It is not an easy time to be a football (“soccer”) fan and it hasn’t been for quite a while. The world governing body, the ostentatiously named Fédération Internationale de Football Association, (FIFA) has proven itself almost comically corrupt with a startlingly serious predilection for major bribery only usually found within high-level organised crime gangs. Investigators have opened cases against FIFA and high profile members of its executive committee in Australia, South Africa and, in the USA. Professional, organized football, it seems, is at an organizational and structural level, no longer fit for its intended purpose. In the wake of the resignation of head of FIFA Sepp Blatter, the talk from executives and famous former players has been dominated by the notion of reform, of defending the philanthropic and charitable work of a noble, not-for-profit organization. Pious sounding FIFA press conferences are given from five star hotels about the deep and pressing need to reconnect with the beautiful game, to ensure that FIFA continues to serve the interest of the individual football fan wherever they might be in the world.
As well-meaning as this kind of conversation is, it fundamentally misses the reality of what kind of organization FIFA is and what kind of issues it faces. Firstly, whilst FIFA might profess that it is nothing more than a humble non-profit that would seem to be, at best, a laughably naïve position. FIFA is a global corporation able to override national sovereignty (see its response to Brazil’s outlawing of alcoholic drinks inside football stadiums) and able to use its non-profit status to ensure colossal profits. In short FIFA is a massively popular, supra-national corporation – and if this is understood then the current crisis of football fits perfectly into the model of capitalist expansion and inevitable crisis predicted by Marx.
As the noted economist John E Eliot points out, Marx understood that capitalism operates through a dual movement. On the one hand, capitalism brings about ‘universalising qualities of development, growth and progressivity’ – and on this measure, FIFA is a spectacularly successful capitalist enterprise. Advertising deals are worth billions and last decades, and in the last World Cup tournament alone, Brazil spent over $10 billion on constructing new stadiums and infrastructure. Secondly, capitalism will, by its very nature, produce ‘economic contradiction, social conflict and human degradation’ as well as ‘recurrent cyclical crisis.’ Host nations have lost money on almost every World Cup held in living memory. More immediately, in the year-long run up to the 2014 World Cup, Brazil saw vicious demonstrations and clashes with armed police as working class communities were forcibly displaced—thrown out of their homes by armed police in order to stage a global entertainment product that was worth billions.
If this weren’t graphic enough proof that FIFA and its subsidiaries (in which category I would not hesitate to include host governments) are reproducing the cyclical capitalist crisis, one need only turn to Qatar, which was awarded the tournament in a murky and highly controversial bidding process (perhaps analogous to the contracts handed out to private military corporations after the Gulf War). Figures suggest that last year, construction workers in Qatar were dying at a rate of one every two days—grist to the mill of FIFA’s capitalist growth.
To consider FIFA as a capitalist enterprise requires understanding that these two contradictory and simultaneous effects are inter-related. The phenomenal success of the World Cup brand and the accompanying huge financial rewards ensure the expansion of capitalist accomplishment as the ever increasing list of corporate sponsors testifies to. However this colossal capitalist success story also necessarily expands the circle of economic depression, individual humiliation, and human alienation. In short, capitalist enterprises like FIFA will always have negative and damaging consequences no matter how big the rewards it offers might be. Football here is the product that FIFA sells (with no small measure of success, with reserves of around $1 billion USD it would seem business is very good indeed), producing both incredible industrialisation but near nightmarish levels of what Marx called entfremdung.
In his work, The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 Marx argues that capitalism inevitably produces certain kinds of effects where the individual worker is separated from the means of production, his own fruitful employment, and other workers. The term Marx uses is ‘entfremdung’, or as it is usually translated: alienation. FIFA might well have started out as a large-hearted, philanthropic group that sincerely believed in the transformative power of football to break down barriers between nations. In the wake of its colossal successes, it comes as no surprise to see that these powerful executives have become completely alienated from the goal of their original labors. Now, international boundaries are transcended through the power of sponsorship, and national sovereignty is to be respected inasmuch as its refuses to impede the flow and accumulation of capital. Sepp Blatter now talks of the need for reform, of rooting out corruption and restoring the beauty to the tarnished beautiful game. Yet this is the man whose organization is accused of crimes usually reserved for the Mafia. As a fan I cannot help but hope he succeeds, but Blatter is this time round the very embodiment of a certain kind of neo-liberal entfremdung, hopelessly unable to conceive of what football really is.