Bread and Circus: How Life Imitates the Mundial (or is it the other way round)?

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Let us begin with the Mundial.

I write this Editorial on the day after the Semifinals in Qatar. For football (soccer) lovers as myself (from the couch, I fear) it has been an exhibition of splendid football as well as an exciting and full-of-surprises competition. Elation and disappointments abounded. Think, to give but one example, of the Atlas Lions who justly earned the respect and admiration of the millions glued to their TVs. Another proof, if one was needed, that there is so much more to football than football.

The pending Final promises equally rich emotions regardless of the outcome.

And yet, we are all aware that this sporting feast was celebrated on a dark moral swamp. On the surface of the swamp there was everything associated with the location, Qatar. The very decision to select Qatar is mired in a dubious (and worse) procedures. A motion before a committee of the European Parliament to call things by their name – Bribery — was deflected by the Qatar lobbyists. If Sepp Blatter, contender for the World Cup in shady practices, is on record saying that ‘it was a mistake’ what else needs to be said?

And then there is the record of Qatar itself. The swamp is colored red with the blood of those who built those magnificent stadia. Its LGBTQ and women policies (a woman below the age of 25 needs male approval to travel abroad) to give but two examples, are in clear violation of FIFA’s own solemnly proclaimed norms, consecrated, however, in their egregious and public breach. There is no need to elaborate – it has been front and back page news for a long time.

Below the Qatar surface of the swamp, there is the darker story of FIFA itself. When the FIFA story makes it to Netflix, the bad news (a tip of the iceberg) is by now common knowledge. The high hopes of a “New FIFA” in 2016 under Infantino (resident of Qatar) have been bitterly dashed.

Speaking of Infantino, his 55 minute Apologia pro Qatar on the Saturday before the opening of the Mundial beats anything that was said in the lead up to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. (“How can you compare Germany of 1933-1939 — I am not referring to the genocidal 39-45 period —  to Qatar of today” I hear the squeals of protest? Well, I can. The are big differences but these are differences of degree, not of kind. A country in which the majority (!) of residents are deprived of citizen and human rights? The persecution and demonization of a minority because of their (sexual) identity? Homosexuals are not required to wear a Pink Star, but they can be sent to prison. A regime which does not even claim to be democratic? The list could continue.)

How did they, do they, get away with all this? Why are all the recurring scandals swept under the carpet, forgotten and forgiven, as no doubt the Qatar eruption and the never ending FIFA scandals will be?

 The World Cup (Perdon, the FWC – the FIFA World Cup as it is now sleekly termed) is the purest and most refined example of the power of Bread & Circus. The ‘circus’ part on this occasion is both literal (those exquisite stadia) and metaphoric. And the ‘bread’ part has an added meaning to the traditional one: Bread, in colloquial English, Grana, in colloquial Italian, allude to money. The billions spent and made. (I will pass over the issue of redistribution).

FIFA beats any Roman Emperor in understanding, brilliantly organizing (yes) and exploiting this latter day version of Panem et Circum. And we, yes, myself included, cannot resist the allure. And so the party will continue and any hope of reform of this organization is doomed. The Beautiful Game obscures its Ugly Masters.

The Mundial Imitates Life

But let us not delude ourselves that the Panem et Circum is limited to that Beautiful Game and those Ugly Masters. It is ubiquitous and increasingly so in the world of power and politics even in our cherished democracies. ‘Output’ or ‘Result’ legitimacy at the expense of ‘Input’ or ‘Process’ legitimacy is ascendant, and not only in so-called Sliding Democracies. I will pick but one example of many, close to my heart only second to football, namely our European Union.  

I recall my surprise and shock when one of the great constitutionalists and political theorists of recent times, the late and much missed Paco Rubio Llorente, commented to me in the heady days of the 90s and early 2000s: What worries me most about the European Union, he said, is its success. To my startled enquiring look he responded dryly: It habituates people to accept its sorely deficient democratic credentials. It is how undemocratic regimes corrupt the people.

Make no mistake and do not fall into the polarization trap: Rubio Llorente was no garden variety Eurosceptic. Quite the opposite. It is precisely his belief in the promise and nobility of the European construct which fueled his concern.

Not much has changed in our system of governance since he made those comments 25 years ago or so. The democratic credentials of the EU are still lamentably creaky as I have argued endlessly elsewhere.

And now, to underscore the point, Infantino’s apologetics have a contender for unctuous brazenness in the figure of, no less, the Vice President of the European Parliament (She of “Qatar is an example for the Gulf region”) and her “socialist” yacht and private jets associates. She provided the Circus. The Qataris the Grana.

Naturally and commendably, the EU leadership erupted in all manner of condemnation. But the laxity of the lobbying rules at the EU level are notorious. And it was not the EU institutions themselves who exposed the lobbying scandal taking place under their noses but the Belgian government and the Press.

And so it is with FIFA. It is never the organization itself, which, of course, speaks loftily about accountability and has all the window dressing formal institutional paraphernalia in place, which effectively polices itself. It took the FBI to bring down the Blatter regime. The Governance Committee of FIFA is entrusted with ensuring the integrity of the sport and the Organization. In the rulebook its independence is guaranteed and its powers, on paper, are quite extensive. In reality it is little more than a fig leaf and oftentimes a rubber stamp for all manner of porcheria. Full disclosure: I served for some time in the early days of its life on this Committee. It took but a few months to discover the sham behind the formal commitment to “Independence”. When they sacked the Chairman (“non renewal” they called it) – apparently our Committee was just a tad too independent for their liking — I and several of my colleagues resigned. Navi Pillay, a fellow member of the Committee, expressed it will in her letter of resignation: How can one serve in an Institution (FIFA) which does not follow its own rules?

But here, too, don’t blame “them”. It is us. We put up with all of this since the deserts are so alluring. The power of Bread and Circus.

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