In This Episode
This fall, when the eyes of the world turn towards Qatar for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, a shadow looms over the tournament, which is one of the most watched events in the world. The sports landscape being co-opted for geo-political and corporate gain is nothing new, but this year’s iteration of football’s biggest competition may be the most expensive example to date. Pod Save the World’s Tommy Vietor and Roger Bennett of Men in Blazers join forces to unravel the riddle of how to enjoy the game we love while holding the powers that control it accountable for their corruptive policies and practices. On this inaugural episode of World Corrupt, a collaboration from Men in Blazers Media Network and Crooked Media, the two hosts share the memories that helped them first fall in love with soccer, while also looking back into the annals of history at past instances of a phenomenon known as “sportswashing.”
[news clip]: The winner to organize the 222 FIFA World Cup is Qatar. [cheering]
[news clip]: 6500 migrant workers have died in Qatar since it won its World Cup bid. That is devastating.
Roger Bennett: Sports is always a bloody, emotional release to joy, a refuge, a place to seek shelter from the storm of everyday life. How will we consume what is essentially a World Cup soaked in blood?
Roger Bennett: Crooked Media’s Tommy Vietor!
Tommy Vietor: Men in Blazers’ Roger Bennett.
Roger Bennett: This is like one of these old crossover episodes when Scooby Doo would team up with Batman and attempt to solve some caper. Surely there’s only one way this can end us pulling off the mask of a frumpy old man, only to be reminded that he would have got away with it if it wasn’t for us pesky kids.
Tommy Vietor: [laugh] See I was thinking there was like not since Full House met Family Matters have two audiences been this confused? Probably if we’re being honest. But Rog, I am thrilled to do this series with you because it combines three of my passions, sports, foreign policy, and feeling guilty.
Roger Bennett: And all it took for us to actually do this pod was really for the world to go to crap.
Tommy Vietor: Mm hmm.
Roger Bennett: They tell confluence of terrifying forces so terrifying they’re threatening to destroy one of the single things that we love the most, which is sports in general, as you say, and the World Cup in particular, the crown jewel of the sport. This time around, it’s going to be in Qatar. Yes. A nation state that was awarded the sport’s most coveted competition corruptly and then proceeded to build the infrastructure for the tournament with migrant labor practices that have been likened to modern slavery. So why is this happening? What makes F1 golf the World Cup so bloody attractive to despots and deviants?
Tommy Vietor: To be honest, Rog, the answer is kind of complicated, and what you believe probably depends on your perspective. You and I have learned a lot since we started working on this podcast and reporting it out several months ago, including about some of our own biases. And we want to bring you guys the audience with us along that journey.
Roger Bennett: When I hear the word journey, I think it’s all going to end with you and me doing ayahuasca with Howard Rogers in the desert somewhere. [laughter].
Tommy Vietor: Stay tuned, Rog. Maybe it’s a bonus episode, but to answer your question—
Roger Bennett: [laughter] It’d be 7 hours, 29 minutes, special bonus.
Tommy Vietor: [laughter] You get Joe Rogan involved. This could be a hit. Some experts out there argue that, look, vanity is the reason all these Golf autocrats want to buy football clubs. You know, they have massive amounts of money. They have even bigger egos and they’re competitive. And so you might view Qatar’s motivation for wanting to host the World Cup. It’s just an effort to throw itself kind of a global coming out party. You know, they want to show that Qatar is open for business and they want to compete with their more cosmopolitan neighbors in Dubai.
Roger Bennett: Oh, Dubai. That massive modern city in the neighboring United Arab Emirates that went from small desert town to home of literally the tallest building in the world within about 50 years.
Tommy Vietor: Amazingly, yes, exactly.
Roger Bennett: And that same UAE is invested huge money into soccer powerhouses like Manchester City. The neighbors in Saudi Arabia just followed suit last year when they brought their own English Premier League club called Newcastle.
Tommy Vietor: It starts to kind of feel like a global pitch measuring contest, if you get my drift.
