Yesterday’s announcement that FIFA has selected Russia and Qatar as the next two host nations of the World Cup may be an unfolding public relations disaster of the first magnitude.
FIFA delegates awarded Russia and Qatar the right to host World Cup tournaments in 2018 and 2022 respectively, ending a drawn out process that has been marred by accusations of vote rigging.
But those accusations won't exactly be silenced by the choice of two nations were backhanders and corruption are almost a way of life. Although on the surface it looks like these choices were made to extend the popularity of the sport, something’s amiss.
Did FIFA specifically seek out countries with the highest income inequality, where 1% of the population owns 99% of everything? Was North Korea unavailable? Or was it the two nation’s records on human rights that tipped the scales?
In Russia, where their de facto leader likes to ride around topless on horseback like some latter day Marlboro man, gay people are regularly beaten off Moscow’s streets with public officials looking the other way.
And in Qatar homosexuality is punishable with up to five years imprisonment. Even men and women expressing intimacy in public can get you in trouble. That country has a history of suppressing women’s rights, gay rights, the rights of ethnic minorities, and basically everyone who isn’t drafting those rights in the first place.
I attended an Edna O'Brien play in the city last night, which prompted me to consider the inspiring journey that that formidable Irish author has made. Being a woman in 1950's Ireland was a bit like being gay in America now: many people didn't believe you should enjoy equal rights, and your very existence often seemed like a profound challenge.
Think of it, just being a woman, on your own terms, and demanding simple equality, once enraged and offended many Irish men. O'Brien had the kind of courage that put them all to shame.
Sometimes it seems the eternal struggle of our times is to signal to (usually) men that other people exist. And that they may take a different view. And that that's just fine. It's salutatory in fact. It breaks the monotony.
The trouble with the stories that repressive societies like Russia or the patriarchal societies of the Middle East (or even the outdated story that old, grey Senators like John McCain in Washington) are selling is simple: they omit everyone unlike themselves.
So just wait until tens of thousands of visitors from other nations arrive in these closely policed societies. Culture clashes of one kind or other seem certain. I mean, you can build all the high-tech stadiums you want, but what does that change if your nation doesn’t welcome the fundamental freedom to actually be or express yourself?
What’s the point of sport if it doesn’t remind us that we’re always striving for something better? With their decisions FIFA seems to have chosen money over principle.