Debate: Should major football events be held in troubled countries?

Corruption allegations aren’t really anything new when it comes to FIFA and to a lesser extent UEFA. However, some supporters and even players and ex-players are now accusing the football powers of putting fans’ safety in jeopardy by their misguided attempts to change the world.

The decision to hold this summer’s Euro 2012 tournament in Poland and Ukraine as well as the 2018 World Cup in Russia and the 2022 version in Qatar have all come under fire ever since they were announced. The 2014 World Cup in Brazil is even being questioned by some.

Euro 2012 has garnered the most attention simply because it’s the timeliest topic and there have been quite a few negative reports coming out of the host nations. The BBC recently aired a programme called ‘Stadiums of Hate,’ which detailed various racist and violent attacks in and around Polish and Ukrainian football stadiums. While some politicians in those countries claim the reports are fabricated and out of date, there are enough people taking them seriously.

The situation obviously isn’t as rosy as the Poles and Ukrainians would have us believe since the families of several English players Theo Walcott, Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain, and Joleon Lescott, have announced they won’t be attending Euro 2012 due to possible racist attacks. Also, the wives and girlfriends of England players are reportedly hiring a private jet to take them to and from games so they don’t have to spend the night in a hotel in Ukraine for safety reasons.

To add fuel to the fire, ex-Arsenal star Sol Campbell appeared on television and urged non-white supporters not to travel to Poland and Ukraine for fear they might be sent home in a coffin. This surely can’t be a good advertisement for FIFA and UEFA, but one wonders how realistic are the claims of violence. The BBC coverage can obviously be questioned and it will be by many. Film footage of Ukrainian and Polish fans beating up on Asian supporters and calling opposing Jews, could very well be dated.

In addition, the program showed Ukrainian fans mocking black players by making monkey sounds at them. We also saw a white supremacist group claim that it agrees with some ideals of Nazism, such as ridding the nation of non-Ukrainians. The group also admitted that its members are trained in knife fighting. Regarding Poland, viewers were treated to slogans such as ‘death to hooknoses’ and ‘Jews to the gas.’

Admittedly, none of this looks too appealing and it was quite predictable that Polish and Ukrainian officials would respond by saying their countries don’t have a racism problem. Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk assured Euro 2012 supporters that they wouldn’t be harmed in his nation due to their race and there would be thousands upon thousands of police officers on hand to guarantee it.<

Tusk and the Ukrainian powers-that-be said that racist attacks take place in other countries and labelled English fans as being amongst the worst in all of Europe when it comes to intolerance of other people’s cultures. It’s a bit of a weak argument though, and is just blame-shifting to say racist attacks only take place elsewhere in the world.

Deciding if fans are being put into a dangerous situation depends on who you believe. It’s possible that the BBC team spent hours upon hours going through old footage to dig up incidents of violence, but is that a likely scenario? The programme did also showed the other side of the coin by airing anti-racist measures being employed in the countries.

There’s also no denying that several bomb blasts took place in Ukraine on April 27 in the city of Dnipropetrovsk, which injured at least 29 people. While this incident made the news, it wasn’t reported on as widely as expected since it took place just a few weeks ahead of Euro 2012 in a host country. If the same thing had happened in England ahead of the Olympics, you can bet it would be headline news across the globe.

There’s no doubt there are problems in Poland and Ukraine, as there are in many other nations. Some white-supremacist groups have gone as far as denying the Holocaust during the Second World War. But the question is, should major sporting events be held in troubled countries? Poland and Ukraine aren’t alone. Russia has had its share of terrorist attacks over the years and the Russian mafia is a well-known problem. Would you feel safe heading there in 2018 for the World Cup?

Should sports and politics never be mixed? The riots in England last summer were sickening, but has it stopped visitors from travelling there?

FIFA has also been criticized heavily for forcing Brazil to sell beer at stadiums during the 2013 Confederations Cup and 2014 World Cup, putting profit ahead of fan safety. Alcohol sales at Brazilian stadiums were banned back in 2003. But since Budweiser is a major sponsor of the World Cup, FIFA insisted Brazil change its law regarding the issue, and the nation gave in to the demands.

Even without alcohol sales, Brazil sees more than its fair share of football violence with massive brawls involving hundreds of people taking place and several murders being committed over the past few years. In fact, there have been 42-football related deaths in Brazil between 1998 and 2008 and a few more since then.

The 2022 World Cup in Qatar probably isn’t going to be any picnic either. First off, the nation currently refuses to acknowledge the existence of Israel, who of course will be attempting to qualify for the World Cup. World Cup organizers have said Israel will definitely be welcome to play in the tournament, but cynics have suggested that the nation will be “drawn” into a qualifying group with Spain and other tough countries in hope that they don’t qualify.

The oppressive heat will also be a factor in Qatar and players as well as fans could be risking their health. Women’s rights are also a hot topic, and Qatar and Russia are seen as homophobic nations with homosexuality being illegal in the Middle East country and punishable by jail. Like Brazil, the sale of alcohol in 2022 is also going to be an issue that needs to be sorted out. It appears to some people that FIFA is awarding major events to some nations as a way to address and solve political problems even though the organization can’t even manage its own inefficiencies. FIFA’s history of trying to help out struggling nations by awarding them major sporting events is seen by some as a conflict when it comes to putting on successful and safe tournaments.

Also, in many cases it backfires. It’s been reported that Ukraine will never make back the money it has spent on hosting Euro 2012 and will go further into debt. This isn’t a good sign considering the financial state of most of the world’s nations. Many stadiums may sit empty after the events and cost millions of pounds to maintain. Instead of spending millions and even billions on new stadiums, roads, airports, and other infrastructure, would it not be better to hold tournaments in nations that are already prepared?

FIFA has said if there are any problems during tournaments the referees can simply suspend games. The football organization also said Ukraine and Poland can address their internal issues at Euro 2012. But is this the right attitude to be taking and are fans being used as guinea pigs for political reasons? FIFA has been accused of saying that trying to solve racism in Ukraine and Poland is more important than fan safety.

It’s a no-brainer that racism should be addressed, but are FIFA or UEFA the people who should be doing it? Many sports fans believe major events are a way to bring people together to forget about the world’s woes and even the drug-taking and cheating that go on in sports. If anything serious takes place at any of the upcoming tournaments between now and 2022, FIFA will certainly be held accountable by many.

As my colleague Jim Cornall pointed out, if FIFA and UEFA keep up with their current policies, they will be penalizing the larger football nations for being successful and stable. So if we’re trying to encourage not-very-good-at-football countries to be nice by awarding them with major tournaments it means given continental rotation that we could see World Cups awarded to nations such as Burma, Zimbabwe, Syria, Fiji, and Haiti in the future.

Do you feel major football tournaments should be held in nations that are already prepared to host them, even if it means the same countries will be awarded the majority of events? In addition, do you believe football fans are facing safety issues at any of the upcoming tournaments?