Roger Bennett: I like why you did there Tommy. I should take that back, I hate what you did there. [laughter]
Tommy Vietor: I hate what I did there too. But listen, hosting the World Cup also gives Qatar a reason to spend big money on infrastructure projects that they need subways, stadiums, hotels. It helps them attract Western companies and investment. There are some clear practical benefits too.
Roger Bennett: Your a very practical man. But we’ve got to be honest. So many of the activists and human rights groups that we’ve spent time talking to over the past few months had a much darker view of Qatar’s motives.
Tommy Vietor: You’re right, they did. They view Qatar’s 2022 bid as above all else, just a global PR campaign to sell a more modern image to the world and to connect Qatar with the glamorous and glitzy world of international football and not the darker corners of their human rights and foreign policy record.
Roger Bennett: A.k.a. sports washing.
Tommy Vietor: The term we’re going to introduce you to, that you’re going to hate, it’s when an individual or state uses sports to burnish their reputation or frankly hide their sins. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Russian oligarch or an authoritarian country. Buying a team or hosting a major sporting event is an easy way to get everybody talking about what’s happening on the field instead of your problems off of it. The term is relatively new, but the concept has been around for a long time. The most infamous example is when Hitler’s Germany hosted the 1936 Olympic Games.
Tommy Vietor: Hitler wanted to show the world the superiority of Nazi Germany in the Aryan race. And that is, of course, until a Black American man named Jesse Owens won four gold medals and humiliated him in front of the world. And for that, Jesse, we thank you for eternity. But you could really argue, Rog, that the concept goes back much further, like the bread and circuses in ancient Rome.
Roger Bennett: The reality is we’ve all got to check our moral compasses, how we consume and revel in these things. We love honesty more than love that we live for and not least tangentially be complicit in all of the undercurrents that operate below the surface just bubbling away. John Oliver, he comes on our show every single year and I believe he’s our most repeat guest ever actually. Massive, massive. Liverpool fan football really means everything to that gent. He and I were talking about how he’s going to approach the World Cup in Qatar in November, and he explains so bloody eloquently the question this all distills down to.
[clip of John Oliver]: There has never been anything more complicated than balancing your love for the World Cup with the organization that produces it. Right. We’ve all all felt that we we’ve done two stories on our show about FIFA, which often end with and I’m still going to watch it. But yes, yes, FIFA is an international crime syndicate. But I love the thing they produced so much. [laughter] I guess the really brutal honesty is that I’m probably going to watch and enjoy a World Cup that shouldn’t be happening there. I don’t know what that says about me as a human being, but it’s not great. I probably don’t have the strength in me not to watch what is normally my absolute favorite thing in the world, that I look forward to watching for exactly four years.
Tommy Vietor: Truthfully, like, look, I focus on politics. I talk about international affairs. But on my foreign policy show, Ben and I talk about sports nearly every week. And it’s not just because we’re addicts like you. It’s because sports and politics and culture constantly overlap, right? I mean, too often in the U.S., that overlap is political leaders trying to tell athletes, usually Black athletes, that they should be quiet. They’re denounced for kneeling during the national anthem. You have Fox News host Laura Ingraham infamously telling LeBron James this.
[clip of Laura Ingraham]: No one voted for you. Millions elected Trump to be their coach. So keep the political commentary to yourself or as someone once said, shut up and dribble.
Tommy Vietor: The suggestion that sports used to be some safe space away from political debates in the U.S. or anywhere else is just absurd. I mean, look at Jim Brown, look at Jackie Robinson, what they did to break racial barriers in this country and fight for racial justice. Martina Navratilova, the WNBA star, Brittney Griner, who is currently being detained in Russia, fought for LGBT rights. Venus and Serena Williams demanded gender and pay equity. Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali. Right. Athletes have run for office. It is no different internationally.
