Friday, 19 August 2016

Book Review: The Race Against the Stasi by Herbie Sykes

The Race Against the Stasi: The Incredible Story of Dieter Wiedemann, the Iron Curtain and the Greatest Cycling Race on Earth by Herbie Sykes (Aurum Press, 2016)

This is a compelling book even if read alone for the story of Dieter Wiedemann. The apolitical East German cyclist fell in love with a girl from the west and, frustrated by the political decisions that were hampering his career, decided to defect while attending an Olympic trial in West Germany. The book, however, comes into its own as a textbook case of all that will go wrong when government uses sport to relentlessly promote its own ideology while depicting its declared enemies as the Evil Other.

The German Democratic Republic realised early on that it could counter its outcast international status as both a communist and a post-Nazi state by using sport to showcase a more positive image of the putative workers’ paradise. It focused on football, athletics and cycling. In the book’s early chapters, Sykes and his sources tell the fascinating story of the Peace Race, the eastern Bloc version of the Tour de France that covered Poland, Czechoslovakia and the GDR over two weeks, and which included teams not just from the socialist states, but politically sympathetic riders from countries like the UK and the Nordic nations.

The Peace Race was massively popular as both a sporting and a social event, while being touted by the Iron Curtain countries as a way to build brotherhood across nations on the road to socialist perfection. Take away the socialist part, and it’s the same sentimentalist tosh that Fifa and the IOC parp out as a matter of course to put an altruistic gloss on their criminal activities. For young sportsmen like Wiedemann, being selected for their country’s team in the Peace Race was one of the highest goals they could aim for.

Professionals in all but name, GDR cyclists trained all day and were well-paid compared with other workers. They were celebrated in their communities, were rewarded with gifts like fridges and TVs if they did well, and were able to travel abroad to compete. They were encouraged to join the Communist Party, but if you kept a low profile and trained hard, like Wiedemann, they could generally stay out of politics. At the same time, they were constantly cited by the unreadable GDR propaganda organ Neues Deutschland to highlight the fraternal brilliance, solidarity and invincibility of the state’s riders.

Wiedemann’s problems started after the Berlin Wall was built in 1961 and the GDR was initially barred from international competition in the west. This narrowed the number of events he could take part in, and he found himself excluded from teams when passed over for riders in more politically favoured institutions, like the Stasi-backed Dynamo club, or the elite, Leipzig-based Deutsche Hochschule für Körperkultur. He was also marginalised because he didn’t go out of his way to promote the Party or talk to journalists. Driven too by his innocent young love for a western girl he’d met and had corresponded with for three years, Wiedemann decided that he’d had enough.

“So I’d missed out on both the [1963] Peace Race and the Tour of the GDR,” Wiedemann tells Sykes. “I was like a tree that can’t bear fruit, and the only things growing were anger and resentment. I’d started to hate all the hypocrisy of GDR cycling, and to resent the fact that my career was being hijacked by politicians.”

Although the Stasi had Wiedemann in its sights, like it did for any athlete who travelled to the west, it seemed as surprised as anyone when the apparently compliant Sportfreund defected during the Olympic trials that were held jointly with West Germany for an all-German team, ahead of the 1964 Olympics. The ubiquitous security service then put immense pressure on his family, in order to punish him indirectly for his ‘treason’. Wiedemann’s younger brother’s own cycling career was effectively over, his dad lost his well-paid job as a cycling mechanic, and they were granted no visas to visit Dieter in the west. The gifts had to be returned. Worst of all, Wiedemann’s mother ended up primarily blaming her son for his defection, above the manipulative state doctrines that had put the brakes on his promising career.

This book is an absorbing history of sport, political meddling and state oppression in the GDR. I did find myself speed-reading some of the Stasi reports and the extracts from Neues Deutschland. Important as they are, they don’t make for good literature and could perhaps have been cut or occasionally summarised. However, as an impeccably researched work reflecting the perils of ideological interference in citizens’ lives in order to shore up the total power of a paranoid, authoritarian elite, The Race Against the Stasi merits a prominent place in sporting literature’s leading pack. Thoroughly recommended.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Quote of the day: Mutko is a happy man

"This was a very important day for us. I would like to congratulate all the athletes and sports fans."

