How can an international governing body sink so low? FIFA’s credibility is done for — if it had any left, that is. Its reputation has sunk about as low as that of the banks during the financial crisis, or of the German secret services when it was revealed that they were implicated in the terror campaign of the neo-Nazi National Socialist Underground.
Glenn Jäger is author of the book In den Sand gesetzt: Katar, die FIFA und die Fußball-WM 2022 (PapyRossa Verlag, 2022).
Translated by Joel Scott and Marty Hiatt for Gegensatz Translation Collective.
The arguments about the World Cup in Qatar have played out. Germany was seen off gleefully by some locals. The Qatari Emirate accused decision-makers in politics, business, sports associations, and the media of double standards, identifying a real sore point: the Germans initially put their weight behind Qatar’s bid for the World Cup in order to promote business relations, only to then shower the country with accusations around the “One Love” armband fiasco.
Who could hold it against people in Buenos Aires, Rio, Dakar, or Rabat for succumbing to World Cup fever? Yet anyone who thought debate in Germany would die down — or even be shut down — as soon as the ball started to roll was mistaken. According to reports, the mood was even sombre at the lavish VIP party at the Infinity Rooftop Lounge of the Alwadi Hotel in Doha before Germany’s opening fixture against Japan, where grilled prawns with lemon and coriander and “fresh fruit kebabs” were served. The event was hosted by the sponsor of the German Football Association, Volkswagen.
Volkswagen’s interests in this World Cup extend well beyond the shifting fortunes of Germany’s national team. With a 17-percent voting stake, Qatar Holding is the third-largest shareholder in the global corporation from Wolfsburg, following Porsche and the state of Lower Saxony. This entanglement alone would be enough to justify the demand to place FIFA under UN control. One of the key objectives of this demand would be to separate football from vested financial interests. I’ll consider this in more detail later, but first I’d like to take a brief look back at the months before Qatar won the bid to host the 2022 World Cup in December 2010.
The World Cup Bid (I): Germany and Qatar
In March 2010, Christian Wulff, then premier of the state of Lower Saxony, travelled to Qatar with the top executives of Volkswagen and Porsche. In May, Chancellor Merkel had marvelled at the “impressive projects” in which “German businesses naturally wanted to be involved”.
At an event in Bellevue Palace in September, Wulff, now the Federal President of Germany, announced to the emir and German business representatives that Germany was interested in “gaining access to Qatar’s gas reserves”, and that it could play a part in the “ongoing modernization” of the country. Herbert Lütkestratkötter, then director of construction giant Hochtief, met with Chancellor Merkel and the Qatari government. German planning and architecture firms, such as AS+P – Albert Speer und Partner, had already put together the paperwork for Qatar’s bid. FC Bayern Munich were supposed to open their first training camp in Qatar by the start of 2011.
Soon it was not only Munich that was deepening relations with the Emirate: in 2018, the chancellor and the emir welcomed around 1,000 guests to a German–Qatari investors’ summit worth billions of euro. Executives from Siemens, Hapag-Lloyd, and their ilk were all there, with Bayern Munich boss Karl-Heinz Rummenigge front and centre. In addition to the significant shares that Qatar holds in Volkswagen, Porsche, and Deutsche Bank, the Qatar Investment Authority signed a 2.43-billion-euro loan to RWE this autumn, making them the largest shareholder in the German energy provider.
To this day, Franz Beckenbauer, at the time Germany’s delegate to the FIFA executive committee, has remained silent about who received his vote in the 2010 decision — despite his personal activities in the Emirate, his deep ties to Bayern Munich, the flow of money to Qatar around the 2006 World Cup, and the German Football Association’s close links to politics and business.
The World Cup Bid (II): France and Qatar
With Qatar’s successful bid, major contracts for construction and infrastructure projects beckoned for France as well, whose ties to the Emirate ran even deeper than Germany’s. According to the Qantara news portal, the current value of Qatar’s assets in France is somewhere in the vicinity of 25 billion euro. In 2008, the French parliament passed a law making Qatari investments in France tax-free.
In the years before and after the World Cup bid, the Qatar Investment Authority was a “major shareholder in companies such as the (construction company) Vinci, (oil corporation) Total, the energy, technology, water, and media corporations Veolia, Vivendi, and Engie SA, the global publishing, media, and sporting rights corporation Lagardère, Air Liquide (industrial gases), the nuclear power provider Areva, Technip (power plant engineering and construction), the aerospace company Airbus Group … [and] France Telecom”.