Roger Bennett: Football is that almost times a hundred because it’s a global game that’s inextricably linked to politics. And I’ve always said I only see ultimately it’s what draws me to it. When international football and when World Cups take place, you have two teams taking the field and their histories, their cultures, their economies, their politics. They take the field alongside them. I’ve always said football is just a mirror that refracts what’s happening to society back to the world. Tell me we’ve talked about this when you had the terrible taste to allow me on to Pod Save the World, you got rid of that producer that allowed me on, I knew from the glimmer in the Tommy V. eye I knew that football was beginning to speak to you. And I actually I need to say this before we dove in. Some people would say I did you dirty [laughter] because I convinced you to support trademark the greatest football club in the world, a.k.a. Everton Football Club, my home town—
Tommy Vietor: Sure did.
Roger Bennett: —from Liverpool, that once great port city in the north west of England. Think Baltimore of Great Britain, British Charm City. And for those of you listening who may not be massive Premier League fans, you could be asking yourself, aren’t Liverpool, the team from Liverpool. And it’s true. It’s a bit like the Yankees, Liverpool, the Mets are Everton, the Clippers to Los Angeles Lakers or the Roger Clinton to Liverpool’s [?] to think of them as a team that runs on [?] town if you’ve experienced, it’s a new [?].
Tommy Vietor: I’m new to this game. I did notice we recently lost to an MLS team in America. [laughter]
Roger Bennett: We do a lot of good work for charity.
Tommy Vietor: I’m guessing that’s not good. So listen, truthfully, Rog, I’ve wanted to get into football, into soccer for a very long time. So when you came on, I demanded that Rog act as my soccer sommelier and help me pick a club. And now correct me if I’m wrong, Rog, but I think, you know, you knew I grew up near Boston as a Red Sox fan. I think you picked up on some some pining for the pre 2004 lovable loser Red Sox teams, maybe a wisp of self-loathing and desperation.
Roger Bennett: More than the West Thomas, willingness to wallow in melancholy.
Tommy Vietor: Yes, a propensity for self-sabotage. And then you thought Everton, man.
Roger Bennett: Welcome to Everton Football Club, Thomas Vietor.
Tommy Vietor: But even if they don’t win much, look, the games are so much fun to watch. I watched every week. We even beat Chelsea this year. That’s a big deal, right? One of the best clubs in the world.
Roger Bennett: It was I think Tommy is very keen, though, about getting an Everton Tramp Stamp, which I warned him off. But he gets on Twitter and is just like whatever team we’re out to play, be like Chelsea we proper hate them, and I’m like Tommy, no, no, no. [laughter] Just just pace yourself. Pace yourself lad. But what is amazing about football, growing up in Liverpool, my city, we consumed our football back in those days by going live to watch our local club in their grubby home stadium. We’d cram into drafty rainy stands which stank of sweat and spilled beer, bore the odor of police, horse turd, [laughter] all the elements. We watched the team that you love, they just huff and puff on a muddy pitch. These were I’d use the word athletes slightly loosely. They were really men who just kicked each other slowly for 45 minutes and then retreated into the locker room for a pie, a point, a cigarette, and you were guaranteed that some oversize fan behind you would roll up their stadium program. Just peter it onto the back of you like it was like, oh, you fill up booms. You’d be like, what is that? Oh God, proper football. But the first time international football truly captured my imagination, I was seven. The World Cup 1978 was on television. It was held in Argentina.
[news clip]: Argentina! [applause]
Roger Bennett: It felt like, honestly, the other side of the moon, and I know people listening here we live in an era where we can only watch any highlights from any league in the world on our phone, it gets pumped into us and you will not believe this, but when I grew up as a kid in England, live televised sports of any type was just an incredible rarity in the late 1970s. Honestly, we’d only just bloody invented electricity in our neck of the woods, [laughter] and to see footballers from other parts of the world was just something that never happened. And this was mesmerizing. Honestly, it’s one of my earliest memories. It’s one of the most poignant memories. It’s one of my most technicolor memories. And from that point on, the World Cup was the joy of my life as it was for John Oliver.
Tommy Vietor: I mean look, my first World Cup memory, the first time it came into my field of view was 1994, when the World Cup was in the United States.
