FIFA finally had, after a three-year hiatus, an official FIFA Congress on March 31, 2022, in Doha, Qatar. At the meeting, a number of important issues were discussed, and just as importantly the congress decided some issues were not to be considered. As in most such congresses, a number of important decisions were taken on our (the fans’) and the sport’s behalf without any outside input. Among the unsung heroes of the event was Lise Klaveness, President of the Norwegian Football Federation, centered in the featured image, in the long hair.
The congress comes at the end, we hope, of the Covid-19 Pandemic in the midst of the Russia-Ukraine war, issues the FIFA leadership had to address. That done, the essence of President Gianni Infantino’s 26-minute opening speech was to make seven points—first, that FIFA was able to earn $7B despite those destabilizing issues; second, that FIFA was given $201M of the funds the US Justice Department obtained from the “corrupt FIFA football officials;” third, that $2B was spent on football development worldwide; fourth, that “the new FIFA” does not want cheaters and that the world has seen that “new FIFA” is trustworthy; fifth, that the future of futubol will not include a biennial World Cup but will include more and bigger international competitions such as an upcoming 24-team FIFA Club World Cup beginning in 2024; sixth, that FIFA is still committed to fighting racism in our sport; and seventh that FIFA+ a new soccer internet portal and platform about futebol and FIFA’s role as its caretaker has been launched and will be the centerpiece of the organization’s attempt to “engage with fans.”
In short, Infantino argued that football is in fact in good hands with FIFA caring for its wellbeing and that the global sport should continue to be led by “the global pyramid of soccer with, of course, FIFA at the top,” and that such hierarchy “should be preserved and defended at all costs and against all comers.” A very direct retort to the European club representatives present, and the UEFA and CONMEBOL officials who jointly succeeded in shooting down FIFA’s biennial World Cup concept. He closed by saying that FIFA wanted input from everyone as FIFA is an “open, transparent, and democratic organization.”
First an Aside
The press conference that follows the congress is usually an instructive event as it showcases what the media made of the FIFA meeting and what they felt was in need of clarification or further discussion. It is important to note that it often means only one FIFA official is there to ask questions, and as you can imagine President Infantino is the one. He is accompanied by the FIFA Director of Media Relations, currently the ex-Sky Sports executive, Bryan Swanson, who sat next to Infantino and managed the event.
It was interesting to note that the first news representative to be tapped to ask a question was from Ghana and that her question was “What do you think will be the legacy of the Qatar World Cup.” Infantino thanked her for the question and then launched into a nearly 4-minute prepared speech—sounding awfully as if the first question, as soft as it could possibly have been, was a setup. In a 29:23 press conference, Infantino was able to respond to about 8 questions!
Summary of Highlights
Following is a summary of highlights of what took place which will impinge upon the future of football and World Cups.
- Norway’s Football Federation’s President, Lise Klaveness, stated that Norway considered boycotting Qatar’s World Cup but decided to instead participate and try to work to better FIFA from within. She argued in her presentation that FIFA awarded, in 2010, two World Cups (2018 and 2022) via means and criteria that were and are unacceptable and that cannot continue. She detailed the issues that must be addressed—from care for workers building stadia for a cup, that LGBTQ+ folk should be included, that the women’s game must be focused on, that corruption must not stand and must be rooted out. She said her federation would continue to stand up and speak to these issues.
Significance (and this is Papa’s opinion): It is obvious that the FIFA family is not all in agreement that FIFA leadership are doing their job and Klaveness suggested like-minded folks were organizing to ensure that the global sport is better cared for.
- The General Secretary of the Honduran Football Federation, Jose Ernesto Mejia, spoke to tell the Norwegian FF president that this congress was not the right venue for her albeit important and widely shared agenda and that instead “today we are here to discuss soccer and that should be our only focus.”
Significance (and this is Papa’s opinion): the FIFA family also includes those, particularly of smaller nations who feel empowered as their voice and vote count the same as those of older, more established, and bigger national federations, who will publicly show obsequious adherence to the reigning leadership whose tenure is held thanks to the exchange of their votes which are obtained by passing similar amounts of money to dissimilarly sized or needy federations. This is the seed of the corruption Klaveness opposes.
- Next Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, head of the Qatar Organizing Committee for the World Cup spoke in his New York City accent. He argued that Qatar (despite its many current unresolved issues with many of its Arab neighbors) is representing the Arab world and trying to do so in the best of lights through this World Cup which he hopes will counter the negative viewpoint the rest of the world still holds about his part of the world. He then responded to Klaveness saying she came to Qatar and did not meet with him or discuss any issues ahead of time but instead came to the congress to make her judgment and grievances public. He then argued against her every point—(Papa’s view) something he must have done often over the past twelve years as the perceptions the rest of the world harbors seem founded in facts. He closed by saying that his country and their effort to put the World Cup is not done to get validation but to show the world how “we are transparent in our work.” Speaking from the heart, he said, “we will leave as our legacy a demonstration of the way a World Cup should be utilized to leave a positive legacy in our country, region, and the world.”
Significance: It is jarring to hear him speak in his New Yorker accent, but the bottom line is he has been a one-man, non-stop public relations campaign onto himself for 12 years and if you heard him speak in 2012 in DC, as Papa did, you can tell the toll the task has taken on him. The bottom line is the spiel has not deviated since then, a decade and counting.
- The Ukrainian Association of Football, Andriy Pavelko, asked to share a video as they were unable to travel to Qatar. He spoke wearing a bulletproof vest over his winter jacket while standing in front of a mosque or church in what looked like Kyiv. He then detailed the trauma his federation has suffered due to the war and what they are doing to help their society through this tragedy.
Significance: the Ukrainians, as always, showing their grit, determination, and willingness to act in the face of unimaginable adversity.
- Infantino then had his closing comments and said: “FIFA knows what its role is and we are not responsible for all the evils in the world and we cannot solve all the problems but we can take on social responsibility.” He then defended Qatar’s human rights by saying that his first trip as FIFA president in 2016 was to Doha to ensure they were doing things correctly—and he felt they were and have since. “We have found in them—the Qatari officials, soccer and government alike—a partner engaged in implementing the necessary changes and they have done an exemplary job.”
He then showed a video to refute the allegations of Klaveness and other naysayers and to show support for hosts Qatar. Half the video, though, was showing how the issues raised by the Qatar hosting changed FIFA regulations including the bidding process moving forward, but not changed the conditions for workers in Qatar, or human rights there overall, or addressed the issue of the corruption at FIFA that led to the awarding of the cup in the first place in a manner that nipped the issues addressed in numbers 1-3 above.
It did show how it took every one of the six years of Infantino’s tenure to get to a point where some progress could be shown, months away from the cup launching. The video which was supposed to show the opinions of others about the issues in Qatar strangely featured Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani giving his take. In short, Papa wonders how many of those professed improvements will remain after the media focus the cup ensures moves elsewhere.
The next (73rd) FIFA Congress 2023, in Kigali, Rwanda, is an electoral one and Infantino could not resist telling his captive audience that he would stand for reelection then. It will be interesting to see who else throws their hat in.
Papa only hopes that the folks in charge today are not the ones in charge come 2023 but the odds are just too great that they will be and that real reform at FIFA will not even have a chance to take place until a new generation of leaders takes over. Maybe Ms. Lise Klaveness can lead the charge. Hope I live to see it.
Photo: Lise Klaveness, Shutterstock ID 2181753569, by froarn