“Great to see, fantastic to see on Sunday that FIFA has solved and figured out racism. They’ve decided to disband their anti-racism task force and declared that the job is done. You know kudos to them for figuring it out. I read that story/headline and I had a terrific laugh, that is quite something. It’s also quite fitting that they’ve decided to do this prior to the 2018 World Cup, which of course is in Russia. The members of the task force wrote that they have completely fulfilled its temporary mission, and they’re dissolving, the group is no longer in operation. That is hilarious, that is absolutely hilarious. Great joke, good job FIFA. You did it, you just keep doing it.”
— Mike Martignago in “Off the Pitch”, The Province Sports Podcast. September 28, 2016
It was just another Monday as I drove my car home from work with one of my favourite soccer podcasts playing through my stereo. It was “Off the Pitch”, hosted by the always entertaining, often sarcastic, and brutally honest local broadcaster Mike Martignago. After over an hour of in-depth analysis and discussion of continued failings by the Vancouver Whitecaps in Major League Soccer, Mike took an unexpected turn as he couldn’t help but briefly put the spotlight on FIFA. As I expected, it wasn’t good news. In fact, the news was so absurd and mind-boggling that I couldn’t help but think that he was the perfect person to reveal it in his satirical fashion.
You’re going to disband your Anti-racism task force because you’ve declared that the job is done? In what ways can you prove that this task force “completely fulfilled its temporary mission” and no longer needs to operate?
At first glance, this appears as a rather unpleasant headline which seems to reflect a certain level of complacency for the organization and its stance on the never ending battle with racism in the sport. The decision has unsurprisingly been met with widespread criticism, as not only anti-discrimination groups are dismayed, but even the Jordanian Football Association President and former FIFA Presidential candidate Prince Ali bin Hussein labelled the disbanding as “shameful” before claiming that the task force only served as a publicity stunt.
“The reality, as with many programmes within Fifa, is that the task force was never given real support since its conception,” said Prince Ali.
“Its role was more about FIFA’s image than actually tackling the issues. In fact the present task force committee has never even met. Now the idea that FIFA believes that it’s the right time to disband its anti-racism task force is ridiculous. There is still so much work to do, and FIFA must show leadership, take responsibility for reform and be accountable if change isn’t put into practice.”
Is he right to assume that FIFA have potentially given up on tackling issues of racism?
Before jumping to that unfair conclusion, there are more questions that need to be asked such as:
- What was the end goal for this task force;
- Why was this task force only on a temporary 3-year mission; and
- What positive changes have we seen in the fight against racism?
Thankfully, just days after announcing the ceased operations of the task force, FIFA were quick to provide another statement of clarification regarding the mission of the disbanded group and how they developed solutions to continue combatting racism. The statement assures that the organization wants to continue leading the way in the fight against discrimination, but insists that the task force did in fact succeed in their 3-year mission to develop and implement solutions to aid the fight against racial dissent.
However, it is easy to notice a trend to FIFA’s list of recommended solutions in the article. Most of these can merely be categorized as informative in nature, with specific guides, diversity awards of recognition, awareness events and training modules being touted as the concrete solutions to mitigate racism and stop its negative influence.
It is important to distinguish between FIFA’s own conviction that they managed to implement solutions to fight racism from the more apparent reality that they’ve only put the issue under a microscope for the world to become more familiar with. A “task force” by definition is usually armed and ready to complete a difficult mission, but FIFA really only managed to briefly assemble more of a research “committee” to help assist other nations with their unique discriminatory struggles.
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By embedding their strategic message of racial acceptance closely within the media coverage of major tournaments such as the World Cup, FIFA has strived for an undeniable image of accountability in terms of their anti-racism endeavours. Here we see how both popular sport and sport writ are used and identified as invaluable methods to the (re)production of popular discourse because of their position as highly influential social institutions (Couture, 2016). The #SayNoToRacism commercials and pre-match ceremonies starring world renowned superstars of the game are definitely effective at promoting the message, but they can only go so far as a preventative measure. Dixon et al highlight this exact same method of influence that is used by Great Britain’s educational charity “Show Racism the Red Card” throughout their research of potential barriers to the anti-racist message. With a professional player acting as a role model, there is a shared line of reasoning from FIFA’s point of view which assumes that younger generations will “listen, share and empathize with the experiences of high profile athletes that were previously only impersonally known through a one way mediated system of news generation” (Dixon et al, 2016).
Another reason why these high profile athletes are essential to FIFA is because of their capacity to inspire an element of spectacle during tournaments such as the World Cup. As a result of their involvement in anti-racism campaigns, these players become crucial distractions for FIFA to fight racism just like temporary bandaid would. By indirectly addressing the real issues with such fanfare, FIFA relates very much to what David Harvey described as a spectacle that masks the “rot beneath the glitter” (Friedman & Andrews, 2010).
This video of FIFA’s Head of Sustainment Federico Addiechi explaining another developed solution called the “Good Practice Guide on Diversity and Anti-Discrimination” is even guilty of explaining the goal of “providing tools for [FIFA] member associations to devise their own action plans” at the 48-second mark.
Essentially, this practice guide for anti-discrimination is trying to encourage other football associations across the globe to come up with their own preventative measures. It inevitably confirms part of Prince Ali’s accusation that FIFA is simply creating an image of responsibility rather than asserting their power or authority for real change. To make matters more questionable, Addiechi fails to provide a clear answer to the follow-up question of how FIFA plans on ensuring that recommended solutions are actually applied by soccer associations. Instead of explaining how FIFA plans on ensuring that their solutions are put to practice by other nations, Addiechi instead deflects that responsibility to suggest that member associations must do it themselves. He argues that the introduction of FIFA’s online platform is a helpful tool for encouraging other countries to begin supporting the application of FIFA’s anti-discrimination recommendations.
