Earlier this month, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir took in the FIFA World Cup Final between France and Croatia. Bashir was among world leaders in the VIP section of Luzhniki Stadium, in Moscow. But he is unlike anyone else who watched from the crowd that day. He has the singular distinction of having been charged with all three major crimes before the International Criminal Court (ICC): crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide. The Sudanese leader is allegedly responsible for countless mass atrocities in Darfur since 2003 and has been on the run ever since he was first indicted in 2008, visiting numerous states in defiance of international law. Even if it is entirely predictable that he would want to travel like a typical head of state and thumb his nose at the ICC, FIFA’s willingness to host him at its premier event is shameful. Given the Association’s history however, it is also sadly unsurprising.
The global football association has infamously battled allegations of corruption. Less known is FIFA’s affiliation with war criminals. Officials from the organization have long cavorted with notorious international criminals. The soccer world’s purported respect for human rights appears to be cosmetic and its practice of fostering relationships with war criminals continues.
FIFA has a storied history with regimes responsible for mass atrocities. In 1978, the World Cup was held in Argentina. The festivities came in the midst of the country’s “Dirty War”, a period when an estimated 30,000 opponents of the right-wing military junta were disappeared. Decades later, many senior junta members responsible for atrocities during the Dirty War are incarcerated following convictions on charges of crimes against humanity and genocide. The intimately interwoven nature of atrocity crimes and celebration of soccer in Argentina led one survivor of the Dirty War to remark that “the 1978 World Cup is one of the deep wounds of Argentine society. Every four years, a new World Cup reactivates those wounds.”
Reports have also long suggested that a senior FIFA official, Alfredo Hawit, collaborated “in unspecified forced disappearances with General Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, the point man for CIA and Argentina intelligence operatives attempting to replicate Operation Condor in Central America.” Still, FIFA has escaped responsibility.
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, FIFA continued this trend of working with war criminals. In 1999, then Liberian President Charles Taylor was engaged in the long-standing civil war in neighbouring Sierra Leone. Civilians were raped, maimed, in some cases cannibalized, and killed in the thousands. The country’s riches – especially its diamonds – were looted and traded by Taylor for the guns that in turn killed more civilians. In 2013, Taylor was convicted and sentenced to a fifty-year sentence by the Special Court for Sierra Leone for having aided and abetted war crimes during the war. But even in 1999 it was clear to anyone who cared to know that Taylor and the rebels he sponsored were engaged in horrific abuses of civilians. In the midst of this carnage, Taylor hosted an opulent dinner with FIFA’s now disgraced boss, Sepp Blatter.
Blatter seemed all too happy to meet with Taylor. During their lavish meetings in Monrovia, the FIFA President was awarded with Liberia’s highest honor, the Humane Order of African Redemption. Photos of the ceremony depict the two appearing stoic and proud before warmly shaking hands. They wore broad, knowing, smiles. Perhaps they knew that they were pulling one over on the world. Perhaps they felt untouchable. One can only imagine the horror that Taylor’s victims must feel when confronted with such photographs.
At the meetings, Taylor’s government faithfully pledged its enduring support for the embattled Blatter as FIFA President. But Blatter wasn’t the only one who would leave their meetings with loot. Under its National Assistance Programme, FIFA provided Liberia with $5 million. According to Andrew Jennings, an investigative reporter specialized in covering FIFA corruption,
When Taylor was forced from power Edwin Snowe needed to get out of Liberia in a hurry. Who would pay? FIFA paid. Poverty stricken Liberia had an annual grant from FIFA of $250,000. Edwin was allowed to pocket it, flee to America and pretend to enrol in a Denver college to study Sports Management and Entertainment Events.
Asked how this rip-off of poor people could be justified, Blatter mouthpiece Andreas Herren announced smugly that FIFA was happy to pay for Edwin ‘to further his education.’
Many have hoped that FIFA’s shadowy ways would come to an end when Blatter was finally shown the exit under a hail of corruption allegations that shook the soccer world to its core. But this World Cup has shown that this is not the case. Alleged perpetrators of genocide remain welcome patrons of FIFA.
In May 2016, under the leadership of new FIFA President Gianni Infantino, the organization adopted what it called a “landmark human rights policy”, declaring that it was “committed to respecting all internationally recognized human rights and shall strive to promote the protection of these rights”. When asked how hosting Bashir was compatible with the policy, FIFA representatives declined to comment. Perhaps that is unsurprising, since there is no way to square that particular circle. There is no excuse.
The 2018 FIFA World Cup will be remembered as a remarkable tournament where a stunning number of underdogs defeated heavily favoured opponents. Across the world, no one is a greater underdog than the communities targeted by war. FIFA would do well to stand in solidarity with them – and avoid rubbing shoulders with their perpetrators.