In the mid-2010s, there were around 50 companies in Qatar that “belonged to French investors, along with some 100 joint ventures”. The real estate and arms business was also flourishing. With MiliPol Qatar and MiliPol Paris, France and Qatar have set up an alternating trade fair at the intersections of policing, the arms industry, and politics.
A legendary meeting was held at the Élysée Palace just a few days before the World Cup announcement. Along with President Nicolas Sarkozy, Emir Hamad bin Al Thani and FIFA delegate Michel Platini were in attendance. This was the time when the sale of the club Paris St. Germain (PSG) to a Qatari consortium was being lined up.
A few weeks after the World Cup announcement, Platini’s son Laurent was made the European head of Qatar Sport Investments (QSI). In their book The Ugly Game, Heidi Blake and Jonathan Calvert report that Platini was “under intense political pressure from the then French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, to vote for Qatar in exchange for big commercial investments in France”. Platini himself later conceded: “Sarkozy had made his wishes clear to me.” Former FIFA president Joseph “Sepp” Blatter explained that Qatar “won due to political interventions on the part of France at the highest levels. This much we know.”
The World Cup Bid (III): Qatar and the Rest
What happened with the rest of the 22 FIFA delegates in the vote for the 2022 World Cup? (Two of the 24 committee members were barred from voting due to corruption allegations.)
Qatar reportedly spent hand-over-fist to win the vote. According to leaked information, the Qataris’ deep pockets put smiles on the faces of officials in Argentina and Brazil, Egypt and Nigeria, Cyprus and Thailand — and even as far away as the South Pacific island of Tahiti. Some of the political and financial wheeling and dealing that went along with this was vertiginous.
Handing Control to the UN General Assembly
Using a World Cup to pursue economic and political interests? The goalposts to corruption would not be so wide open if the awarding of the tournament was not in the hands of an illustrious circle of FIFA insiders, but under the auspices of the General Assembly of the United Nations. The massive media profile of the World Cup and the economic and geopolitical significance it enjoys would be reason enough to bring FIFA under the control of the UN.
This demand, which was first made in a modest fashion in 2018, seems as easy to explain and popularize as it would be to implement. The core political objectives would be:
- Untangling the complex ties between FIFA and its sponsors, between football and commercial interests
- Putting the world game under public control
- Making peace-building a guiding objective of FIFA
- And an additional demand: connecting football with climate policy.
I’d like to look at each of these points individually.
1. Untangling the complex ties between FIFA and sponsors, between football and commercial interests
The brazen pursuit of vested interests, as was seen with Germany and France in the case of the World Cup in Qatar, should be made impossible. What’s more, sponsors should be prevented from influencing the decisions of the sport’s governing body.
Whether the boards around the pitch remain free of ads or not is secondary, but surely the deplorable fact that a tournament host has to grant tax-free status to FIFA should become a thing of the past. The objective must be that FIFA can be no more driven by profit than UNICEF or the UNHCR.
2. Putting the world game under public control
Under UN governance, public control would extend far beyond the decision over who hosts the World Cup. For example, we need to put an end to the fact that FIFA relies on an internal ethics commission for its supposed anti-corruption activities. Ewald Lienen said it all in 2015 when he was coach of FC St. Pauli: “If I’ve messed up, do I say: sorry, I robbed the joint, but we’ve set up an intra-family investigation committee, let’s see what comes out of it, it’s not clear yet? What a joke!”
There was plenty of satisfaction when the FBI started going after FIFA functionaries. But why the FBI? What legitimacy does the federal law enforcement agency of the United States bring to the situation? In some quarters, the FBI has even less credibility than FIFA. Meanwhile, those who might have suspected that the US was seeking to gain influence over international football would have felt vindicated when the investigations came to a halt as soon as the 2026 World Cup was awarded to the US and their neighbours north and south.
3. Making peace-building a guiding objective of FIFA
What has become of the lofty ideals of peace and understanding among nations that is often invoked in connection with both the World Cup and the Olympic Games? On this question, FIFA can hardly dispute accusations of double standards if we look at current events. Russia was excluded from the tournament due to accusations of violating international law, but when it comes to Western states, has there ever been the slightest thought of comparable measures? Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya — the West’s wars have at times flagrantly violated international law. But was there any debate during the 2006 World Cup about whether Germany was an acceptable host despite its participation in the bombing of Yugoslavia?
