Lies, Deceit, and Illusion: Football in the 21st Century

Martin Scorsese’s ‘Shutter Island’ is the perfect specimen of deception. Teddy Daniels reaches the brink in search of the truth and it ends up taking a breakdown for him to realise that he was a key part of the art of deception. A story which began with the search of someone missing turned into a painful tale of self-exploration through trauma and finally facing up to what was always right in front of us and Teddy. After one point – as Scorsese usually likes, the curtain was truly drawn from the inevitable truth.

While the game and the business of football isn’t a psychological thriller movie, it has almost certainly turned out to be a deception. The game has come across one evolution after another in an attempt to grow and realise what it truly stands for, only for fans to now realise that it is like the rest of the world. Rather, it was always like the rest of the world. The signs were always there to see but were essentially cleverly manipulated. 

Artwork by Onkar Shirsekar

And the last few weeks, through the ensuing conflict in Ukraine, have brought to the fore as to how the game has assumed a fresh responsibility. It is a responsibility of taking stands instead of shying away, even if it means breaking ties with influential powers. Acts like moving the venue for the Champions League final and Russia being banned from the World Cup show that there is a realisation from the game’s behalf that it has a voice – now more than ever. And it is a voice which carries weight that very few can have and it goes beyond the weight that even some countries have. After all, official records suggest the FIFA World Cup in 2018 was watched by more viewers globally than the Tokyo Olympics. But digging deeper, political reasons aren’t hard to find.

And it isn’t just football that has always carried political links. Sport has always been a political tool.

Back in 1939, IOC was looking for a new host for the 1940 Winter Olympics after the tournament was taken away from Japan due to its military aggression. The Winter Olympics were handed over to Germany but they were abandoned after Hilter’s forces invaded Poland that very year. 

Cricket, which is the most popular sport in the second-most populated nation in the world, acquired popularity before India’s independence as it was played on communal lines and it soon fell into the jar of political influences during the country’s struggle against British rule. This has been written about in detail by Ramchandra Guha in his book ‘A corner of a foreign field’. And today, India refuses to play bilateral cricket games against Pakistan because of the two countries’ recent political frictions.

In football, Medellín Cartel leader Pablo Escobar bankrolled Atlético Nacional and the cartel football trend had begun way back in the 1970s. A cartel in Cali that was owned by Gilberto and Miguel Orejuela, and their associate, Chepe Santacruz, took over a rival and football soon became a mere pawn in the battle of power, money and drugs involving the rivals. The game became a perfect encapsulation of the territorial battles.

Football’s political links have only strengthened, as there has been an augmentation of stakeholders with rising influences with those who frequently visit the United Nations headquarters in Geneva.

Over time, they have begun to see football as an effective means of flaunting their supremacy and influence. On the way, football administrators also realised the need to glocalise their product.

Michael Cox has written in his famous book ‘The Mixer’ about how football became more of a product with the advent of the Premier League. Americanisation, in a general sense, had become a concrete proof of how globalisation functions and the usage of mass media and later social media became the means through which a certain ‘Englishness’ was going to be portrayed to a global audience. Local audiences of the sport began to be largely ignored to tap into a much larger audience and everything began to be witnessed from a global lens.

Premier League exploited the demand for merchandising and pay-television live programming through audiences in Asia and Africa, with intensive marketing used to reach an audience which wasn’t rooted in English cities. Later, American owners stepped into English sport and it all reached a tipping point when six English clubs chose to join the Super League, an idea that sought to kill competition and become as closed as the American sports.

And as the cocoon of the Premier League grew and the wave spread across the globe, the appeal of the division was to be enmeshed with global issues that really mattered.

There has been a recognition from those who run the game that football’s stance on global issues does matter, largely because of how much of a worldwide audience it commands. The same happened when the Russia-Ukraine conflict broke out. Premier League commentators spoke about the need to ‘stop the war’ in Ukraine, while the league’s logo adorned the country’s flag at the bottom of the TV screens.

Elsewhere, a video involving Andriy Shevchenko was played before the recent Milan derby in the Coppa Italia whereas Napoli shared a video of their players saying ‘Stop the War’ in their native languages. Content like that is heartwarming, engaging and shareable. It encapsulates the duty that football carries in a world which needs messiahs to stop ills, when social media essentially has the ability to destroy or embellish anything.

The point is not that this rather modern realisation is deplorable, it is the fact that it just comes across as a futile and pointless exercise and a lesson in gimmick-building. Rather, it is a case of performing duties for the sake of it as the game otherwise harps on about how politics and football do not go hand in hand. It is a narrative which has been bombarded by the likes of FIFA and UEFA numerous times. Those are the same organisations that spread messages about how they want to combat racism but end up doing pretty much nothing about it, unless it comes down to toning it all down just so the product of football can be marketed better.