Where have we seen this pattern of FIFA showing a lack of accountability before? Oh yes, it was that awkward patch recently where many of their leading officials were found guilty of corruption charges.
Photo credit: www.skysports.com
Sepp Blatter promptly resigned from his fifth consecutive term in the FIFA presidency shortly after arrests were made, and can no longer count on his disbanded anti-racism task force to restore his tarnished legacy. To find out just how FIFA managed to get away with their irresponsible ways, Roger Pielke was motivated to research just how the structure of the organization allowed for such a lack of accountability to proper conduct.
“The various allegations of corruption that have surfaced in recent years suggest that FIFA may not have held itself to its own self-professed standards and those of the broader international community. The repeated failures of those seeking to enforce FIFA’s conformance to its own standards is why FIFA has faced a crisis of accountability.”
This crisis of accountability becomes even more problematic when FIFA creates an image of a task force that is supposed to be actively eliminating the growing concerns over racism in the beautiful game, but they still struggle to assert their authority when the related controversy rears its head. Even during the active years of the task force this was the case, as FIFA couldn’t avoid falling short of promises when faced with the unique issues of footballing organizations. One such incident involved Mexico during the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, as FIFA’s own anti-discrimination chief Jeffrey Webb hit out at the governing body for not properly deploying staff specifically to tackle the racist or homophobic abuse that erupted from fans during matches.
Mexican fans shouted “puto!” an offensive slang term for a gay man, nearly every time an opposing goalkeeper took a goal kick. As it turned out, FIFA eventually ruled that the Mexican FA would not be punished for the clear episodes of hate speech of the fans. Unfortunately, this video is lasting evidence that even Brazilian fans were able to get away with the hateful language that perpetuated throughout the stadium.
What if the goalkeepers had been subjected to racist slurs instead? This incident should never have ended in jest or with laughter as it clearly did. These events are a grim reminder of how some cultures that have historically been guilty of making monkey chants or throwing bananas towards black players have been quick to ask “where’s your sense of humour?” when confronted on their acts of racism (Kuper & Szymanski, 2009). Recurring racist incidents or hateful chanting by fans in certain areas of Italy continue to be dismissed as either normal or expected by journalists who regularly cover the domestic competition there today (Clancy et al, 2016).
Carrington expands on that notion that sport has both a historical and contemporary role in the shaping of racial discourse, as he argues that “even within a putatively post-racial era, the institutional forms of commodified and hyper-commercialized sports remain profoundly and deeply racialized (2010).”
In addition, he adds an emphasis on how much the fans and the atmosphere are equally capable of creating hate instead of acceptance of visible minorities.
“Sport is ambiguous. On the one hand, it can have an anti-barbaric and anti-sadistic effect by means of fair play, a spirit of chivalry, and consideration for the weak. On the other hand, in many of its varieties and practices it can promote aggression, brutality, and sadism, above all on people who do not expose themselves to the exertion and discipline required by sports but instead merely watch: that is, those who regularly shout from the sidelines.” (Carrington, 2010).
Even white supremacy comes to mind when experts begin to analyze how racism can continue to exist in today’s game. Through an analysis of racial formation and identity construction through sport by looking at ethnographic research of black communities in Britain, Carrington reveals that earlier accounts of data and knowledge were primarily conducted by white academics (2008). Hylton and Lawrence also assert that “white supremacy has very little to do, if anything, with a hatred of black people but more a hegemonic defence of (racialized) status and power” (2015).
Again, we see why FIFA should really begin to take more of a preemptive approach with harsher punishments for acts of racism to challenge any existing hegemonic systems. Although, without a task force in operation, this could prove to be even more difficult than before. One can only hope that Norbert Kersting’s comparison of the 2006 and 2010 World Cup can indicate a positive trend, as he concluded that “sport patriotism can be used to promote certain values like team spirit and discipline, but also tolerance, equity, multiculturalism and democracy” (2007).
It is also worth mentioning that FIFA do have more opportunities to prove us wrong for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. There are already plans for anti-racism regulations to be introduced ahead of the tournament, and hopefully this will see the promise of a new monitoring system to be actually put to use. Only time will tell.
Carrington, B., & MyiLibrary. (2010). Race, sport and politics: The sporting black diaspora. Los Angeles, [Calif.];London;: SAGE.
Hylton, K., & Lawrence, S. (2015) Reading Ronaldo: contingent whiteness in the football media, Soccer & Society, 16:5-6, 765-782, DOI: 10.1080/14660970.2014.963310
Kersting, N. (2007). Sport and National Identity: A Comparison of the 2006 and 2010 FIFA World Cups™. Politikon, 34(3), 277-293. doi:10.1080/02589340801962551
Kuper, S., & Szymanski, S. (2009). Soccernomics: Why England loses, why Germany and Brazil win, and why the U.S., Japan, Australia, Turkey and even India are destined to become the kings of the world’s most popular sport. New York: Nation Books.
Clancy, C., Carroll, N., & Shaw, C. (2016, October). Re: Italian Football FanCast [Audio blog comment]. Retrieved from http://forzaitalianfootball.com/italian-football-fancast/
Martignago, M. (2016, September 26). Re: Off The Pitch podcast [Audio blog comment]. Retrieved from https://soundcloud.com/offthepitch/otp-september-26