Politics of World Football – FIFA in the Dock

Patrice Motsepe with Donald Trump and FIFA President Infantino
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FOR a long time, FIFA has willy-nilly suspended national football teams from all international football activities citing “third party” interference.

Zimbabwe and Kenya are the latest to be suspended on those allegations.

For Zimbabwe, the punishment arose after the ZIFA board was suspended by the Sports and Recreation Commission on November 16 last year, on numerous charges including alleged sexual abuse, misappropriation of funds and age-cheating.

A warning was fired at the Sports Commission and Zimbabwe by FIFA late December last year, when the Warriors were in camp ahead of the belated 2021 Total Energies African Cup of Nations hosted by Cameroon, that the country risked suspension if the ZIFA board was not reinstated.

To the relief of Warriors fans, who wanted to watch their team in action, no decision was made before the start of the tournament, allowing the Warriors to compete.

Last Thursday, FIFA general-secretary, Fatma Samoura, dropped a bombshell in a letter written to suspended ZIFA chief executive, Joseph Mamutse, indicating that Zimbabwe was being suspended from international football activities until it reinstated the Felton Kamambo-led executive committee.

The suspension means the Zimbabwe national teams and clubs are no longer entitled to take part in international competitions until the suspension is lifted.

“This also means that neither the ZIFA nor any of its members or officials may benefit from any development programmes, courses or training from FIFA and/or CAF,” reads the FIFA statement.

However, a few days down the line, Russian forces went into Ukraine as it feared that its security was under threat over various issues including Kyiv’s decision to request to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).

Since then, political leaders have pressured UEFA, to withdraw the hosting of this year’s UEFA Champions League final by Russia, in St Petersburg. A decision was taken promptly and France has since been given the nod to host the final. Clearly, UEFA took the decision based on the pressure piled by Western political leaders who were uncomfortable with the decision taken by Russia over Ukraine.

On its part, FIFA announced on Monday that it had suspended Russia from all UEFA and FIFA competitions, the World Cup play-offs included, over the Ukraine issue.

In its statement, FIFA claimed that football was “fully united here and in full solidarity with all the people affected in Ukraine”.

FIFA’s statement does not say how football, which has been advised to be apolitical all along, suddenly became interested in the Russia/Ukraine issue.

“Following the initial decisions adopted by the FIFA Council and the UEFA Executive Committee, which envisaged the adoption of additional measures, FIFA and UEFA have today decided together that all Russian teams, whether national representative teams or club teams, shall be suspended from participation in both FIFA and UEFA competitions until further notice,” read the statement issued on Monday.

At the moment, the British Olympic Association (BOA) is also calling for the “exclusion of Russia and Belarus from international sport”.

It is unclear how sporting organisations can call for the punishment of others over political issues, but FIFA’s suspension of Russia from international football activities indicates that anything is possible at this stage if you are what is described in international politics as an “enemy State”.

Simply put, an “enemy State” is one that does not pander to the whims and caprices of the top European economies and the United States.

Conversely, a “friendly State” does everything that the so-called superpowers want, and is not punished for any wrong, never mind how big the issue is.

Zimbabwe can have sanctions imposed on it if police officers fire teargas to disperse violent crowds. The killing of a Bulawayo policeman during violent demonstrations in January 2019 was treated as a non-event by the so-called global superpowers, but the dispersing of the demonstrators using water cannons and batons by police was seen as an abuse of human rights.

Similarly, the late former Foreign Affairs and International Trade Minister, Sibusiso Busi Moyo, and Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services Ministry Permanent Secretary, Nick Mangwana, were abused at Chatham House in London, in 2019, and the abusers were hailed as heroes by the “developed world”.

It would appear as if Government officials and national security officials are not treated as humans.

But has football really been divorced from football? A number of scholars including Dunning, Murphy, & Waddington (2002); Spaaij, De Waele, Gibril, & Gloriozova (2018), say in recent years, political actors have capitalised on football for both social and political mobilisation, which often evidence a network of relationships between football, politics and society.

In Zimbabwe, the Government has always supported football either through football tournaments such the Independence Day and Unity Day trophies, or financially when teams, including the senior national team, when ZIFA failed to raise adequate finances for airfares or bonuses.

Government, through the Sports and Recreation Commission fully funded the Warriors AFCON campaign in Cameroon in January and recently bankrolled the Mighty Warriors for the remaining games of their own version of AWCON qualifiers against Botswana.

At no point did FIFA threaten to sanction Zimbabwe over such interventions. But now that there are serious allegations of sexual and financial abuse, FIFA springs to the defence of local football managers and claim interference by the Government.

Sexual abuse is not tolerated in most parts of the world and why Zimbabwe should not investigate it when allegedly perpetrated by football administrators is baffling.

FIFA must spell out what “third party interference” entails, because the women that raised allegations of sexual abuse also need to be protected by the law.

The move by FIFA to suspend Zimbabwe after trying to bring alleged sexual predators to book means national football administrators are now above national laws.

Interestingly, FIFA was not vocal over the Spain/ Catalonia impasse after a referendum that saw many people from Catalonia voting to establish an independent State.

Barcelona defender Gerard Piqué openly supported the referendum and said he was ready to stand down from the Spanish national team if he was deemed a “problem” by the national team coach or the Spanish Football Federation due to his support for Catalan independence. Not much was said about that by FIFA, for strange reasons.

Now, FIFA has probably the biggest test of its sincerity after Cameroon President Paul Biya on Monday reportedly directed the football association there to appoint former Indomitable Lions and Liverpool defender Rigobert Song as the national team coach.

Song, 45, replaced Antonio Conceicao, who led the national team during the recent AFCON finals where it finished third.

Cameroon Sports Minister, Narcisse Moulle Kombi, said in a statement on Monday: “On very high instructions from the President of the Republic, the coach of the men’s national football team, Mr Antonio Conceicao, has been replaced by Rigobert Song.

“The Cameroonian Football Federation (Fecafoot) is invited to take the necessary measures for a rapid and harmonious implementation of these very high directives.”

Cameroon is due to play World Cup qualifying play-offs against Algeria in a two-legged tie this month for a place at Qatar 2022.

Zimbabwe and other “marked” States wait to see what happens.