It is depressing enough for an average football fan who has always sought football as an escape from the anxieties of daily life that an almost hypocritical side of the game has prevailed. While the game was always mired in hypocrisy, social media and a regular flow of information has made it all the more visible.

But let alone now, it was always there and in some ways the transient birth of the Super League was almost like the lighthouse from ‘Shutter Island’. That is pretty much when an average football fan was made to look up the geopolitical connections of the likes of Andrea Agnelli, Nasser Al-Khelaifi, Ed Woodward, Florentino Perez and Sheikh Mansour, while contemplating their support for clubs in vain. This tipping point was ironic as football and sport has always been going hand in hand with politics.

Formula One has had races in Saudi Arabia for many years now and Sharjah became the destination of entertaining cricket in the 1990s, despite constant rumours about how match-fixing in the sport flourished from there. 

In a lot of ways, the Premier League’s roots lie in political intentions despite the league’s constant narrative of separating one from the other. It is a relevant sign of Thatcherism, as the invention came as a result of a host of stronger clubs taking a large slice of a pie that was once shared by all the clubs. Margaret Thatcher’s close ties with Rupert Murdoch paid dividends, as the media mogul became the first man to popularise a British product. 

While these political roots of the Premier League have largely been ignored and untouched largely because of Thatcher’s evident dislike for the game, football’s tendency to pretend that things have never been political has now become irksome. None more so than after the recent chain of events. 

For a general context, the Russo-Ukrainian War has been going on since early 2014. The Crimean Peninsula was annexed by Russia in early 2014 and it wasn’t long after it that the infamous Sepp Blatter publicly confirmed that the 2018 World Cup will go ahead. That, despite clear claims of corruption in Russia’s and Vladimir Putin’s attempts to ‘buy’ the tournament. And it isn’t as if the corruption claims were false or never paid heed to by the game’s so-called protectors, several FIFA executives were axed when the claims broke out.

In 2017, FIFA had supposedly adopted a Human Rights Policy that sought to “go beyond its responsibility to respect human rights” and it looked to establish a “new program of labor inspections at construction sites”. 

And this happened in the midst of Building Workers International’s report stating that at least 21 workers had died during stadium construction in Russia. The famous investigative magazine ‘Josimar’ had brought out an article called “The Slaves of St Petersburg”. The piece claimed that around 110 North Koreans worked at the Zenit Arena in St. Petersburg, with international experts describing North Korean workers as ‘slaves’ and even ‘hostages’.

France went on to win the World Cup which saw the short-lived rise of a relatable underdog in Croatia and people moved on soon. Perhaps, the media moved on. Qatar was to become the next target and  Putin’s project showed that moving on is a vital part of the sportwashing playbook..

And while FIFA’s defence can certainly be that the World Cup was not a sportswashing project, there is concrete proof against it. Chris Steele was once an MI6 operative in Moscow and was head of their Russia desk in London from 2006 to 2009. He also worked for England’s 2018 bid through his own intelligence firm. In a chat with the Daily Mail in 2021, Steele said:

“Vladimir Putin eventually realised that Russia’s 2018 World Cup bid was a prestige project, and required winning at all costs for political reasons. Modern Russia’s default mode is to engage in corruption and underhand dealings.”

Even though this is well before we go on about the World Cups of 2006 and 2022, this is perhaps how football’s biggest drawback and the biggest positive is the game’s global influence. That is just part of the charm, either way. This makes football the biggest global draw for politicians, administrators and fans alike.

And being the biggest draw on the globe means that shifting narratives regularly can be a lucrative plan, especially if the game’s media has become click-baity and the money in the sport has brought in more people looking to make a living in the game. It becomes easier to go with the flow and trends in an environment like that, especially if it is a massive global entity like the Premier League. 

Sanctions against Roman Abramovich certainly carry a valid political narrative, for anyone who believes that sport and politics can’t intermingle. Chelsea could witness a lot of what was normal become a luxury, as the Premier League continues to market an anti-Russia narrative as the war rages on in Ukraine. The UK and the Premier League though, have already played a key role in flaunting Putin’s legitimacy and influence when they allowed Abramovich into the division in the first place and allowed him to alter the definition of what football transfers are.

The NATO alignments exist but it is vital to not forget who was pipped by Russia to host the 2018 World Cup. It was the UK, of course. Yes, the same country that witnessed the Salisbury poisonings. Co-accidentally, Heidi Blake and Jonathan Calvert wrote in ‘The Ugly Game: The Qatari Plot to Buy the World Cup’ that Russia’s spying played a key role in them winning the World Cup vote for the 2018 tournament.