[news clip]: And now, ladies and gentlemen, here to perform the Star Spangled Banner, Grammy Award winner, Kenny G! [appluase]
Tommy Vietor: I actually got to go to a game, Rog. I was 14 years old. Same haircut then as now. I call it the Mitt Romney.
Roger Bennett: [laugh] You take your photo of Mitt Romney into the barbor or is that just happen naturally?
Tommy Vietor: I say I want this, minus the salt and pepper. It was Italy, Nigeria at Foxboro Stadium in Boston, which I don’t mind saying is where the New England Patriots went on to dominate the NFL for the next decade. But I remember it being a thousand degrees. We were all rooting for Nigeria because they were the underdog. And when you know nothing about the game, you root for the underdog, right? I rewatched some of that game the other day on YouTube and it came back to me. And so Nigeria was up a goal. The Italians got a red card, but they still managed to come back and win. It was it a hell of a game, but you know, what was truly masterful was Roberto Baggio’s rat tail. Do you remember this?
Roger Bennett: You talking about the Italian maestro, a Buddhist footballer who was known as the divine ponytail? You’re telling me that Tommy left that game and just turn round to the barber and said, I need a rat tail and I need it now.
Tommy Vietor: Begged my mother to let me get a rat tail. She, in her infinite wisdom, said, no, thank you, Mom. I love you forever. [laughter]
Roger Bennett: Tommy, I think in 1994 I was already bald. And even as a bald man, I tried to grow a rat tail.
Tommy Vietor: Clip on?
Roger Bennett: God. You know what? That’s an incredible business idea. I’m going to make a note to self about that, clip on rat tails for the modern bald man. But I’d just arrived in the U.S., and this was really my first face to face with American football culture. American soccer culture. For the first time, we joke on our show that soccer is America’s sport of the future, as it has been since 1972. [laugh] And to witness that culture for the first time when the face of the game here was a gentleman named Alexi Lalas bloke, his ginger goatee clash beautifully with the American team stone washed denim uniforms, I crap you not, and I realized God this sport that I love could truly possibly flourish in a nation I adore. Don’t take it from me. Let’s listen to the legendary American sportscaster Jim McKay, who delivered this point speech from his perch high above the 1994 World Cup final at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.
[clip of Jim McKay]: So how does it add up in the end? Well, I’ve been impressed in this World Cup as much by the things that haven’t happened with the things that have. It hasn’t been a bomb as a protracted, predicted event nor a visiting fan spread violence from coast to coast. It has been be the most successful World Cup ever staged in attendance. A worldwide interest on American TV ratings have exceeded predictions by far, and the games have been marvelous. America has been at its best in welcoming the world, and we hope they’ll come again soon.
Roger Bennett: 1994. It’s true, Jim was a World Cup of true wonder on we both remember fondly. And that’s the beauty of this competition. It can be both one’s own, deeply, personally individualized, but is also shared with millions of people, not just in your family or your town or your neighborhood. It truly is a World Cup, a month of Super Bowls, a full week long soccer themed bar mitzvah that unites the world, who savor every goal, every tackle, every ill judged neck tattoo. And Tommy Vietor, what could possibly go wrong?
[clip of Sepp Blatter]: So the 2018 FIFA World Cup, 2018 FIFA World Cup, ladies and gentlemen, will be organized in Russia. [applause]
Roger Bennett: Oh, the gent you just heard was the president of FIFA, the then president of FIFA. The organization that runs the World Cup is name Sepp Blatter. This is back in 2010. And that announcement proper pissed me off. England was meant to get that 2018 World Cup. But I was still, I remember still confident even amidst my confusion that 2022 was coming to the nation I love the United States and I had it on good authority. We’d actually secured hosting duties. And shortly after Blatter stepped up to the microphone again—
[clip of Sepp Blatter]: The winner to organize the 2022 FIFA World Cup is Qatar.
