What Is Fairness in a Football World Cup Ruled in Skill and Money by Europe?

While the finals have been dominated by European teams, the build up to and narratives of the World Cup also favour preserving 'football culture' with the traditional elite.

This article is part of a series from Russia that analyses the sociopolitical issues surrounding the World Cup. With a combination of perspectives and reporting from the ground, overlooked and underplayed themes in football will be carried to the surface on The Wire.

Moscow: It nearly worked. For a month, Russia had given us a lesson in image management. None of the fears repeated ad infinitum before the World Cup were realised, as a softer, more welcoming visage was nurtured. But on Sunday, the slivers of dissent finally revealed themselves.

As Croatia made its way into the French half early in the second period, four people ran on to the pitch to interrupt play. It was a sight never seen before in a World Cup final; the political significance of the act dawned upon the 78,011 people in attendance at the Luzhniki Stadium only later, when the dissident band Pussy Riot claimed responsibility on its Facebook page. For all the image management that had gone on before, this incident meant that one of the enduring images of this World Cup will be of French star Kylian Mbappe high-fiving a protestor. Even the best-laid designs, it seems, can come apart.

The presence of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the heads of the states which had made their way into the final – Emmanuel Macron and Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic – amplified the political context at the Luzhniki Stadium. Pussy Riot’s decision to spread its message during the World Cup final was impeccable, as there is no higher sporting pinnacle.

But the backlash for those involved will be severe. At the time of writing, the protestors were in police custody with no access to their lawyers. The implications of their rebellious act are decidedly uncertain too. As Peter Pomerantsev memorably wrote, in present-day Russia, “the stage is constantly changing: the country is a dictatorship in the morning, a democracy at lunch, an oligarchy by suppertime.”

The confusion wreaked by this fluid situation is often reflected in the anti-Russia hysteria whipped up by Western media outlets. In the context of the World Cup, the mistrust was gradually built up from the time hosting rights were awarded in 2010. While fears about Russia were not without substance, it was often understated how at home FIFA feels in a managed democracy.

Hosting a major sporting event is mainly about projecting strength to one’s internal constituents. The limited avenues for dissent in Russia meant that the World Cup could be promoted as another high point in the country’s narrative of impending glory. President Putin understood it better than most that the tournament would allow him to varnish his political message.

But only those who see the World Cup as an empty vessel would believe that the competition was exploited by the Russian state alone. After a troubled few years thanks to the corruption scandal, FIFA could allow itself the pleasure of cherishing the smooth festivities. In four years’ time, the governing body may feel even more welcome at the World Cup hosted by Qatar; democracy is clearly not FIFA’s strongest suit. The tournament’s next edition is expected to roll out a shinier red carpet for visitors, with promises of unprecedented comfort for the rich and privileged already made.

Qatar will have to try harder because the West Asian country has been the target of football-watching public’s ire right from the moment it won the bid to host the tournament. The monarchy’s appalling human rights record has been a particular concern. Still, we should be wary of the Eurocentrism in criticism of the Qatari state. The disapproval of the 2022 World Cup extends its origins to the belief that the host is not a ‘footballing nation’.

While that may be true if one considers only the record of its national team, commentary which speaks of the poverty of football culture is often a ruse to preserve the greatest gifts in football for the traditional elite. Such arguments also overlook the democratic impulse which, in principle, underpins the World Cup. In response, Eurocentric commentators often like to point towards the pragmatic transactions which guide the spread of football – corrupt deals and power plays – but such fears are played up when the World Cup moves away from ‘sanitised’ locations.

But these ‘sanitised’ locations are not always clean either. A Swiss federal investigation, coupled with a FIFA inquiry, into Germany’s successful campaign to host the 2006 edition of the tournament has featured repeated mentions of slush funds and arms deals. Looking ahead, one of the co-hosts of the 2026 World Cup is the United States of America, which continues to escape major scrutiny over its human rights record. Canada, another home for football eight years from now, enjoys a relative free pass over its arms deals with Saudi Arabia. The criticism dished out to Russia and Qatar is unlikely to be repeated in the build up to the 2026 edition.

President of France Emmanuel Macron celebrates after France win the World Cup next to spouse Brigitte Macron, FIFA president Gianni Infantino, President of Russia Vladimir Putin and President of Croatia Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović. Credit: REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

The strains of Eurocentrism in footballing discourse have also been felt on the pitch during the last three World Cups. The champion of each of those editions, Spain, Germany and France, enjoys the benefit of immense football resources, which is a consequence of the astronomical capital invested in the sport. If you add England to the list – is it a mere coincidence that the Three Lions had its best performance at the World Cup in 28 years following a significant financial outlay towards the national side over the past decade? – a quartet of the football elite emerges.

The continental implications of this power structure cannot be overlooked. It has been 16 years since a non-European nation won the World Cup and for a second time in the past four editions, the lineup for the semifinals comprised countries from Europe alone. Until 2010, no nation from the continent had won the World Cup outside its region. But Spain and Germany broke the long-standing record by emerging as victors in South Africa (2010) and Brazil (2014) respectively.

As Iran’s head coach Carlos Quieroz remarked in Russia, the gap between European countries and the rest seems to be growing. It is noteworthy that the biggest surprises in an unusually open tournament were largely the preserve of Europe: Russia and Sweden in the quarters and Croatia in the final. Although European countries do perform better at tournaments played in familiar conditions, the recent upsurge is significant particularly because it arrives at a moment when the financial disparity between Europe and its traditional challenger, South America, is growing at breakneck pace.

These trends raise important questions for the World Cup as it reckons expanding to 48 teams. Even though the ultimate showpiece of football will be made more accessible, does the spreading of rewards more thinly than before signify an equalising drive? The answer remains uncertain. Ground for optimism is certainly weak when the World Cup is showing signs of turning into a bastion of one continent. This will not be an entirely novel shift, as the influence of South American clubs has also diminished. They can no longer even hope to challenge the European behemoths.

But the World Cup will continue to attract greater contestation as the show moves towards Qatar. The calls for greater transparency from the host will mean little when FIFA itself remains opaque. The governing body prioritising its own interests is not always ‘for the good of the game’, as its motto goes; any aspiration of a fairer World Cup, in terms of the football and its organisation, will have to be led by a challenge to the status quo within FIFA.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino. Credit: Reuters

As for Russia, despite the blip on the final day, the host of the 2018 edition will stand out for setting new standards of organisation. The Putin administration’s decision to waive the visa fee and make public transport free for visiting fans was, ironically, among the most democratising moves ever seen in the context of a World Cup. Importantly, this tournament also created a space for narratives of Russia which do not add to the paranoia about the country, without also cheer leading those in power. Other meanings and lessons will be gathered with time, but an image from the final spoke volumes.

As it bucketed down from the sky during the presentation ceremony here, the only umbrella available was employed in the service of President Putin while Macron and Grabar-Kitarović, in the company of FIFA president Gianni Infantino, were left soaking in the rain. Arrangements were made in haste but not soon enough.

A wider metaphor stood out immediately. The World Cup is about the host and a consolidation of its interests. The agendas of those on the outside matter, but are secondary; as Russia has shown, even the pan-global force that is FIFA can be made to dance to a tune. And once the host is satisfied with the party organised, there can even be room for some rain on others’ parade.

Priyansh is an independent writer based in New Delhi. He tweets @GarrulousBoy.