And Qatar? The Emirate has a military base for the country’s air force that is primarily used by the US Army. It functions as the United States Central Command (CENTCOM) in the region. From here, operations such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq were led, in violation of international law.
Qatar’s forces also took part in NATO’s war against Libya, openly with fighter jets and covertly by supporting jihadi rebels — a Qatari major general admitted having acted in that war as “as the link between the rebels and NATO forces”.
This was confirmed by Andreas Krieg of the UK Defence Academy at King’s College London, who was also an advisor to the Qatari Army. In a written version of a talk to the Society for Austrian–Arab Relations, he explained that Qatar had “continued to support rebel groups, primarily in Libya and Syria”: “I arrived in Qatar in 2012 ... during the 2011 operation in Libya I was still part of the UK Ministry of Defence. And the British ultimately asked the Qataris if they would take on that role, because it was clear that the NATO states would not send any ground troops. Which the Qataris then did. So supporting the rebels in Libya was something the West gave a very clear green light to.”
And Syria? With regard to the accusation of providing support to terrorists, the former Qatari foreign minister Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani admitted that “from the very first day” (i.e., from 2011), his country had supported armed groups by providing money and weapons — together with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the US. He also claimed that there were detailed documents about the agreements.
Meanwhile, up until 2017, Qatar took part in the Saudi-led war against Yemen, which according to the German news programme Tagesschau had already led to the deaths of some 370,000 people by early 2022. At the World Cup opening ceremony, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was seated beside FIFA secretary general Gianni Infantino as the representative of Saudi Arabia. When it comes to questions of war and peace, it would be up to the UN to set guidelines for FIFA — and without double standards.
4. The world game and climate policy: more than a “Save the Planet” armband
There are many signs that we are on the “highway to climate hell”, as UN Secretary-General António Guterres phrased it at the most recent world climate conference. Urgent mitigating measures are something that football’s governing body also needs to face up to — and not just lip service in the form of official FIFA “Save the Planet” captain’s armbands. “The fairy tale of a climate neutral tournament” was the title of a Deutschlandfunk radio feature asking what we should make of a “sustainable” tournament “when for the World Cup seven new stadiums had to be built, and practically everyone in the crowd comes by plane?”
And the 2026 World Cup in North America? For the first time, 48 countries will qualify. Teams, support staff, media, hordes of fans from all over the world — most of them will be flying in from overseas, along with the travel back and forth between Mexico, the US, and Canada. Try working out the carbon footprint generated by the flights alone (Munich–New York return generates almost 4 tonnes of CO2 emissions per person).
There are many demands to be made. One would be to reduce the World Cup back down to 24 teams, which would also make the qualification process more exciting again.
How Do We Get There?
In Germany in particular, this World Cup never really took off, and by no means only because of the on-field performance of the national team. Some people joined fan protests, while others switched off altogether.
It may be that in future, World Cup fever remains subdued. Yet at the global level, the World Cup will most likely remain football’s High Mass in the medium term — and sometimes also its festive holidays. Simply ignoring it is not going to achieve much.
The problem with a demand like the UN intervening in football is: who will listen? More to the point: who will implement it, given that it goes against the interests of politics, business, and the governing bodies and associations?
There would need to be massive political pressure from below, and it would need to come from a whole host of countries. Although the demand seems significantly more realistic than the call for an alternative governing body, one thing is clear: it will remain an idea until its mass appeal is put to the test in the real world. It will live or die in the grandstands, among the fans — there’s no point asking the associations for support.
But to get back to that Volkswagen reception with the grilled prawns and the trendy fruit kebabs. It calls to mind a story from the 1986 World Cup. FIFA hadn’t yet succumbed to the pull of a capitalism driven by finance markets, leading to headlines about tax havens and venture capital. And yet, as a result of the neoliberal turn that took off around 1973, total commercialization was gaining speed in football as in other spheres of life.
Mexico ’86: Argentina had to play in the scorching midday sun — because of the broadcast times on the other side of the globe. After the game, Maradona waltzed up to the VIP lounges and laid into the FIFA officials: “It’s all well and good that you’re here eating your expensive caviar and drinking the best champagne, but…”
At UN meetings, the only bubbles are in the mineral water.