The joys of sport in a time of war
Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko was content on Monday with the latest haul of Russian medals at the Rio Olympics, despite it being "a pity that we will have no track and field athletes" (though he doesn't mention why). In the meantime, the political exploitation of every triumph in windsurfing, gymnastics and Greco-Roma wrestling will have to do. It's enough to distract you from the latest Human Rights Watch report on the Russian use of internationally outlawed incendiary weapons against the civilian population of Syria. 

“The Syrian government and Russia should immediately stop attacking civilian areas with incendiary weapons,” said Steve Goosearms director at Human Rights Watch. “These weapons inflict horrible injuries and excruciating pain, so all countries should condemn their use in civilian areas.”

European qualifying games for the 2018 World Cup in Russia start next month. Please do not indirectly endorse the Russian government by watching any of the coming matches.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

"I have been so fearful in writing this, but I have had enough"

A future multi-coloured Qatar
A tiny drop of coloured paint on the black wall of Qatar's draconian attitude towards homosexuality. Doha News last week printed a column on "What it's like to be gay and Qatari." It was prompted by one man's horror at the virulent Qatari reaction to the June mass murder of 49 people at the Pulse night club in Orlando, Florida. 

"People were saying they all deserved to die," wrote the young man under the pseudonym Majid. "They should have died and done humanity a favor. They called them 'God’s cursed people'." He said that although he had of course always been aware of the official Qatari attitude towards gay people, this was the first time he felt frightened that his compatriots would, if they knew about his sexual orientation, want to kill him.

"I have been so fearful in writing this, but I have had enough," Majid continued. "I have had this extreme sense of hopelessness – how do I forge a path to keep going in my life? What life is here for me? What is life for any of us here, who don’t want to live in deception by getting married? I want people to accept us. Live and let live – you don’t have to like me but you don’t have to persecute me. Thoughts?"

In the newspaper's comments section, many Qataris did indeed share their thoughts, and they weren't all full of love and tolerance. Doha News felt obliged to post a 'rebuttal' piece a few days later under the kind of headline that makes it fairly pointless reading the words underneath: We do not tolerate homosexuality in Qatar. Like nobody knew.

Still, it's worth reading as a text-book explanation of irony: "Discussing this topic in public introduces a gray area on the matter that essentially does not exist," writes Jassim al-Maadaadi. "There is no gray area in Qatar’s view on homosexuality. So why am I writing this?

"Well, since it has been brought up, there is a moral obligation for me as a Muslim – and as a member of a society who is against homosexuality – to oppose this article and this idea. You have already opened this can of worms, and I’m here to try to close it."

Poor Jassid - what's he so afraid of? You can picture him not just forcing the lid back down on a can of slippery, writhing worms, but desperately trying to push shut the bulging closet door of his own sexuality. It's too late, mate. It's out in the open. You've been caught discussing Qatari gay politics in public. 

It's not exactly a rainbow parade through downtown Doha, but a discussion is at least a starting point. Credit to Doha News for its tentative daub with a colour-tipped paint brush.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Is it time to abolish the Olympics and the World Cup?

Flags and borders - what are they good for?
"Nation states are the result of wars, intrigues, marriage, propaganda, blackmail, lies and deception," writes former German cabinet minister Norbert Blum in the Süddeutsche Zeitung today in a column headed Nationalism Equals Idiocy.

Blum points out that during the 74 years of the German Empire (1871-1945), "Germany went to war with France three times. Generations broke their skulls shedding blood because of national borders. The issues could be as banal as the exact entrenchment point of the border stone between France and Germany." He decries the insular, backward-looking neo-nationalism of states like Poland and Hungary who've forgotten that they struggled for their own freedom to cross borders as recently as 1989.

Which raises the question - why do we even still have international sports tournaments? Man-created national borders are, as Blum notes, the historical result of scurrilous manoeuvring and violence, and should play little or no role in a modern, united Europe. So what is the sense in creating spurious rivalries that inflame resentments and attempt to inspire pride in something as superficial as a coloured flag?

Last night's main headline on The Guardian's web site was that two British competitors had won the bronze medal in the 10m synchronised diving event. That was the biggest story in the world at that moment in time, apparently. This morning on the German radio news we heard repeatedly the dolorous words of a table tennis player unexpectedly eliminated at the final-16 stage by an opponent ranked 40th. in the world. Again and again, the media cajole us into investing our hopes for joy and a sense of fulfilment in the skills of athletes with whom we just happen to share a common passport.

