A Tale of Two Bigotries: World Football and American Football

The US, is a country whose national sport is almost uniquely American — American football.  At the international level, Canada, Mexico, and Japan are regarded as 2ndtier, while Austria, Germany, and France rank as 3rdtier. All of these countries rank far below the United States. But American arrogance is in full display when labeling local champions of this game “world” champions.  A “world” champion is crowned every single year for this American sport and only in America.  America is the world.  Prior to playing basketball at the international (Olympic) level, American basketball champions were also named “world” champions.  Then there is the “World” Series of baseball, whose champions are American; the game is played only by a handful of countries professionally with no outside participation in the World Series. Again, America is the world. Contrast that with “soccer”, the American epithet for a game the rest of the world calls football, because, except of the goalkeeper, handling the ball by any other player is a foul, often punishable by a yellow or even red card (expulsion).  American rugby would be the more appropriate name for the game.  Some 210 national associations affiliated to FIFA from around the globe (the game’s global governing body) are eligible to participate in the global qualifiers for the World Cup (WC) finalists.  Qualifiers for the once in every 4-year world cup in the South America zone start 3 years before the finals.  Now any emerging champion in such a tournament would deservedly earn the title world champion.  For the bulk of humanity, the world is not America.

Until recently, world football is the one place America had demonstrably failed to call the shots or institute regime change as the US often does with such ease among weak nations, especially of the Middle East.  The infamous FIFA scandal exposed by the US where some corrupt FIFA officials were indicted may have been the first step to change that. The US had charged some 40 individuals following an “investigation” into corruption in FIFA, several of whom have pleaded guilty and have been convicted — in America.  The global policing role of the US now extends to FIFA.  As usual, never the globe policing the US.  Meanwhile American war criminals, of which there are plenty, are neither indicted nor convicted, by any country or entity, not even god’s own the US of A.  American impunity goes unchallenged, whatever the platform may be: sport, economic, political, military or environmental.  With FIFA’s cash reserves approaching $2 billion, naturally the US might want a piece of the action, even with an eye for “Americanizing” a game that until recently (the first professional league in the US started after 1994 when the US hosted the WC) had not captured the American imagination.  Unlike the UN, FIFA had stayed surprisingly free from the clutches of American greed and hegemony.  That may not be for long.

With soccer now gaining unprecedented popularity and growth as a spectator sport in the US, despite not lending itself to “time outs” — less intended for player breathers, rehashing of coach tactics than for the millions of dollars to be raked in via commercials, American tentacles have begun seeking out FIFA.  It is only a matter of time before the net of American hegemony is cast ever wider.  If the odd American Green Beret is killed in a shithole country like Somalia, then the proverbial body of the iceberg being considerably bulkier than the tip would be an understatement.  Consider this: the 2010 WC final was seen by an estimated 1 billion people; the 2014 FIFA WC reached 3.2 billion viewers, more than one billion of whom watched the final game, according to figures from FIFA and Kantar Media.  In American hands, advertising revenues from such numbers of global audiences, billions of dollars would find their way to the coffers of the corporate members of the (less than) one percent.  Contrast that with the Super Bowl, yes, the game that creates “world” champions every single year, with an estimated audience of 103 million people, a tenth of the WC final viewership.

Now anticipation and nervous excitement is building up among countryfolk and fans of the game alike in the run up to the World Cup finals set to commence in Russia (of all places), on June 14ththis year with the final game to be played on July 15th.  The world’s most popular game is about to be upon us.  Thirty-two countries will be on show at this extravaganza.  Five of them hail from Trump’s very own shithole continent.

Now it never is smooth sailing for countries to even qualify for the initial rounds leading to the finals. Zimbabwe was disqualified from participating in the qualifiers because of their failure to settle the debt owed their coach, José Claudinei Georgini.  Indonesia was excluded from the preliminary competition because of government meddlingin the country’s domestic league.  Along the way, Nigeria was suspended, again because of government interferencein the election of officials for that country’s football ruling body, the Nigerian Football Federation.  But Nigeria had not been castigated by FIFA for some of her perennial problems in the past:  non-payment of coach salaries and player bonuses.  The bonus drama that accompanied Ghana players’ last-minute threat to pull out of the Brazil 2014 finals if their bonuses were not paid is now common knowledge.  The money carted in trucks was a global spectacle to behold.  No FIFA action resulted from that tragi-comic circus.  Kuwait were suspended by FIFA for, yes you guessed it, government interference. Spain, a one-time world champion (2010) was warned for the same reason after a president of the Spanish Football Federation stepped down after charges of corruption.  Others have questioned FIFA’s wisdom of giving carte blanch to football administrators even if the government courts had legitimate functions in addressing question of rampant corruption.  A recent incident in Ghana in which the President of that country’s Football Association was filmed proposing to journalists posing as investors that they pay him $11 million to grease the palm of government officials to help secure government contracts has gone viral.  But FIFA has maintained silence on this, despite the President of Ghana weighing in on the issue.  And the list goes on.

