Ronald McDonald calls for a global ban on meat-product sandwiches. Bears condemn arboreal defecation. David Beckham rails against the morally vapid celebrity bandwagon industry. And in other news Emmanuel Macron, president of France – yes, really, France – has declared on the eve of Qatar 2022 that we should all keep politics out of sport.
As we head into four weeks of mind-bogglingly politicized football theatre, sport as nation-building on a scale the world has barely seen, this has become an increasingly common line from those in power. It was the gist of Gianni Infantino’s pre-tournament letter to European football associations. And in fairness Infantino himself stuck to this line so diligently in Russia four years ago that he ended up at the Kremlin having a medal pinned on his chest and declaring Vladimir Putin to be a friend to the world and an emissary of love. History will judge Infantino accordingly. We have, as they say, the receipts.
In the meantime, as Qatar 2022 glides into gear, it is a line we will hear more and more in response to concerns about the violence of its construction, the corruption at its birth and the suitability of its host. Don’t look up. Keep staring at the light. Be silent, proles. We have already won this game.
It is also a line that needs to be challenged and decisively rejected. In part because it is, frankly, an insult to the wider public intelligence. And also because it is a semantic impossibility. Awarding the World Cup to Qatar was a violently political act in the first place. Qatar 2022 exists solely because of politics, soft power and a cold war in the Gulf, as processed through the warm, wet grasp of Fifa’s many corrupt individuals.
Politics has not only gatecrashed this party, it is marching its host around the carpark in a headlock, emptying the fridge of beer and trashing the stereo. Hands up who actually wanted it in the first place?
With Macron this is even more darkly cynical. Macron is smart, wised-up and ironical in his outlook. He knows how absurd the call to keep politics out of sport will sound from a man in his position. It was after all another French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who gave us this thing in the first place. Accounts differ from that famous meeting at Elysée palace before the Fifa bid vote in 2010, a lunch attended by Sarkozy, Michel Platini and the emir of Qatar. For whatever reason Platini chose to vote for Qatar shortly after. In Sepp Blatter’s version, this happened at Sarkozy’s request.
In the years that followed French football was bailed out by Qatari TV money. Big-ticket gas and weaponry deals were exchanged. Even the then-president’s personal fortunes were bound up at one stage with Qatari hedge fund money. Sarkozy and Platini maintain no bartering or cutting of deals took place around the World Cup. On an unrelated note Sarkozy was convicted of financial electioneering irregularities in 2021 and sentenced to wear an electronic tag. And so Macron now tells us, spectators at this circus, to keep politics out of sport, an absurd statement even without his own plans for a wildly overblown imperial opening ceremony for the Paris Olympics in two years’ time.
In similar vein Infantino followed up his call for the depoliticisation of football with a hilariously solemn call for peace in Ukraine during the tournament’s span (billed on the Fifa release as “President Infantino” out there speaking to president Putin).
Sepp Blatter wanted to give the World Cup to Russia and then the US because he thought this would win him a Nobel Peace Prize. Infantino seems to be suffering from a similar case of oleaginous bald Swiss savior complex. Here is a man so laughably blind to his own hypocrisy it feels at times like a brilliantly realized piece of performance art.
In the meantime the rest of us will be told to keep quiet and spectate, to gawp at that lighted square, to gush like the goodwill-ultras of the Qatari fan service. This kind of talk is designed solely to silence dissent, to promote only the top-down version of sport as politics. It should be aggressively resisted.
Football will happen regardless at Qatar 2022. There will be moments of beauty and glory. The world’s most preciously guarded show must go on. But when it comes to the politics of this thing there is no real choice, no matter how sternly those in power might ask for quiet while they work. To be silent is to acquiesce in corruption, poor practice and the spraying around of words such as tolerance and inclusion as little more than super-cool marketing devices. It is also to give up the game. Keep politics out of football? Okay. You first.