The opponent, you see, has a different country name in his or her passport. For that reason alone we wish them disappointment and defeat. With some justification, you could maintain that it's better than shooting or bombing them for the same reason, but that's just arguing in negatives. It doesn't help us to understand our supposed affiliation with random sportsmen and -women who were born or integrated into the same geographical space that we, too, coincidentally inhabit.

Does it then make any more sense for teams from individual towns, cities, suburbs and villages to compete against each other? I would argue that it does, because most of these clubs are rooted in the social and cultural history of their communities. An individual's identification with a club generally springs from a more concrete personal experience or contact. While a regional rivalry may suffer from multiple unpleasant facets - see, for example, the frequently poisonous and pointless exchanges between Manchester United and Liverpool fans - it's not likely that the two cities will go to war. And at least there's no Fifa-sourced pretence that sport serves as a healing, unifying force for good.

Given that the Olympics and the World Cup have become economically crippling, corruption-riddled, doping-debased mega-events exploited by individual governments around the world to glorify themselves, it would make more sense at this point in history just to abolish them. Few countries can afford to stage them or sustain the facilities that Fifa and the IOC demand. The tournaments' main results are jingoism, chronic debts, and the enrichment of sponsors, participants and functionaries, while the human rights of those who build the infrastructure, or who are displaced by it, are trampled upon with impunity.

One nationality - humankind.
In football, the movement of players between countries and nationalities has now become so fluid that the concept of a national team has lost much of its meaning. Thanks to the power of modern communications, there are no particular styles of play attributed to individual countries any more. There are no tactical secrets - everyone's reading from the same play-book, which may fluctuate between three, four or five men at the back without raising much excitement either way. Brazil and Cameroon have long been just as results-oriented as Denmark and the USA.

The more problematic and bloated that the politically charged World Cup becomes, the more that the world's most powerful clubs regard it as a superfluous burden on their major investments - their players. The increasing clout of the wealthiest clubs over national associations has long been seen as an evil by progressive football fans, and rightly so. But the national associations, and by proxy Fifa, Uefa and the other continental bodies, have been setting their own self-serving houses ablaze for decades.

For the betterment of humanity, if not necessarily for the good of the game, it might be time to concede that, for the medium term at least, the clubs have earned the right to have a far greater say in football's structure. We might not at all like what they suggest - an international super-league, say - but in the coming years that ought to represent a truer reflection of a hopefully more progressive world.

Monday, 8 August 2016

Infantino verdict: image more important than change at Fifa

Infantino in Russia: "Everything's
great!" Picture:
News reports that Fifa President Gianni Infantino has been cleared of ethical breaches by the Fifa Ethics Committee have focused on the happy verdict, but not the still very questionable content. Fifa's PR machine will be delighted. After all, football's governing body has always stated that its priority is to clean up its image, which is obviously way more important than changing its internal culture.

The Ethics Committee passed the buck. Infantino was not guilty of ethical breaches, it said, because it turned out that the president's conduct only involved "internal compliance issues". Specifically, Infantino took private jets in April to visit Russia and Qatar to inspect their progress ahead of the next two World Cups. The flights were reportedly worth up to $150,000, and were paid for by... the Russian and Qatari governments, including support from Russian energy concern Gazprom, a Uefa and Fifa sponsor.

No ethical conflict of interest there? None at all? No, it was an "internal compliance issue". Language is a wonderful thing. It enables the Fifa Ethics Committee to absolve itself from an ethical quandary by re-labelling unethical conduct as a compliance issue instead. It's like when the police turn up at the site of a domestic violence incident and then leave straightaway by declaring it "an internal family matter".

So we can conclude that Infantino's thumbs-up gestures in Russia, where he smiled and shook hands with President Vladimir Putin, were not in way influenced by the luxury and service he'd enjoyed on the way there. Still, we'd like to ask, why on earth could he not have taken a scheduled flight from Moscow to Zürich? And a scheduled flight from Moscow to Qatar? Although, to his credit, in Qatar he did mention human rights and the Amnesty International report on workers' conditions.

