The most popular sport in the world is now on the altar of veneration by their fans. The FIFA World Cup gathers the best players of the world on an international stage to play the highest level of football one can watch in a cycle of four years, separating one Word Cup from another. In this cycle, players or footballers have short breaks from their club-teams, to join national squads to compete for the 36 spots of the World Cup. One of the things that make this tournament amazing is that footballers don’t play for a team who pays more, as it occurs in club leagues, but they play for their own country. This makes countries like Argentina and Brazil have great squads shaped by some of the best world footballers, but their national teams are never good enough to compete against European clubs, that are extremely rich and can hire the best players around the world. England – that has the league, the Premier League, considered the best one because of the level of quality of its teams – has not been in a World Cup final since 1964, when it won its only championship, while Brazil has five championships and Argentina two. All the money that Premier League teams have do not make England a better team, but a good contender among other schools of football as the Latin American one.
I love football and the World Cup is the best tournament to watch. There I can see a player who was shaped by the team I am a fan in Brazil leading a national squad to a Championship as happened in 2002 with Ronaldo Fenomeno, then an athlete of the Italian Internazionalle Milano. My team, Cruzeiro will never be at the level of English teams, such as Liverpool and Manchester City, of German Teams, like the powerful Bayern of Munich, and of the Spanish Barcelona and Real Madrid. Although many of the best footballers are playing in Italy, such as Brazilian Danilo, the captain of Juventus, and Argentinian Lautaro Martínez, a streaker for Internazionalle Milano, the Italian squad didn’t qualify for this World Cup, a country with a tradition of four championships, tied with Germany, and only behind Brazil, with five. Ronaldo left my Cruzeiro when he was 18-year-old. Today, non-European talents are leaving their countries even younger. Lionel Messi, for many one of the greatest players ever, left his hometown Rosario in Argentina to join Barcelona when he was 16-year-old. Argentinian fans never saw him to play for one of their clubs. I never saw many of the footballers in the 2022 Brazil squad play on a Brazilian team, learning about them when they were stars in Europe.
Football is a business, a giant billionaire business, which its center is Europe. Nobody can compete with European clubs. The World Cup is a billionaire business in itself, led by a corrupted organization: FIFA – Federation Internationale de Football Association. This creates an ugly mark in the most beloved sport in the world. Qatar was never a place to be hosting the World Cup. Accusations of bribery and corruption are behind the reasons why Qatar was chosen to be the host of 2022 edition. Human rights abuses have been appointed by human rights watch organizations during the process of Qatar preparation to host the game. This country needed a forced reconstruction to raise giant stadiums and related infrastructure to have the games in the middle of a desert, on the cost of power abuses and exploitation of workers. The traditional time of the games was changed, and stadiums need air-conditioning to make possible for footballers to play in a country with very high temperatures. Most of these stadiums are unlikely to have any use after the World Cup, since Qatar is a very small country with no strong local football league. Now, during the games, more abuses of power and intolerance are happening while FIFA did not say anything. Instead, it threatens with punishment footballers who make any public manifestation criticizing human rights records of Qatar, especially related to LGBTQ+ rights. Even though, what happens in the green field is magical.
I have a feeling of guilt when I watch football. With this World Cup in Qatar, the guilt is yet bigger. I cannot help but watch the games, trying to focus my eyes on the field. However, I think it is important to have a critical approach to the business controlling professional football and in particular the corruption and intolerance related to the World Cup in Qatar. We cannot watch the games with innocent eyes. Football is a passion that requires critical consciousness, the one that begins at home, especially in low and middle-income countries (LMIC) where most of their kids love the sport and many dream to be a professional footballer.
At the base, football – as any other sport – is a force that creates opportunities for kids to grow, not simply to grow to be a professional athlete, this is for a few (perhaps smaller than 1% of those who try), but an opportunity to help kids to learn ways to achieve their dreams with collective effort, discipline, and dedication. In LMIC, especially in areas where poverty kills the dreams of many kids, a very cheap, fun, and beloved sport that needs only a field and a ball to be played can help bringing dream back. This is possible if football is thought and played along integral social projects that include access to education and culture. In the favelas(slums) of Brazil, I have seen some examples of these projects. In a context which kids are vulnerable to be recruited by violent gangs and drug dealers while education seems distant and a boring thing, football projects have worked as a protection for these kids and a path for opportunities. Many grow in their lives, to access higher education and leave poverty. A very, but very small group of kids become professional footballers, some of those are in Qatar now. All of them become inspiration for the next generation and not only the professional footballers.
Moreover, being critical is recognizing that the business part of professional football often damages this inspiration. For example, the action of agents to recruit new talents younger and younger, taking them away from their communities and sometimes from their families to bring to Europe. Some of these talents succeed and a few become great stars. Messi is the greatest example of success. Others achieve success, but behave in a way that they are not setting an example for anybody. For me, this is the case of Brazilian Neymar, a guy of great football skills, but who does not inspire anybody because of this behavior outside the field and sometimes on the field. But the majority of them do not achieve the success expected and return home with frustration to try their luck in local leagues.
There is also the monetary number of footballers’ salaries that do not match with such a universal and democratic sport that anyone, regardless of their socioeconomic conditions, can play. The extremely high salaries of first level footballers are an offense against societies and the fans of the sport. It is an example of how a sport created by communities to gather people and entertainment was dominated by capitalism with teams – originated as community clubs – acquired by billionaire international investors. (E.g.: Manchester City and Newcastle, considered two of the richest teams in the world, were created by people in the streets of Manchester and Newcastle upon Tyne in England who had some level of participation in the clubs. Today both teams are owned by international investors with Oil business money and government privileges in non-democratic countries from United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Another example worth mentioning is the Paris Saint-Germain, that never was a top competitor in European tournaments until it was purchased by a billionaire from Qatar. Knowing all these Arabian interests in professional football does not surprise anyone why the World Cup is in a non-democratic country with state control of business and authoritarian leaders who love football, especially the one plays in Europe.)
I could continue talking about other issues in the world of football. The sexism aspect of the business, for example, deserves its own text, considering that women’s football is almost nothing compared to its male version. But I will stop here. It is time to go to watch another World Cup game. I go with guilt, within passion and distress. I love the sport that I have played most of my life. I enjoy the World Cup. But I don’t want to feel I am contributing to the dark side of professional football. Watching the games with passion and critical consciousness was a way I found to deal with my guilt.
P.S.: I hope Brazil has a great performance and wins the World Cup.
*Alexandre A. Martins is an assistant professor at Marquette University in Wisconsin, USA. Author of several articles and books in social ethics, bioethics, and global health, such as Covid-19, Política e Fé: Bioética em diálogo com a realidade enlouquecida (Gênio Criador, 2020); The Cry of the Poor: liberation ethics and justice in health care (Lexington Books, 2020)