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Should football be given the Nobel Peace Prize?

Arsh Ajmera, Undergraduate batch of 2021

With the Nobel Peace prize having assumed a more symbolic character, its broadened ambit nudges one to think as to whether entities who have been committed to bringing the world together at large warrant the award. Indeed, further introspection leads this writer to wonder, that if the United Nations can win the award, why can’t an institution that is even bigger and more global than the UN? The question this poses is whether or not FIFA, on behalf of football, deserved the prize or not. Today, FIFA comprises 209 members compared to 191 of the United Nations, making it as universal as the United Nations. Its mission statement: For the game, For the world. “The world is a place rich in natural beauty and cultural diversity, but also one where many are still deprived of their basic rights. FIFA now has an even greater responsibility to reach out and touch the world, using football as a symbol of hope and integration.”

This is how FIFA’s commitment statement reads. But do the football honchos live up to these ideals, or do they too get pulled up by the referee for violating the spirit of the game? Most importantly, have they done enough to warrant a Nobel Peace prize at this point? This article sizes up their claims. The FIFA World Cup is a global mega event where people from different races,religions and ethnicities come together to create an atmosphere of fair play and friendliness. Every once in four years, during the world cup and the olympics, the term global village loses its abstract meaning and becomes concrete. However, since the World Cup is broadcasted on the television, one can get a sense of the world coming together: the World Cup is also one of the most watched events in the world. To strengthen this message, in 2012, along with the Nobel Peace centre, FIFA adopted the principle of shaking hands for peace. “With this new protocol, the referee and team captains will now not only shake hands before the match starts, but meet again at the same place on the pitch directly after the final whistle, closing the game with the ‘Handshake for Peace’” (FIFA 2012). While the players do their bit to reduce conflict by playing fair on the field, the state representatives attend these matches, providing a critical avenue for diplomatic relations to play out as well.

However, that is not the only side to the global footballing extravaganza. The World Cup is staged by countries on the back of their labour force, and their treatment of the same in the run up to FIFA’s showpiece event is something the organization has consistently turned a blind eye. To put in plainly, the infrastructure is built on the exploitation of the poor, who are denied any recourse. In Qatar, for the 2022 World Cup, the workers have to work for more than 9 hours a day and are made to stay in harsh conditions. Their rooms are dingy and crowded, and they’re often left bereft of water and electricity. Working conditions are deplorable, with construction continuing in full swing despite the terrible summer heat, despite numerous pleas for more ideal working hours.

Almost all the labour is migrant, hailing from Nepal, India and Bangladesh, which makes it perfectly acceptable to pay them less. It also makes them susceptible to more arm-twisting from the authorities. Many have died, with both the Qatar authorities and FIFA refusing to improve conditions and monitor the situation better.

Similarly, during the 2014 World Cup in Brazil,there were protests against the government’s treatment of the workers. On top of that, the World Cup in 2014 was a financial nightmare, with exponential cost overruns. The people of Brazil were furious, having witnessed money for more schools, hospitals and essential services being redirected for gleaming new stadia that weren’t even needed: Sao Paolo, for instance, had a brand new stadium built, costing the government billions, while its three existing world class stadia gathered dust. A few stadia aren’t even used, and have now been converted to disproportionately world class bus stations. The costs and corruption that went into the World Cup in 2014 exposed FIFA chief Sepp Blatter as a money-laundering criminal, and even cost Brazilian President Dilma Rouseff her office.

Gifting the Nobel Peace prize to FIFA on the back of this would be a vulgar gesture, to say the very least. The World Cup may claim to bring the globe together like nobody else in a month-long football festival, but what goes on behind the scenes is an alarming display of corporate crime and complicity on part of FIFA in the process of organizing the very event. But what of FIFA’s enormous social responsibility efforts? Well, the problems continue. FIFA started with its corporate social responsibility (CSR) programme in 2005. Since then they have about 22% of their revenues in CSR. The majority of CSR activities aim at alleviation of poverty, environmental protection and children’s development and education. All of these are issues that can prevent future conflicts and build peace – not immediately, of course, but over a longer term. The problem with FIFA’s CSR problem has been that in countries like South Africa and Brazil, it has been short term. After the 2010 and 2014 world cup, the programme was stopped abruptly and the people never reaped any benefits of it. Secondly, the CSR programmes are funded by companies like Coca Cola and Adidas, who have often been accused of investing heavily in their CSR initiatives to cover up human rights violations within the organization. In fact, FIFA CSR Director Federico Addiechi on 16 June 2010 admitted that FIFA indulged in this as recently as ten years ago, noting that the organization judged CSR success via “Return on Image”. Hence, FIFA needs to do much more to improve life in the countries where they are holding the event.

There is no doubting the fact that FIFA has, over the 117 years of its existence, contributed greatly to the exercise of building a global community. However, a closer and more critical look at the organization’s activities will reveal that beyond the goody-two-shoes image of the organization, it is besotted with problems. It is home to rampant workplace sexism, and has barely done enough to promote the women’s sport. It has harboured and enabled corrupt officials and even its showpiece event, the World Cup, is one that comes with its own set of issues.

The rhetoric of fair play falls woefully short as far as FIFA’s own activities are concerned. Beyond the football field, it is a carnival of carnage, one that cannot at this time be heralded as the ideal ambassador for football itself, let alone world peace.

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