It's hard to escape the impression, however, that nothing has changed at Fifa bar its highest bosses. Its Ethics Committee is now supposed to be wholly independent, but after this affair is already looking toothless and prone to prevarication. For the next six years, football's governing body is going to be muddying through the slough of its two corruption-induced massive mistakes - the awarding of World Cup hosting rights to countries whose daily governance contradicts everything in Fifa's idealistic statutes. The only grim pleasure to take from all this will be watching the rictus smiles on the pallid faces of its Public Relations personnel.

Friday, 5 August 2016

Book Review: Brazil's Dance With the Devil by Dave Zirin

Essential reading matter
 for the next fortnight.
Brazil's Dance With the Devil - updated Olympic edition, by Dave Zirin (Haymarket Books, 2016)

I always prepare for a major international sporting event with some appropriately cheery reading matter. Dave Zirin's examination of Brazil's back-to-back hosting of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics have helped me reach the perfect conclusion - that we should all spend the next two weeks doing something better with our time than watching the drug-fixed, pseudo-harmonious sham that the quadrennial sporting fest has been ever since the 1936 Games were staged in Berlin.

Zirin precedes his book with a quote from the Brazilian footballer Socrates: "Victory is secondary. What matters is joy." Socrates was a free-spirited democratic socialist, and unfortunately these are few and far between in either sport or politics. The author also quotes George Orwell's famous essay 'The Sporting Spirit', in which Orwell professes his amazement that some people believe that "sport creates goodwill between the nations". He adds that "as soon as the question of prestige arises, as soon as you feel that you and some larger unit will be disgraced if you lose, the most savage instincts are aroused."

That depends to some extent on how much a government is invested in the success of its athletes for propaganda purposes. In the case of Russia, looking ahead to an embarrassingly low medals haul at the 2014 Winter Olympics, it decided instead to cheat, on a breathtakingly mass scale. It left the "savage instincts" until five days after that lamentable, egregiously expensive tournament was safely over, demonstrating its spirit of international unity and goodwill by annexing the Crimea region of Ukraine.

Brazil, as Zirin demonstrates, is a quite different case. It's less focused on flag-waving and medals and more on presenting a positive image of itself to the outside world. That means playing up the joy cited by Socrates, a virtue traditionally associated with Carnival, a particularly crowd-pleasing style of soccer, and the kind of jubilant public scenes that some years back greeted the awarding of the 2016 games to Rio de Janeiro.

Zirin travels to Brazil and talks to the people affected about what this really meant once the initial excitement gave way to hard sums, and the realisation that the physical presence of the city's favelas were an obstacle to the official concept of how the government wanted Rio 2016 to look. The author does a good job of tracing the history of the favelas and how they came to be in the first place - the county's land-hogging oligarchs made no provision to house the mainly illiterate labourers that flocked to the cities after the abolition of slavery towards the end of the nineteenth century. So the workers built their own houses wherever they could.

"The favelas are perhaps best known, and most notoriously, for their history of poverty and violence," writes Zirin, "mostly in the minds of those who have never set foot inside these communities." As he discovers, the favelas are much more community than slum, and though he stresses that the poverty and drug violence are very real problems, the sense of co-operation, openness and a collective civic society are much more prevalent than in the middle class housing units of either Brazil or, say, the US.

Favelas, though, don't look good to tourists, and so the city of Rio and the Brazilian government have been bulldozing those within plain sight, displacing residents who have lived there for decades, and opening the way for property interests. "The real-estate and construction magnates' dream of totally removing the favelas from Rio cannot be disconnected from the goals of hosting the Olympics and the World Cup," Zirin notes. "A full scale effort by the city to rebrand itself as a global city."

So Fifa and the IOC come to town, and the poor get shafted in every way - the money that might have been spent educating them, treating them, or re-housing them close to the communities where they have always lived is instead spent on stadiums and facilities that will, in many cases, be used for less than a month, or under-used and costly to maintain for several years to come. Sure, there's new infrastructure (like a cable car through Providencia favela that will mainly be used by tourists, or an improved access road to the airport), but isn't that the government's job anyway?

Meanwhile, in the name of 'security', the police and military are then bolstered to monitor those with the temerity to protest, and to tear-gas them or shoot them with rubber bullets if things seem to be getting out of hand. The security excuse can also be used to indiscriminately shoot dead hundreds of chiefly young black men in the favelas on the grounds of controlling the drug trade.

