The cracks are starting to show at FIFA as the unthinkable nuclear option becomes clearer

Ian King
A pride flag with the FIFA 2022 World Cup ball

The DFB are threatening legal action, and there’s even been talk of walking away altogether. Are cracks with FIFA starting to show?

 

It’s a suggestion that has almost felt too great to take on, but now it’s out in the open. It has been clear for some time that there is a threat of a schism in world football, but this possibility has never really been discussed at any length over the last ten years. But FIFA’s handling of the 2022 World Cup has been such that while the endpoint still feels remote to the point of impossible, the first cracks in a game that has never experienced such ructions as it does now could be starting to show.

The question that follows on from this, one which may come to define the next decade or more of international football, is: do we want to repair those cracks, or might they grow so great that the whole edifice comes tumbling down?

The photograph of the Germany team with their hands over their mouths flashed around the world, and the huge shock result that followed is unlikely to detract from such an important message. It is an image which will help define that match and possibly even this entire tournament. But however iconic it may turn out to be, equally important statements were being made away from the pitch.

Germany players cover their mouths before a match

Far from the supine response to the ‘OneLove’ ban that FIFA were hoping for – and the FA dutifully and shamefully delivered – it would appear that some of the other nations forced to withdraw their tiny nod towards anti-homophobia were merely getting their ducks in a row before hitting back.

The DFB – German Football Federation – has raised the possibility of legal action against FIFA over the cancellation of an advertising campaign by REWE, one of Germany’s biggest supermarket chains, over the way in which all of this has been handled. This all reflects a considerably angrier reaction to the tournament being held in Qatar seen in Germany than in England, with mass demonstrations, tifos at Bundelsliga matches before the tournament started and widespread public calls for boycotts. Just 9m people watched the Japan match compared to a minimum of 25m for each of their three games in 2018, which is a point at which it becomes a problem for both the DFB and ultimately FIFA.

And Denmark have spoken, too. They have confirmed that they will not be voting for Gianni Infantino to be re-elected as its president. In a clear sign of a functioning, democratic organisation, Infantino is running unopposed in the forthcoming elections. And it was clear from the comments of Danish FA (DBU) CEO Jakob Jensen that their organisation has discussed the possibility – or more likely at present, the lack of possibility – of leaving FIFA altogether.

Even though head of communications Jakob Hoejer subsequently told Reuters, “some media have made the misunderstanding that DBU will withdraw from FIFA,” it would appear that the issue was the story being reported as them ‘planning’ to leave, and this feels a little like missing the point. If conversations of this nature have been held – or even the mere fact that they’re contemplatable – then we’re into that territory of a first crack starting to show.

It has certainly happened before. The ‘home nations’ first joined FIFA in 1905, but left after World War I when FIFA chose not to exclude those who were part of the Central Powers during the war from their organisation. They rejoined in 1924 but left again in 1928 after a row about ‘broken time’ payments – monetary compensation for lost athletes’ earnings while taking part in amateur events, most obviously the Olympic Games – and didn’t rejoin again until 1946, missing out on the first three World Cups.

Almost all African and Asian countries boycotted the 1966 World Cup qualifiers. There were protests across the world over the 1978 tournament being held under the watchful eye of a military junta which had carried out thousands of murders of political opponents.

Other sports have fallen to these huge schisms before, too. Broken time payments caused rugby to split into union and league in 1895. There are currently three world heavyweight boxing champions. Professional darts has four sanctioning governing bodies. To say that it couldn’t happen is to ignore all the times it has before.

Infantino’s talk of keeping politics out of football is obvious bunkum, because football is ultimately just a game that reflects the world in which it’s being played. We talk of the soft power that football can afford those who will pay vast amounts of money, but the soft power that comes from, well, being FIFA is also considerable.

And it’s commonly understood that for all the talk of the ‘football family’, this particular family is riven asunder by rivalries, superiority complexes, jealousy and ambition. For example, when the Premier League was formed in 1992 and the new competition needed the support of the FA to validate it, it was commonly assented that part of the FA’s calculations were that doing so would hobble the Football League.

But how could this crack start to widen? Well the obvious rival organisation to FIFA is UEFA, and the growth of the European Championships may have been considered to have impacted upon the value of World Cup rights. After all, half a century ago the ‘finals’ of the Euros consisted of two semi-finals and a final. That’s very different to the 24-team tournament that will be taking place in Germany in 2024. If such conversations as those intimated by members of the DBU have taken place, then FIFA is suddenly in a shaky place.

