won this game.
It is also a line that must be challenged and firmly rejected. Partly because, quite frankly, it is an affront to the wider public intelligence community. And also because it is a semantic impossibility. Awarding the World Cup to Qatar was primarily a violent political act. Qatar 2022 only exists thanks to politics, soft power and a cold war in the Gulf, as processed by the warm, wet grip of FIFA’s many corrupt individuals.
Politics hasn’t just crashed this party, it’s marching its host around the parking lot in a headlock, emptying the fridge of beer and smashing the stereo. Hands up, who actually wanted it in the first place?
With Macron, this is even more darkly cynical. Macron is smart, wise and ironic in his outlook. He knows how absurd the call to keep politics out of sport will sound from a man in his position. After all, it was another French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who gave us this in the first place. Accounts differ from that famous meeting at the Elysée Palace before the 2010 Fifa bid vote, a luncheon attended by Sarkozy, Michel Platini and the Emir of Qatar. For whatever reason, Platini chose to vote for Qatar soon after. In Sepp Blatter’s version, this was done at Sarkozy’s request.
In the years that followed, French football was saved with Qatari TV money. Large gas and arms deals were exchanged. Even the then president’s personal fortune was tied to Qatari hedge fund money at one point. Sarkozy and Platini claim there was no swapping or deals around the World Cup. Sarkozy was convicted in 2021 of financial irregularities in the elections and sentenced to wear an electronic tag. And so Macron is now telling us, spectators of this circus, to keep politics out of sport, an absurd statement even without his own plans for a wildly exaggerated imperial opening ceremony for the Paris Olympics two years from now.
In the same vein, Infantino followed up his call for depoliticization of football with a hilariously solemn call for peace in Ukraine for the duration of the tournament (billed on the FIFA release as “President Infantino” speaking to President Putin there).
Sepp Blatter wanted to give the World Cup to Russia and then the US, thinking it would earn him a Nobel Peace Prize. Infantino seems to be suffering from a similar case of oily bald Swiss savior complex. Here’s a man so laughably blind to his own hypocrisy that it sometimes feels like a brilliantly realized piece of performance art.
In the meantime, the rest of us will be told to shut up and watch, gawk at that lit-up plaza, gush like the goodwill ultras of Qatari fan service. This kind of talk is solely to silence dissent, to promote only the top-down version of sport as politics. It must be fought aggressively.
Football will take place in Qatar 2022 anyway. There will be moments of beauty and glory. The best-guarded show in the world must go on. But when it comes to the politics of this thing, there’s no real choice, no matter how sternly those in power ask for peace while they work. To remain silent is to acquiesce in corruption, bad practices and the spreading of words like tolerance and inclusion as little more than super cool marketing tools. It is also to give up the game. Keep politics out of football? OKAY. You go first.