If Socrates had lived to see the current anger of the urban working class at the waste of $12 billion for Rio 2016, he might have said, "Victory is secondary. What matters is housing, health and education. Then we can have joy." Still, enjoy the Olympics. Alternatively, read this timely and necessary book.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

World Press Freedom Rankings 2016 - Qatar 117th, Russia 148th

The 2016 World Press Freedom Index makes for sober reading ahead of the next two World Cups. Russia is ranked 148th, while Qatar takes the coveted 117th. slot. In both countries it requires almighty amounts of courage for independent journalists or news organisations to report critically, truthfully and accurately on the activities of the ruling autocrats.

While Russia climbed four places from 152nd in 2015 (Yay!), its overall score on press freedom declined further. In other words, its ranking improvement only came about because press freedom in other countries became even more restricted. Like when a team loses 5-0 but jumps up a place in the league table because the team above it lost 7-0. Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which compiled the index, assessed the situation in Russia as follows:

"What with draconian laws and website blocking, the pressure on independent media has grown steadily since Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin in 2012. Leading independent news outlets have either been brought under control or throttled out of existence. While TV channels continue to inundate viewers with propaganda, the climate has become very oppressive for those who question the new patriotic and neo-conservative discourse or just try to maintain quality journalism. The leading human rights NGOs have been declared 'foreign agents'."

In Qatar, where freedom of speech enjoys as much tradition as daffodils in the desert, the RSF summation was just as cheery:

"Qatar’s outspoken TV channel, Al-Jazeera, has transformed the media landscape in the rest of the Arab world but ignores what happens in Qatar itself. Journalists in this small emirate are left little leeway by the oppressive legislative arsenal and the draconian system of censorship. The same subjects (the government, royal family and Islam) are off limits as in the rest of the Persian Gulf, and violators risk imprisonment. A cyber-crime law adopted in late 2014 imposed additional restrictions on journalists and criminalized posting 'false news' online."

It's little wonder Fifa ended up selecting these two countries as host nations for the World Cup. The attitude of the Russian and Qatari ruling elites towards freedom of speech mirrors the suspicion that football's governing body has always harboured to any writer asking awkward questions about its secretive ways, or uncovering uncomfortable truths about its inherent, rancid corruption. Fifa 'reforms' will aim to improve the body's image, but not its transparency.

Unfortunately for Fifa, even a muzzled media doesn't guarantee a passive host nation. Brazil's ranking of 104 in the Press Freedom Index is nothing to boast about either, but you can't hide the truth when exorbitant new stadiums pock the landscape where residents once lived, and a $12 billion price tag makes a mockery of widespread poverty and under-funded public services during a recession. Today, Brazilian police have been dispersing anti-Olympic protesters with rubber bullets and tear gas.

The protesters have been impeding the process of the Olympic Torch, that beacon of international peace, co-operation and solidarity that is currently requiring state-ordered violence to clear the way. It seems that the Brazilian women team's 3-0 win over China in their opening football match wasn't enough to assuage the population's anger. Let the Games begin!  

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Boycott the Rio Olympics - it's the very least you can do

A reader's letter in today's Süddeutsche Zeitung is short and to the point with regard to this coming fortnight's Olympics in Rio: "There is someone who can undertake action against doping: us. Only when we refuse to watch this now risible event will something change. Because nobody's forcing us to watch" (Martin Schüller, Cologne).
Olympics - sick and limp

Last night the French/German public broadcaster arte screened a documentary about the labour conditions of Nepalese workers in the Gulf States, with a particular emphasis on Qatar. The film painted the same depressing picture as previous media and Amnesty International investigative reports. Working conditions, accommodation, quality of life and wages for most of the estimated 1.7 million south-east Asian workers in Doha are lousy, while passports are still being confiscated to prevent workers from leaving the country or switching employers. "The world is doing business with a slave state," said Sharan Burrow, the General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation.

How can sports fans settle down in their armchairs to watch sporting events like these, knowing what we know? It seems there's no case to be made against boycotting these events, because it's increasingly harder to find any reasons to justify watching them at all.

If you were at a party and the barman collapsed and died because he'd been working a 12-hour shift and had had nothing to eat or drink, would you merrily keep drinking and dancing after the body was dragged away and a new barman stepped in to replace the deceased worker? Would you bother buying a lottery ticket if you knew that Vladimir Putin, or one of his associates, had already been given the winning numbers in advance?