All of this calls to mind recent talk of whether there will be a civil war in the USA. According to civil war experts, there are two factors which lead to civil wars taking place. The first is ethnic factionalism. This happens when people organise themselves into political parties based on ethnic, religious, or racial identity rather than ideology. The second is anocracy, which is a state between democracy and autocracy. Civil wars almost never happen in full democracies and very seldom in full autocracies. Violence almost always breaks out in countries with weak and unstable pseudo-democracies.

It’s not difficult to see how this can be applied to football’s ongoing rows. This is in part a cultural issue. This much is very clear. LGBTQ visibility should be non-negotiable. Equal rights for women should be non-negotiable. Ultimately, it’s a matter of human rights, which should be universal. It’s also an issue of corruption, of reneging on agreements, and contorting the football calendar into a shape for which it is not designed. It’s about the death of 6,500 migrant workers.

But is FIFA an anocracy? We already know that it isn’t a properly functioning democracy. That much can be seen from Infantino running unopposed to continue as FIFA president. But is it an anocracy or an autocracy? DBU president Jesper Moller told the press that: “There are 211 countries in FIFA and I understand that the current president has statements of support from 207 countries.” Is that merely a ‘weak’ form of democracy or a soft form of autocracy?

If this does conflagrate further, the nuclear endpoint might see UEFA countries withdrawing from FIFA en masse, effectively positing it as a direct and explicit rival of the world game’s governing body. Such a mass defection could torpedo FIFA. Europe remains, for better or worse, world football’s financial powerhouse and the World Cup would be hugely diminished by the absence of so many established teams and players.

There may well, in such a scenario, be a considerable amount of horse-trading. Would Brazil and Argentina stick with FIFA were they to be offered a big enough sack of cash to leave? Would the USA, who pay more for their TV rights for the World Cup than anybody else, side with this Euro-centric vision of world football? Broadcasters with very deep pockets might well be very interested in jumping ship for a new international competition, all the more so if they might be able to influence the very shape of it.

This all still seems a very long way off. The USA will surely stick with FIFA at least for the time being, if for no other reason than that they’re largely hosting the 2026 World Cup. The likelihood of the Germany team withdrawing from this competition is slight. Thomas Muller has already said those who expect them to place a greater priority on politics than sport will end up disappointed. Denmark, whose toned-down shirt remains in use as its own silent protest, have been rowing back on more extreme interpretations of their various members’ comments.

But the conversation is starting, and in a way that hasn’t really previously happened over the last ten years or so. The unthinkable is beginning to be ideated. And the truly important question here, even if this all seems like a flight of fancy, is: what happens next? Because this doesn’t all end with this particular World Cup. By making the decisions that they’ve made over the last seven days (and considerably longer), FIFA have nailed their colours to a mast that’s tainted. Belatedly allowing rainbows around the tournament towards the end of its first week doesn’t really alter that. You never get a second chance to make a first impression.

If we assume that the scenario laid out above remains vanishingly unlikely, the FAs concerned have two options. They can either just act like nothing actually happened and try to get back to some semblance of ‘normality’, or they can organise as an openly hostile group within FIFA seeking substantive reform of the organisation from top to bottom. Those chastened by FIFA’s behaviour this past week, if they are serious about their convictions, need to consider what they need to do – or can do – to reform FIFA if they’re not prepared to countenance leaving it.

Whether this would be a leap of faith that would benefit fans or not is very, very much open to question. It would depend on what it looked like, and with billions of pounds being required to fund such a bold move, it’s unlikely that the interests of fans would be very high up the agenda. Severing ties with FIFA has a reassuring feeling of finality about it. The threat of doing so – if carried out with an intention to do so, should substantive systemic change not come about – feels like a powerful tool.

But we should be careful what we wish for; a Euro-centric World Football Championship could have many, many flaws, and there is a real danger that such a competition could end up looking like a Stanley Rous World Cup, only with colonialism replaced at the high altar by big money. That FIFA is a single unified body with 211 members is its greatest strength. That should be protected, if at all possible.

FIFA doesn’t change because FIFA is satisfied that this will never happen. But the ultimate choices ahead of the ‘OneLove’ nations and others remain the same. Do they – and by extension ‘we’ – accept FIFA as it is, in the full knowledge and tacit acceptance of this disparity in terms of ‘values’? Do they remain within but work far harder to get a range of changes which fundamentally change the way in which it runs? Or do they eventually have to take the nuclear option and walk away?

The cracks that are showing are tiny, but they only have the capacity to grow unless some sort of repair work is carried out – or we all shut up.