Ragging on FIFA feels very 2010. Not because soccer’s largest governing body isn’t corrupt or destructive or malignant or inept. It’s just that a lot of the ribbing Sepp Blatter received during his flatulent reign as FIFA president, when a sizable segment of Americans (and skeptical American sportswriters) were starting to get acquainted with the beautiful game, was coated in a thick layer of distinctly Yankee condescension. The common criticisms of FIFA were about what they were getting wrong, the harms they were doing across the globe, but with an added emphasis on rampant bribery scandals, rich old Italians and Belgians waking up from afternoon gin naps to riff on literally world-altering policy.
FIFA’s biggest trespass, if you read between the lines, was not being awful so much as being so blatant and lazy about it. Its members soaked their beaks while barely pretending to care for the sport they presided over. Americans hated this more than they hated the mistakes and scandals and crimes. We want our athletic institutions to really work at their swindles, the way the NBA and NFL do. We want them to be cynical and labor-loathing and avaricious and racist, but not say it. We want technocratic monsters. It’s amateur hour, over in Zürich. They’re not respectably nasty.
Personally, I prefer rulers who are as dumb and oblivious as possible.
One of FIFA President Gianni Infantino’s pet causes over the course of his tenure, which started in 2016, has been pushing a World Cup that takes place every two years instead of every four. There are obvious issues with this. Holding the tournament every four years feels about right and helps the competition feel special. The World Cup is something like time-lapse photography, the way it captures the sport at discrete moments placed a little bit less than a half-decade apart, this great player in his prime in 2014 bravely hanging on in 2018, promising national generations taking shape over the course of two or three cycles. At two-year intervals, that quality diminishes.
This is without mentioning that the best players in the world are overworked, participating in something like 30 to 35 league matches, maybe five or six more domestic cup games, international duty every couple of months, Champions League tilts in the fall and the spring. It’s not uncommon for Leo Messi or Robert Lewandowski to clock roughly 4,500 minutes in a single season just with their club teams. They already only get every other summer to recharge, because they’re featuring in either the World Cup or a continental tournament in even-numbered years. (You can bet that if the World Cup went biennial, UEFA and CONCACAF would quickly rush in to fill the empty off-year slot.) Asking these guys to exert themselves even more than they currently do is simply inviting higher injury rates and a lower standard of play.
The counterargument to this, of course, is that more World Cups mean more money (for the people who organize the World Cup). And we know this is the only argument that matters. We saw last year, when the European Super League was floated and failed, that soccer is slightly more bound by tradition than American sports, but its leaders are no more precious or benevolent. The Super League will happen, in some form, at some point, and the World Cup will probably eventually start taking place every other offseason. It’s a matter of when.
In the meantime, at least Infantino is embarrassing himself in the course of making his case for it. On Wednesday, he addressed the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe, an international body that supports human rights in European states, and claimed—I swear this is a real quote—that his World Cup scheme needs to come to fruition because: “we can [no longer] say to the rest of world ‘give us your money, but watch us on TV.’ We need to include them. We need to find ways to include the whole world, to give hope to Africans so that they don’t need to cross the Mediterranean in order to find maybe a better life but, more probably, death in the sea.”
So, that’s his pitch. It’s worth pointing out here that Qatar’s World Cup stadiums are being built with what is essentially migrant slave labor. 6,500 of those workers have died since Qatar was awarded the prestigious tournament in 2010. That same year, the World Cup was held in South Africa, which didn’t collect a dime in taxes from the nearly $3.5 billion in revenue FIFA paid itself for facilitating the games. Hosting a World Cup doesn’t enrich your country. It drenches your soil in blood and you lose money on the whole proposition. No one’s saying the soccer itself isn’t fun, but that is hardly the point. And, this doesn’t need to be said, but the desperate Africans piloting small watercraft across the Mediterranean can’t afford World Cup tickets. They need housing and education, not Sweden vs. Spain happening two towns over.
Infantino’s comments have been widely condemned. That’s no surprise. They are, even by the standards of his office, spectacularly offensive and dumb. But they don’t matter. The news cycle will bury them in sediment soon enough, the fervor will die down, and he’ll continue to work over influential folks in back rooms, pull in corporate sponsors, show the greedy people in suits who run things charts where the numbers keep going up year over year. He’s likely to get what he wants in the end, because it’s what capital wants, and we live in a world that functions according to capital’s desires. But even if he succeeds, Infantino will always be the myopic twerp who stood before a group of human rights advocates and argued we need more World Cups, so African migrants stop dying on the Mediterranean. He’ll always be the person who thought that was a compelling argument, and delivered it with a straight face. There’s no solace in this, really. Sometimes a perfect knowledge of who someone is and what they’re about is all you get. You know they’ve got a heart like an oil drum, you’re one hundred percent sure. And though you’re not in charge of anything, you have almost no power, you are deeply grateful not to be them.