All of this suggests that football is running on  political blood, contrary to FIFA’s ‘sports and politics don’t mix’ PR spin when questioned about the issues involving Israel and Palestine. It is a gross capitalisation of football’s global reach to spin narratives – as the critically acclaimed film ‘Don’t Look Up’ points out to. There’s a reason why the film is distasteful for some but viewed from a non-aligned perspective, it makes a lot of sense. And even for football’s modern-day darkness, the film will make sense.

Perhaps, it will only take an issue to trend on Twitter at a global level for the Premier League or FIFA to take some sort of an action against shady ownerships and clubs. Or maybe the giant has grown too big to hear the thunder from its footsteps.

It is ironic that sanctions against Chelsea and Abramovich came in the same week as when they faced Newcastle United. And the Blues won 1-0 on the same day as when it was reported that 81 people were executed by Saudi Arabia in a single day. It is the largest known mass execution carried out in the kingdom which practically owns the Magpies now, much to the excitement of a fanbase which was left in gloom during the ownership of Mike Ashley. The fans believe this is the new spark to take their club to Europe.

Newcastle legend and the Premier League’s highest ever goalscorer Alan Shearer was quite quick to comment about Abramovich’s statement about Ukraine. The Englishman said: “There’s still no condemnation from Roman or the club about what’s happening in Ukraine.”

The intention is right and it may have contributed to the actions that were taken against Abramovich, it is a sign of how English football has been impervious to what has been happening in Yemen for a long while now. Shearer refused to address the issues closer home, as the nation which practically owns the club he supports has used advanced weaponry on a neighbour and harmed thousands of civilians. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

The difference between Abramovich and PIF is quite minor yet remarkable. The Russian comes across as an introvert who prefers staying in the background, while he operates a business few even know about ever since he took over at Stamford Bridge. PIF, however, are openly and brazenly associated with Mohammed bin Salman’s government, but continue to emphasise that both are not linked whatsoever and one won’t have an impact on the other.

This is, by no means, a criticism of Shearer or a protection of Abramovich. It is more of a hint of how football – or those running it, might just be sitting on a throne of lies as they go on fooling and manipulating more fans that are desperate for the success of their football clubs. All of their narratives espouse a dark world which is hounding football more and more with every passing day.

A rather fitting indication of what football has become through the numerous stakeholders is the manner in which Newcastle’s takeover was initially blocked, following reservations from beIN Sports’ complaints regarding piracy. It is barely a surprise that BeIn Sports’ chairman is PSG’s Nasser Al-Khelaifi and the takeover was blocked when Qatar abolished ties with Saudi Arabia for three years. The equations were restored in 2021, just some months before the takeover went through anyway.

In many ways, all of this is football’s very own doing. Whether the game’s initial intention was to keep increasing the size of the cocoon or not, it has grown to a point where it can’t exist without ultra-influential owners and stakeholders. The game has inflated itself to a point where a lot of things just can’t be controlled anymore until narratives are twisted and pointless PR done across the world. 

Sport was always political – from hosting the Olympiads and Franco influencing football in Spain to Pablo Escobar and to what is rampant now. Only the authorities told fans and those who truly care about the game to live in the pretence that both can’t go hand in hand. 

While the fans have unknowingly contributed to this contamination of the game, many things feel like a slap in their face now. The game is not an escape anymore. For many, it is almost like life itself. The sort of anxieties and fears that fans have in routine life have spilled over to the game they love and it will only grow. 

And as Scorsese would like, the curtain has been pulled from football’s truth already. Ten years ago, fans would exist in a space which made football seem like a wonderland which was meant to make people happy. While the game still makes a lot of fans happy as they indulge in escapism, the emergence of social media and constant flows of information have made narratives in the game a two-way street. Apart from the fact that everyone has a voice, everyone has access to information which could never have travelled across the seven seas about 30 years ago. That has opened up many minds.

Amidst all that, football became a prisoner of itself and its ambitions, bound by those that don’t care about it – almost like Teddy realising what he truly was. Football could well take a while to come to terms with the darker side because of how easy it is to be hypocritical in the sport. 

For football, there would be no dilemma as to whether it wants to live as a monster or to die as a good entity. It has come too far. For the fans of the game, hope is all there is. And it keeps everyone going.

Kaustubh Pandey

European football writer. Featured on Manchester Evening News, Manchester United, FootballItalia, Calciomercato, Editor in Chief at Get Italian Football News.