"For what we Europeans have been doing the last 3,000 years, we should be apologizing for the next 3,000 years before starting to give moral lessons to people." These were the words of FIFA President Gianni Infantino a few hours before the opening of the World Cup in Qatar. As much as these words reflected Infantino’s attempt to defend the decision to organize the tournament in Qatar despite numerous Western criticisms of FIFA, his statements also recalled the complex relationship between the West and other countries of the world. Since its founding in its current form in England in the mid-19th century, football has been a domain for international geopolitical competition. For decades, the West believed that this sport was a part of its cultural and social heritage. This belief gave Western countries, specifically European countries, the greatest influence on the game and the ability to determine its rules and regulations, and perhaps also the scope of other countries’ participation in it. Significantly, this influence has faced numerous challenges in recent years, amid demands from so-called developing countries for greater fairness in the game, which has gained huge global popularity beyond Europe and the West as a whole.
In its contemporary form, football appeared in England in the mid-19th century. Since then, European countries, and Western countries in general, have treated the sport as a Western invention. Over time, Europe’s control over the game of football has received some criticism, or resistance, so to speak. Many developing countries are now demanding a more equitable game and more representation, along the lines of the World Cup, in international tournaments, which do not have balanced representation among the world’s countries. Many of these countries have also begun to defend their right to host international sporting events, apart from full Western monopoly. This level of geopolitical confrontation entered a new, more complex phase with the expanded field of engagement between football and political and social issues, and the value implications that accompany these issues.
Although FIFA and the laws governing the sport of football tried for decades to neutralize football against any political influences that could take this sport out of its natural and required context as a tool for entertainment and rapprochement and not for conflict, reality has shown the difficulty of achieving this equation. "Pure sport" is now hard to achieve amid efforts of many parties to use football to serve specific political or even social agendas.
Football’s intertwined landscape has been part of a larger geopolitical struggle that revolves primarily around a group of dichotomous opposing concepts. The first dichotomy is the concept of justice versus historical primacy. After the colonial era ended during the 1960’s and 1970’s, a new group of independent countries emerged, demanding their right to a more "just" international community, one that begins with the most important fields of politics and economics and ends in the sports arena. However, this proposition clashed with the concept of primacy and the historical right behind which Western countries were entrenched as the most advanced in the sport of football—and therefore had the right to dominate the rules of the game.
The dichotomy of meritocracy versus capitalism has offered another important perspective for explaining the geopolitical struggles around football. Many countries, feeling underestimated and unequal simply for being outside the European and Western world, have pushed the idea of meritocracy in order to find a good footing in this sport that began in Europe and went global. According to sociological definitions, the system of merit, or meritocracy, is one in which success and status in life are based primarily on talent, ability, and individual effort. Notably, some bets on the idea of merit and meritocracy in the football world have collided with the growing spread of global capitalism, especially in Western societies, which emphasizes the central importance of capital in football, as in all fields. European clubs with funding are those able to assure their presence on the field of play. Indeed, those funds enable them to recruit players with individual talents and abilities from developing countries, whether in Africa or Latin American.
Third and finally, the dichotomy of values hegemony versus specificity is an important explanation for the current geopolitical conflict, especially since, over the decades, the sport has become interconnected with politics and economics and carries in itself certain cultural and value loads. As Tamir Bar-On puts it, Football is one of the cultural terrains in which the dominant political and economic classes attempt to achieve ideological hegemony and consolidate class influence. From this perspective, Bar-On argues that professional football clubs and national teams are part of the larger cultural battle in liberal capitalist societies designed to win hearts and minds. (Tamir Bar-On, The World Through Soccer: The Cultural Impact of a Global Sport, UK: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014).
The hegemony Tamir Bar-On speaks of means, in one way or another, that football has become a tool used by European countries, as the controllers the game, to promote their values agenda worldwide, and perhaps impose it on other societies. In such a context, non-Western countries have formulated a narrative that emphasizes their cultural and values specificity and calls on Western countries to establish limits on the use of football to promote Western values that may not necessarily agree with the nature of other societies.
The aforementioned concepts offer an explanation for the current geopolitical struggle surrounding football, and sports in general, of which the World Cup tournament in Qatar is merely a revealing moment. Overall, it can be said that the escalation of this conflict is linked to several key drivers, represented by the following:
1. Growing demands for fair representation: As we noted previously, many countries outside the Western world have begun to demand a fairer football, helped along by their sense of political, economic, and sports oppression, amid the structures of global inequality that have been devoted to it. According to David Johnston, in his book, A Brief History of Justice, the more capable parties lack a sincere desire and the willingness to establish a balanced relationship with the weaker parties on terms of mutual respect and reciprocity. Johnston argues that there is an absence of serious and systematic means to address cases of cumulative injustice that result from many unjust international deals, noting that there is no significant relationship to the problem of global injustice with the unfair distribution of the social product of rich societies. Indeed, this problem is related to the absence of mutual respect and reciprocity between one country and another to a greater extent than some suppose, according to Johnston.