Roger Bennett: Qatar? are you taking the piss? Bloody Qatar? Now what? Tommy. I am a grown man. And I’ve got to be honest, in this moment, I almost soiled myself. This tournament. Well, first of all, it was meant to be coming to America. But even say my American bias aside for one second, here’s what I want to know. I am, as you know, no geopolitical expert. But even in that moment, as Russia and Qatar, those would be certainly curious choices. I think most people would agree for a tournament which is meant to be the world’s most revered global sporting event.
Tommy Vietor: Yeah. Curious is certainly one way to describe it. Crazy might be another. Okay, let’s talk a little bit just about some background on each of these countries. I suspect that by now listeners have a pretty good sense of what Russia is like under President Vladimir Putin. Putin has been waging this horrific war in Ukraine for months. He has killed tens of thousands of innocent people. He’s driven millions more from their homes. And, you know, even back in Russia, I mean, Russian citizens who criticize the war or the government generally are literally thrown in prison for years. Russia is an autocracy, which means it’s ruled by Vladimir Putin and his power is absolute. The country is also incredibly corrupt. Putin sits at the top of a corruption food chain, a corruption human centipede Rog, if you will. [laughter] His top advisors in this group of men around and this coterie of men called the oligarchs, have extracted billions of dollars from the state, and they use that money to do Putin bidding. Qatar is similar to Russia in that one man runs the show, the Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, and both countries have substantial oil and gas deposits. Going to be important here because it buys you a lot of influence. There’s little to no room for dissent in either country. I mean, Putin’s most prominent critic is a man named Alexei Navalny, and he has been poisoned literally, and is currently rotting in a prison on completely made up charges. In Qatar, women’s rights are severely limited. Same sex relationships by men can be punished with jail time. But the biggest divide in the country is between the ten or 11% of the country who are citizens and the millions of foreign workers who actually built the place. Now, you know, even Qatari citizens have very few civil liberties or political rights. The media is censored. Citizens have basically no say in government decisions, but they do live a pretty comfortable life because of the state’s oil and gas revenue. However, being a foreign worker in Qatar, your employer calls all the shots. There is rampant abuse of these workers unpaid overtime, delayed wages, arbitrary deductions of pay, and these workers have almost no recourse. So you have young men in countries like Nigeria or Nepal or the Philippines going into debt, paying recruiters to help them find a job in Qatar in the first place. And then when they arrive, it is a nightmare. They’re forced to live in squalid group homes. Their employers have all the leverage and it can even prevent them from leaving those jobs or returning home. And it’s these foreign workers who are building the infrastructure that is required to put on a World Cup. And they’re doing it in just horrifyingly dangerous conditions. It can reach up to 120 degrees in the summer in Qatar. And yet laws that are supposed to prevent construction workers, say, from laboring during the middle of the day are just routinely ignored and those who complain publicly get arrested or even deported. So those are the some of the reasons why Russia and Qatar have these bad reputations globally and get criticized by human rights groups and international organizations and would love to focus on soccer instead of themselves. And frankly, it’s why FIFA should never have allowed them to host the games in the first place.
Roger Bennett: Just listening to you. Two things. First of all, I’m trying to repress the image of the human centipede of autocrats, which sounds like the worst emo band album of all time. [laugh] But the obvious question comes how did the jewel of world football get to be played back to back? Under those conditions. In Qatar’s case, in a country smaller than Connecticut with that climate you talk about, which is so unforgiving that they had to lift the tournament from when it’s meant to be played in the summer and just interrupt the whole football calendar around the world so they could dump it into the slightly cooler November and December. Well, Tommy V., it turns out this is not a new story and it’s not even the first time that the amalgam of truckloads of cash and bribes and murderous regimes literally have coalesced to play a benevolent host to your World Cup. [music interlude] We’re in 1934. And Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. He was really sports washing before sports washing was en vogue. Tommy, just remind people of il duce’s change place in history.
Tommy Vietor: Yeah I’ll keep this one real concise, Rog, he was bad news. Mussolini was the founder and leader of Italy’s fascist party. He ran Italy as a dictatorship for years before deciding to join forces with the Nazis in World War Two. It’s safe to say that I’m not a fan.
