The Beautiful Game can be hard for the average American sports fan to appreciate. I get that.
I also know that soccer played at the highest level is lyrical, sublimely collaborative and even mesmerizing in tournaments like the World Cup. Players like my daughters know soccer’s allure too, as do more and more fans these days.
Yet as embodied by FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, there is no other athletic endeavor in which the beauty of the game on the field is as jarringly juxtaposed with the ugliness of the sport as an international business.
there is no other athletic endeavor in which the beauty of the game on the field is as jarringly juxtaposed with the ugliness of the sport as an international business.
FIFA is deeply corrupt, cynical and shameless.
In what is likely the most widely-reported international news story this week, federal prosecutors charged 14 FIFA officials and corporate executives with bribery, fraud and money laundering, for essentially selling tournament rights to the highest briber. Then prosecutors in Switzerland, home to FIFA’s headquarters, said they had launched their own corruption probe into the awarding of World Cup hosting rights to Russia and Qatar.
It’s hard to know how much to talk about all this at home and on the practice field. My daughters love the game, but while I’m exposing them to its beauty and grace, how much should I shield them from the ugliness of the sport, and by extension, the world?
When the U.S. Justice Department criticized FIFA’s “rampant, systemic and deep-rooted” corruption, it could just have well been talking about the governments of Russia, Sudan, Venezuela or even our own dark-money-driven American politics in the post-Citizen’s United era. If big money has undermined electoral democracy here at home, is it really so surprising that it corrupted FIFA, which raked in an estimated $5.7 billion from 2011 to 2014 (despite technically being a nonprofit)?
And take FIFA President Sepp Blatter. Please. The Guardian once called him “the most successful non-homicidal dictator of the past century” and even that may be understating the case. Hundreds of migrant workers, many from Nepal and other South Asian countries, have died building World Cup facilities in the blistering heat of Qatar, working in conditions that violate international labor laws and human rights. As the death toll has mounted, Blatter has refused to resign or even to step down as a candidate for another term as FIFA’s president. (Editor's Note: After this was posted, Blatter was re-elected FIFA president.)
Rights abuses abound in our increasingly unequal and intolerant world. Yet still we buy iPhones and cheap sweatshop-produced clothing. And still we watch soccer.
My girls and I will be in the stands next month for the FIFA Women’s World Cup semifinal in Montreal and, to be honest, I feel OK about it. The soccer will be superb and I’m at least reasonably sure that no poor Nepalese laborers died building the Parc Olympique. Of course, that doesn’t mean there won’t be other indignities to explain.
It’s hard to know how much to talk about all this at home and on the practice field.
Like why the women must play on artificial turf, which FIFA has never made the men do. And why Blatter, perhaps now forever enshrined as both the most powerful and most hated man in sport, has said the women’s game would be more popular if only their shorts were tighter. And why ESPN will show nude women's soccer stars in the annual body issue of their magazine, but won’t air U.S. women’s professional games on television. And why the news that the new FIFA 16 video game will include women’s teams for the first time has apparently unleashed a torrent of predictable hate from gamer trolls.
Soccer has given my girls so much. They’re healthier, more confident and better at friendships than they would have been without the game. Studies show that girls who play organized sports like soccer get better grades in school and have lower rates of obesity, eating disorders and substance abuse. One survey by the mutual fund company Oppenheimer even found that 82 percent of female executives had played organized sports in middle school, high school or college.
That’s why I’ll keep exposing them to the beauty of the game. I may wait a while, though, to get them fully up to speed on the ugliness of the world.
Ralph Ranalli is the founder of The Beautiful Project, which creates best-practices teaching tools for coaches of girls who play soccer.
This article was originally published on May 29, 2015.