These growing demands for justice and egalitarianism in the field of sports have represented a clear threat to European influence and hegemony over football. There is no better evidence for this than the effort of many international parties to host and organize international sporting events at a distinguished level that may not differ much from European countries. In recent years, African countries have also called for doubling the number of African seats in the World Cup to at least ten teams.
2. Sport intertwined with oppositional diplomacy: Sport is inseparable from the dynamics of international relations. Thus, perhaps the confrontation surrounding football has been part of the oppositional policies adopted by several countries toward the structure of the current international order. Bertrand Badie argues that oppositional diplomacy increases whenever actors’ displeasure with the system and their place in it increases, expressing a type of diplomacy that dedicates a large part of its movement to objecting to all or part of the international system, with the aim of reaping the rewards, whether in the local or international sphere.
3. Growing importance of capital in football: In recent decades, football has become a capitalist industry par excellence, and whoever owns the capital has the ability to impose his control and superiority in the field. Moreover, football has become an important economic sphere for many countries into which huge investments are being pumped—not to mention the use of players in marketing campaigns. Economic globalization and the capitalist system have given more space to celebrities to promote and lend credibility to particular social campaigns, products, and various national and commercial brands. Thus, in his book Les Stars, Edgar Morin refers to the ability of the contemporary capitalist system to integrate celebrities or stars into industrial networks that serve economic goals. A star is like gold, a highly priced material that merges with the concept of capital itself, according to Morin.
4. Use of modern technology in football: Modern technology has been an important determinant in the current geopolitical competition over football, especially since recent years have seen a notable rise in the use of AI technology with the goal of developing this sport, minimizing the margin of error in matches, guaranteeing the realization of further gains, and helping teams via the big data that are collected. According to some estimates published by the American research and consulting company, Allied Market Research, which were mentioned in a report on The Independent Arabia website on November 21, 2022, the value of global AI in the sports market totaled about $1.4 billion in 2020, and is expected to reach about $19.2 billion by 2030.
Paradoxically, while AI technology may help achieve a degree of fairness in football, especially by narrowing the space for refereeing errors in matches, at the same time, it necessitates entanglement with global geopolitical conflicts and existing global inequality: whoever has the money will have a greater opportunity to obtain the benefits of AI, as well as to develop his presence in sports on the world stage.
5. Becoming a source of soft power: Competition between countries is no longer limited to hard power sources. Soft power has gained an important presence in international competition amid what Peter van Ham considers a shift in political models and tools and a transition from the modern world, based on geopolitics and power, to a postmodern world that is primarily based on images and influence. Of course, football represents one of the most important soft tools, and it is enough for a state now to have a famous international player or a distinguished national team, or even to succeed in organizing an international football event, in order to promote its image and reputation on the world stage.
6. Doubts about the effectiveness of the institution governing the sport: For decades, football has been promoted as the most organized sport in the world, especially since it has a supreme authority, FIFA, that governs the game and is able to impose its sovereignty over the national federations of countries. This situation may have been a mechanism to limit geopolitical differences between countries, but betting on this mechanism is no longer guaranteed in light of the accusations of corruption that have hounded FIFA officials over the past years, and the investigation of some of them for taking bribes.
It cannot be overlooked that undermining the image of FIFA has opened wide the door for further geopolitical clashes between countries. Indeed, the European countries themselves, and their media, have begun to use internal problems in FIFA in order to hold other countries responsible for corrupting football, which is itself implicit confirmation of Europe’s historical entitlement in this sport.
7. Continued explanatory validity of the East-West conflict hypothesis: Despite the criticisms of Samuel P. Huntington’s famous thesis on the clash of civilizations, the explanatory validity of this thesis holds for many social and state interactions. It would not be an exaggeration to say that what is currently happening to football is part of the civilizational conflict between East and West. Western countries fear that a shift will occur in football, and sports in general, away from them and towards other countries in the East. Stephen Collinson expressed this shift in his recently published article on CNN on November 23, 2022, when he noted that the eagerness of many non-European countries to organize sports tournaments "mirrors a global shift in power and especially financial muscle – from the capitals of Western Europe to new epicenters in the Middle East, India and China."
This competition has been accompanied by a more complex conflict of values, especially since the "dream of pure football" is far from reality. This situation has emerged, for example, over the past months, with the Western football system’s handling of the repercussions of the Russian-Ukrainian war and the exclusion of Russian clubs and teams from all sports competitions. A number of national federations responsible for the sport in some European countries have continued their attempts to use football to support some social groups, such as blacks and homosexuals. Amid all the intertwining of football and the Western values system, Eastern countries and societies—if it is permissible to treat with them as a group—see what is happening as an attempt by the West to impose a values agenda that is not consistent with the values of many Eastern societies.
In summary, the existing geopolitical competition over football will persist for many reasons closely related to the structure of the international system at the present moment and the attempt of European countries, and the West in general, to prove their position amid the economic doubts that surround many Western societies, and their fear of the emergence of new football power centers that can challenge European dominance over the game. Perhaps the greatest fear of European countries now, and of the West in general, is that a radical shift is occurring in the current international system, amid events in Ukraine, which will not stop at the border of politics, but will extend to sport, with football at the center.