Speaking of government of interference, the US head of state appears immune from one of FIFA’s most sacred cows.  In attempting to drum up support candidacy of the US along with that of Canada and Mexico to host the 2026 WC, the Donald blatantly stated “It would be a shame if countries that we always support were to lobby against the U.S. bid. Why should we be supporting these countries when they don’t support us (including at the United Nations)?” Now if that is not enough to disqualify the US from hosting the WC as per the precedents mentioned, I don’t know what is, with political and economic blackmail to boot.  Yet the voting scheduled for Wednesday June 13thremains unchanged pitting the United (US-Canada-Mexico) candidacy against that of Morocco.  Else FIFA may be too weak to take action against the US in the event some allegations of corruption, which is never far from FIFA, are to swept under the rug.  If the US fails in its bid, expect hell to pay in the aftermath, along with vendetta for countries wanting to exercise their democratic right to choose their preferred candidate, a principle that the US aggressively tries to ram down the throats of other countries.  The gangster republic may be goaded into action should their candidacy be ditched. Already, Zimbabwe (of all countries) and Liberia are set to break rank with their African counterparts to lend support to the US-led countries, the latter citing long-standing relationship (the slavery connection?) with the US and the many Liberian immigrants residing in the US.  Not to mention the Liberian President’s son is a member of the US Men’s national team, and one that failed to qualify for the 2018 WC.

Aside from Trump’s veiled threat, he shamelessly sought support for the United candidacy from none other than from one of Trump’s 54 designated shithole countries, Nigeria.  The message being sent: we don’t want your excrement here, but we will be more than happy use your shitty votes for our candidacy. Of course, we all know that Nigeria, a country with a 50% Muslim population asking Trump to go easy on Iran and spare her the agonies of yet another war and worsening sanctions on that Muslim country, or exercise control on Israel’s killing frenzy of unarmed Palestinians would have as much luck as entreating Mr. Trump to ask his militarized racist cops to stop shooting unarmed African Americans.

Neither has the protesting of the murder of unarmed African Americans by NFL players by taking a knee seems to have made much impact on Mr. Trump’s sense of empathy and compassion. It is easier for his heart to bleed for Syrians dying from the as yet unproven allegation of Bashar Assad gassing his own people than the unabashed murder of his own citizens by racist cops.  Quite the contrary, Trump brazenly called for players who take a knee to leave the country, even questioning why the NFL did not expel those who did.  The very fact that sport is being used to impose a bizarre form of patriotism by mandating the playing of the US national anthem before each NFL game.  If that were not the case, none of the protest racist bruhaha would have arisen.  In fact, the NFL went a step further and imposed fines on players taking a knee. The pioneer of this action, Colin Kapernick remains without a team.  Still, his public statements to explain his action, that he “chose to sit to protest the oppression of people of color in the United States and ongoing issues with police brutality”.  The public outrage that his action provoked can only be understood in the light of an entrenched racism, one that refuses to acknowledge a fundamental right to protest peacefully and one that is in denial about the racism and injustices against minorities that are rampant in American society.  To his credit though, he established the Colin Kaepernick Foundation, dedicated to end oppression globally through education and social activism.   Not since Muhammad Ali’s famous refusal to be drafted to the US Army and his being stripped of his world heavyweight boxing title and the black power salutes by Tommy Smith and John Carlos to protest, what else, racism, during the 1968 Mexico Olympics, has a sporting celebrity stirred so much passion and fury in the country.  The common thread:  surprise — there are people, as there always will be, who find racism objectionable and despicable.

Some parallel merits being drawn here.  For reasons of political correctness, players of popular professional American sports with disproportionate African American (and other minority) representation — basketball, football, track and field or baseball are rarely the targets of racist chanting.  In fact, they seem enthusiastically cheered by largely White audiences.  In Europe, players of color continue to be victims of racist chants and little action is taken by local administrators of the game, UEFA (Europe’s governing body) of FIFA itself.  FIFA’s slogan of “say no to racism” has to rank among the most useless of slogans.  As is that other one “my game is fair play”.  The blatant contradiction of the unfair play of racist chants has not dawned on FIFA.  Or so it would seem.

Kweli Nzito is a retired scientist now living in the Philippines.