29 May 2015
Fifa and the problem of structural evil
The big news this week, for this football fan at any rate, was the dawn raid on a luxury Swiss hotel and the arrests of several Fifa executives. I've become grimly resigned over the last few years to the fact that the organisation running the sport I love is riddled with corruption and grotesque injustice.
So to see Fifa barons being hustled out of their five-star hotel into police cars, while Swiss and American authorities unveil massive charge sheets against them, was simultaneously scarcely believable and yet wonderful. I even found myself strangely filled with goodwill for the FBI.
But amidst the nascent joy was a nagging doubt, prompted by some possibly tongue-in-cheek questioning by my wife. Given what we now know about how for decades World Cups were bought and sold for millions of dollars, can I watch international football with any integrity?
Not that the games are being rigged –although that almost certainly has happened more than we realise –but does watching football games run by an organisation hopelessly mired in bribes and kickbacks make me complicit?
This isn't just about a few elderly men enriching themselves —money intended to build infrastructure in desperately poor countries appears to have been pocketed by corrupt officials. And that's before we begin to look at the next two World Cups. So far, building work for the 2022 tournament in Qatar has claimed the lives of almost 1,000 workers, many of whom are essentially working as slave labour, unable to leave the country without the permission of their employers.
The next World Cup in three years is being held in Russia. And Russia is, well, Russia —mired in a vicious proxy war with Ukraine, increasingly persecuting LGBT people and tolerating widespread racism in its own football league, among other things.
So, what is a Christian football fan from England supposed to do, in light of all this? Should I boycott watching all TV coverage of Fifa matches? After all, the broadcasters have paid huge sums to Fifa for the rights to show the World Cup —money that is very possibly being misused. I would not normally buy a product or service if I knew the person offering it to me was responsible for the deaths of thousands of indentured migrant labourers.
But then again, whether I watch the World Cup or not will not make a blind bit of difference to the corruption and injustice endemic at Fifa. If I controlled the BBC's sport output or was in charge of Coca-Cola's marketing budget, then I would have some powerful levers to pull in favour of those suffering workers in Qatar. But I don't. Am I still expected to boycott Fifa for the principle? Am I truly culpable for injustice simply by watching 22 men run around a pitch?
I suppose what I am hitting up against is the dilemma of structural evil. Living in this fallen world it seems impossible to avoid the sin that pervades every institution –as well as every person. For instance, some of the money I pay in taxes to the government will no doubt go towards work that offends God. But I can't just refuse to pay any tax on conscience.
This is a difficult and confusing area, and I suspect the right thing to do is often different for each different case. But, encouragingly, this is also something Jesus encountered. He was committed to this world, warts and all, and got plugged in, but was able to live a sinless life. This tells me that the cause is not hopeless.
The Pharisees tried to trap him on this very question in Matthew 22. Asked if it was right to pay taxes to the dictatorial and idolatrous Imperial Roman authorities, Jesus hits back with a gloriously simple yet profound statement: "Give back to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's."
In here I think we see some answers —yes, the Christian can be involved in a sinful society without necessarily becoming complicit in its structural sin. But, the bigger call on our lives as followers of the radical way is to render unto the Lord what is His —and that's not just our money, that's our thoughts, our free time, and yes, even our football.
So while I try and figure out what it means to give football to God, forgive me if I continue to watch the World Cup while cheering on the FBI.
Tim Wyatt is a journalist at the Church Times.