It's easy to see why the vast majority of sports fans will watch the Olympics, and the next two World Cups as well. All week there have been quotes out of Rio from journalists, athletes and officials about how they just want the flame lit, and the games to start. The International Olympic Committee's decision not to ban Russia, its unconscionable exclusion of Russian whistle-blower Julia Stepanowa, the crappy living conditions in the barely finished Olympic village, and reports of the dangerously polluted waters for the forthcoming aqua events have all made for heavy reading. Let's have some running and throwing instead!

Who among us wouldn't rather watch a competitive (if ultimately meaningless) race between several of the world's strongest, fastest humans than the latest news of cronyism, corruption and dubious alliances at the top level of international sports administration? Because if supple, sinewy athletes are running round the track while flag-waving spectators cheer from the stands, then everything must be alright now. Right?

Still, I agree with Mr. Schüller of Cologne, and you can add the favela clearances and displaced Rio residents as another reason, as well as thousands of extrajudicial killings , not to mention the monstrous waste of state money that millions of Brazilians would rather have seen spent meeting their basic needs. We should all opt to switch off Rio 2016 for the next two weeks. It's literally the very least that we can do.

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Fifa - the cuckoo 'foreign agent' that Russia won't expel

Demanding guest - the parasitic cuckoo Fifa
 hijacks a new nest every four years.
Once again, this blog apologises to a now possibly distracted readership for its negligence. With qualifying games for the 2018 World Cup in Russia already under way in several parts of the world, it's time to recommence monitoring why all football fans should boycott the next two World Cups, including all qualifiers, due to the dire state of basic human rights and the absence of numerous civil liberties in both Russia and Qatar.

Last week the Russian Ministry of Justice updated groups which it claims are funded by "foreign agents", which is its less than subtle way of smearing non-governmental organisations (NGO)s that might be critical of the state. It has now branded 104 such groups with the moniker 'foreign agent' to imply they are CIA-funded attempts to undermine Moscow and all its decent, stalwart patriots working merely for the good of Mother Russia. Since a 'Foreign Agents' list was published in 2014, "at least" 21 NGOs have closed down, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), while 12 groups have had the tag removed by ceasing to accept foreign funds.

"Because in Russia 'foreign agent' can be interpreted only as 'spy' or 'traitor,' there is little doubt that the law aims to demonize and marginalize independent advocacy groups," states HRW. The group includes any NGO deemed to be involved in "political activity", a term subject to extremely liberal interpretation by the otherwise illiberal Ministry of Justice. Many of the NGOs are campaigning for human rights, gender equality, and against various forms of discrimination.

One 'foreign agent' is not included on the Ministry of Justice's list - Fifa. Yet it's been very much present in Russia ever since the country was awarded the 2018 World Cup by the fair and democratic process that did not in any way involve bribery, coercion, deal-making and vote-fixing. As always when it settles like an avaricious, self-entitled cuckoo into a newly hijacked nest, Fifa's not just a foreign agent, but a foreign dictator. It tells any given country how many stadiums it has to build, at its own cost, while paying no taxes and creaming off a vast profit through sponsorship, the sale of broadcast rights, and ticket revenue.

"We should never forget: all World Cup income goes to Fifa, not to the host," says Russian-Uzbek football dissenter Alisher Aminov in the latest edition of the German magazine Kicker (Issue 62, 2016). "But it's the host that is stuck with paying for the stadiums and the infrastructure. That's why Fifa and Uefa should both examine the economic circumstances of any applicant host countries before they award hosting rights to a tournament.

"Because that doesn't happen," he adds, "Fifa especially has developed in a very negative fashion. And that's why people in Brazil went out on to the streets to protest." Aminov, who was a friend of the Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, assassinated in February 2015 on a Moscow street within sight of the Kremlin, says that the Russian bid for the 2018 World Cup was the decision of only two men - President Vladimir Putin and the Minister for Sport (and the man behind the mass state-sanctioned doping of Russian Olympic competitors) Vitaly Mutko, also a member of Fifa's Executive Committee.

"It was not a democratic decision," says Aminov. "We should have held a referendum. Football's a beautiful thing, but normal people are angry because of the enormous costs, and because cash is being sucked out of state coffers."