Roger Bennett: Also a massive sports fan.
Tommy Vietor: Oh no.
Roger Bennett: And an opportunist who recognized one of the first gentlemen to realize football could be presented as a public relations platform around the globe, a catalyst for his brand of nationalism. And when the Italian team played at home, enjoyed making a dramatic entrance onto the field. Picture Benito Mussolini. I crack you know, on a white horse. And when the Italian team traveled abroad, he instructed players to hold their fascist salutes until the whistling protesters in foreign nations had run out of their energy and could scream no more. And when his country hosted the World Cup in 1934, traveling fans were first lured by offers to cover 75% of their travel costs. This is what Mussolini did. He gave them all these tickets, which were intricately paper cutted because, he kind of understood social media before the social media or Instagram before there was Instagram. He made sure these tickets were printed on the finest quality paper so that people would go home and just show people the splendors of Italy. These, look at their tickets. Look, even their tickets are beautiful when they return home. But Tommy, quickly, can you just remind us how all this works out for Mussolini?
Tommy Vietor: Not well, for Mussolini. Well, for the world. By 1945, things were going south for the Nazis, the Axis Powers and Mussolini and his girlfriend tried to escape. They tried to get to Spain before the allied troops could find him, but he got captured near Lake Cuomo. I also I say Lake Como, like it’s a New York governor, but, you know, that’s on me.
Roger Bennett: Is it not named after Chris?
Tommy Vietor: [laugh] I think it might be.
Roger Bennett: They loved Chris’s show so much, they named the lake after it.
Tommy Vietor: They love when he bench presses on Instagram. [laughter] The U.S. and the other allied powers, they wanted Mussolini detained. They wanted him tried for war crimes. But the folks he had been brutalizing in Italy had another idea. Mussolini was pretty quickly executed by firing squad, and his body was hung upside down and put on display in a public square. So not the best way to go.
Roger Bennett: But that pattern that he kind of patented with the World Cup has played itself out over and over and over again. That 1978 World Cup that I talked about, the one that young Rog was so bloody excited, was mesmerized. It just burned itself into my retina. I was completely unaware of what was really happening because Tommy, I mean, you understand this even better than I do, 1978, Argentina, that dictatorial political climate.
Tommy Vietor: Brutal. I mean, in 1978, Argentineans were living under just a ruthless military dictatorship. It was led by a man named President Jorge Rafael Videla and a collection of military leaders who came to power in 1976 in a bloodless coup. But they were ultimately remembered for the brutal repression that swept the country and lasted during their entire time in power. I mean, they dissolved Congress, they censored the media. Dissent was essentially banned. And supporters of the former president or basically anyone accused of being a leftist or a communist or any kind of other dissenter was at serious risk of getting disappeared. Now being disappeared could mean thrown in prison without charges. It could also mean murdered. I mean, people were literally thrown out of airplanes alive and left for the sharks in the ocean. Truly, truly horrifying stuff. There was also systematic torture. There was one notorious prison slash torture chamber that was so close to the World Cup stadium that you were watching on TV that prisoners could hear the crowd cheering from their cells. I mean, I can’t imagine more of a nightmare. Also, Rog, look, we’re being honest here. Horrifyingly, America initially supported the government along with many other dictators in South America in the name of fighting communism. In fact, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was President Videla’s guest of honor at the World Cup. After it was all done, he did a bunch of interviews and he sung Argentina’s praises. It’s just a disgusting part of our history we need to reckon with. So Kissinger is a big, big soccer fan, Rog. I don’t know that he’s right for this series, but maybe you can get him on Men and Blazers and check in.