He also called for an "honest inquiry" into the awarding of the 2018 competition to Russia. Yeah, about that. When Fifa appointed US lawyer Michael Garcia to look into the shenanigans behind the simultaneous awarding of the 2018 and 2022 tournaments, Russian wouldn't let him into the country, and in any case claimed that all its files relating to the bid were on leased computers that had since been destroyed. Sorry, Mike. The Garcia Report remains unpublished by Fifa. Maybe the cuckoo shat all over it and rendered it unreadable.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

'Fifa and Uefa Cannot Avoid Their Political Duties'

If only Fifa's ethics were at least half decent
Two years is something of a lifetime in internet terms, and presumably most casual visitors passing through have presumed this blog to be long since dead, like millions of other digital diaries and documentations  founded upon the best of intentions. Random work and life events quickly caught up with us after an initial burst of righteous enthusiasm, but the thorny political issues around the coming World Cups are still there to be addressed. The human rights situation has not significantly improved in either Russia or Qatar (in fact in Russia it's probably getting worse), and the discussion is not going quieten down as those tournaments approach, no matter how much Fifa tries to dodge, fudge or ignore the pertinent questions. Still, at least Chuck Blazer and Jack Warner have cleared their desks, even if they only served as fall guys for the inherent corruption and cronyism that must still be purged from Zürich and its satellite confederations.
Until we start posting more coherently again, here's a piece posted today at the When Saturday Comes website entitled 'Fifa and Uefa Cannot Avoid Their Political Duties'. Sample passage:

"UEFA is apolitical," its president, Michel Platini, claimed when responding to criticism of their decision to award the 2013 European Under-21 Championship to Israel. Perhaps Israel was not a wise choice for a body that wishes to stay clear of politics. Given that he's tipped as the man to take over the Sepp Blatter's FIFA mantle in 2015, Platini should get used to the idea of politics interfering with sport. With Russia and Qatar as his first two World Cup hosts, political issues will be thumping on to his desk with the force and regularity of a riot policeman's cosh.

Most football fans hope that somewhere there exists a smoking gun that will cause FIFA to reverse its decision to hold the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. But despite the 15-page feature in France Football last week that once again threw into question the legality of the bidding process, and numerous well-documented reasons why Qatar is an execrable choice, we're stuck with the unlikely Middle East venue. As long as that remains the case, the focus will begin to shift towards what can only be described as political issues...

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Blazer Hits Out At FIFA Bidding Process – 3 Months Too Late

Chuck all use: Blazer shows his balls way too late
The FIFA Executive Committee’s hairiest and most huggable member, Chuck ‘All’ Blazer, has slammed the World Cup bidding process in an interview with the worthy but dull monthly football magazine, World Soccer. A mere several months too late, Blazer declared in the magazine’s March issue that “the whole process would probably be better if a concerted inspection was done prior to anyone being accepted as an eligible candidate”. What a brilliant idea! Why did no one think of this before?

Recommendations from the FIFA five-man inspection team were “ignored completely”, says Blazer. Well, we knew that as soon as the winners were announced. Blazer also says that fellow members of the ExCo were unwilling to properly discuss the inspections team’s concerns, and that many were swayed by vague promises of a “legacy” from potential host countries. Chuck says ‘legacy’. A cynic might say ‘bribe’.

Why didn’t Blazer go public with these concerns last year while the bidding process was still under way? And while we’re at it, would Blazer consider a “concerted inspection” to factor in a country’s human rights record? Probably not, judging by the happy half hour he spent with his “friend” Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, so breathlessly documented on Chuck’s jetsetting blog shortly after he returned from Moscow.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Tackling Rio's Rotten Cops

Drugs and guns: don't trust Rio police with these items
As Brazil starts clearing its shanty towns of gangsters and drug barons in time to make things look nice and pretty for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, it’s being forced to tackle another long term internal problem – the corruption and violence of its own police force complicit in the drugs trade. The Associated Press reported Tuesday that an anti-corruption sting in Rio de Janeiro resulted in the arrest of 30 officers, following which the head of the Rio state’s investigative police, Allan Turnowski, resigned.

Turnowski’s former deputy, Carlos Antonio Luiz Oliveira, “was one of the officers arrested and charged with corruption, theft, and collaboration with drug traffickers”, the AP reported. Two of Turnowski’s predecessors over the past five years were also arrested at various times. With a police force this rotten, it must be tough to know where to start, with the 30 arrested officers “accused of selling heavy weapons to gangs, tipping off gangs about police raids, and stealing and selling drugs, money and weapons confiscated by police”. There’s also the staggering statistic from the 2009 Human Rights Watch report on Brazil stating that Rio police kill one in every 23 people they arrest.

Given that background, the arrests at least represent a scantling of good news, depending on how deeply police corruption has infested Rio. For a somewhat depressing overview of what Rio de Janeiro is facing as a city in the run-up to the big sporting events, read resident Dr. Christopher Gaffney’s blog post from the end of last year, Laws, Evictions and Demolitions.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Quote of the Month - Vaclav Havel

Havel: has experience overcoming dictatorships
"However, most important is that if [Western] relations with Russia are to be friendly, they must be open and sincere, otherwise there can be no friendship at all. That means one should be able to speak openly about everything at meetings and conferences. It shouldn’t be that we can’t discuss the killing of journalists in Russia, or the suppression of human rights, or all the warning signs surfacing in Russia because of oil and gas or other economic reasons. It's a big problem, but it's the same in Western relations with Arab states. There's a dilemma over how to balance concrete economic interests with critical opinions on the state of human rights. It's the human rights that suffer, and that's a great price to pay."

Czech playwright and former President Vaclav Havel, interviewed by Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe ahead of his first feature film, due out next month.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Democracy In Qatar by 2022?

Qataris - free to celebrate, but not to demonstrate
Could Qatar be a democracy by the time it stages the 2022 World Cup? With the near-revolution in Egypt, the fall of Tunisian dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, and Gulf state dictatorships being forced by the increasing power of public will to take a long, hard look at how to go about saving their own asses, Gulf pro-democracy activists have called on the region’s monarchies to give some thought to political change.

“We hope that the ruling families in the Gulf realise the importance of democratic transformation to which our people aspire,” said a statement signed by the coordinator of the Gulf Civil Society Forum, Anwar al-Rasheed, as reported by Agence France Presse. It also called for the ruling families to “understand that it is time to free all political detainees and prisoners of conscience, and issue constitutions that meet modern day demands.”

Well, you can always ask.

“The Gulf peoples look forward for their countries to be among nations supporting freedom, the rule of law and civil and democratic rule which have become a part of peoples' basic rights,” the statement also said. The Forum, according to AFP, is made up of “liberal intellectuals, academics, writers and rights activists drawn from the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states.” The six GCC states are Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Quote of the Week - Nemtsov Calls For Sanctions Against Russian Leaders

London knows best, little man...
“I have an idea for you [the West] how to help democracy in Russia. Let you implement sanctions against people who break [the] Russian constitution [and]… agreements on human rights and democracy, like you did with [Belarussian President Alexander] Lukashenko.” Former Russian deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, a liberal opposition leader who last month spent two weeks in jail for participating in a political demonstration, talking to Stephen Sackur of BBC’s HARDTalk.

The programme should be re-christened RUDETalk judging by Sackur’s attitude in this interview. He has perfected the BBC’s plummy-voiced sneer that is apparently required nowadays to show what a tough, uncompromising journalist you are, although in reality he ends up just sounding like a supercilious prick when he asks Nemtsov, “And you think that’s a serious proposition?”

“I’m talking about sanctions not against the state, but against persons who break and who destroy peoples’ rights in this country,” Nemtsov clarifies for the hard-talking hack. He continues by asking, “What’s the difference between Putin and Lukashenko?” The snippet ends there, so we don’t get to hear Sackur’s doubtless erudite and cogent riposte. Remind us again why the BBC’s respected around the world for its high standards of journalism?

Meanwhile, The Guardian’s Moscow correspondent Luke Harding has been refused re-entry to Russia, and was told by a airport security, “For you, Russia is closed.” If you’re wondering why, one of Harding’s apparent offenses has been to report on the contents of the WikiLeaks US embassy cables. One of his pieces from late last year opened with the line:

“Russia is a corrupt, autocratic kleptocracy centred on the leadership of Vladimir Putin, in which officials, oligarchs and organised crime are bound together to create a “virtual mafia state”, according to leaked secret diplomatic cables that provide a damning American assessment of its erstwhile rival superpower.”

Apparently that kind of analysis doesn't go down very well with the Kremlin. And if it's diplomatically unfeasible to expel US embassy staff, target the messenger instead.