Roger Bennett: We soccer fans, me and Kissinger, we are the worst. But that tournament had unwittingly become a corrupt governments last desperate attempt to try and project a sense of international legitimacy. The generals of that military junta set about the task with just a sinister abandon. And admiral Carlos Alberto Lacoste was selected to prepare the nation for the tournament, and he inherited that role after his predecessor, let’s just say, mysteriously was assassinated in the days ahead of his very first press conference. I hate it when that happens. [laugh] Roads were built across the country. Massive stadia constructed, their seating capacities were occassionally larger than the population of the towns where they were located. Slums swept to their inhabitants, thousands of whom, as you mentioned, were then disappeared. And it was an American PR company that led all the spin globally on this effort.
Tommy Vietor: I mean this is truly disgusting. It was a company called Burson-Marsteller. Still one of the biggest PR firms in the world, though in 2018, they merged with another giant PR firm and changed their name. But, you know, unfortunately, a name change can’t erase the history and the fact that despite widespread reports of human rights violations in Argentina, Burson-Marsteller still went ahead and they pitched the military junta on a plan to, quote, project a new progressive and stable image throughout the world.
Roger Bennett: That is just an incredible sentence you’ve just uttered. You can imagine these Americans in just like their Brooks Brothers suits and ties, but like, look yeah, we know. We know your military junta, but we’ve got a plan. Would you like to project a new, progressive and stable image to the world? Here’s how.
Tommy Vietor: What a what a lovely quote. And unfortunately, American banks were lending them money. I mean, we are we are thick in this thing here in the United States. But Rog, no surprise that the Burson team focused a lot of their time in the lead up to the tournament on trying to rebut negative stories about human rights abuses in Argentina and working to counteract growing calls in Europe to boycott the World Cup, which, frankly, were gaining some steam.
Roger Bennett: There were murmurs, I think remember, this in the run up of political protests across the soccer world, the English Union of Journalists, God bless them, provided its members with a Spanish language handbook to prepare them for the tournament, one that included such phrases as stop torturing me, I crap you not. But once the tournament began, the soccer took over. This is what happens. We fear. We panic, we ask questions, but the football kicks off. And remember, when Argentina, when the streets were flooded with people who cheered the generals as they stood on the balcony of that presidential palace, they took in the acclaim of their nation. They had this newfound swarming popularity. And do you know what they did with that newfound popularity Tommy?
Tommy Vietor: Mm, they invaded part of Chile. At least it had an adorable name, Roger. It was called the Beagle Conflict. That’s cute.
Roger Bennett: Was it really?
Tommy Vietor: Mm, hmm. Isn’t that sweet?
Tommy Vietor: I can’t say 100% sure that Burson were involved in the naming of that war, but they were probably like guys. People hate wars, but they love. They love puppies. [laughter]
Roger Bennett: Talking of countries that host World Cups and then immediately proceed to engage in horrific territorial disputes. That brings us almost to the present day. Russia 2018, a tournament conducted it really was via the baton of Vladimir Putin.
Roger Bennett: A gent, who just ripped a page right out of Mussolini’s book whenever he could, in terms of the horseback riding, only doubles down, likes to do it shirtless—
Tommy Vietor: Yeah.
Roger Bennett: —and another lover of sports, the gentleman who scored six goals at a hockey game that’s filled with former professionals other than a rising NHL prospect told me even before he had invaded Ukraine. Can you give us an idea of life under Putin in Russia?
Tommy Vietor: Look, there was no political space. Putin silences dissent. He shuts down independent media so that Russians only hear propaganda that comes from state run outlets. And he locks up political opponents who might actually threaten his rule. And like I mentioned earlier, I mean, Russia is a kleptocracy. It is corrupt from top to bottom. And Putin uses events like the World Cup or the Sochi Olympics in 2014 to give contracts for infrastructure projects to his buddies, who then siphon off billions of dollars in state funds. Billions of dollars. One stadium in St Petersburg, you might have seen it, Rog, the Krestovsky Stadium was completed eight years late and 540% overbudget. That is literally a monument to corruption, its like the Boston Big Dig for FIFA.
Roger Bennett: Only 540% overbudget and we could go on when it comes to this tournament again, an autocrats World Cup playbook, pre-tournament crackdowns on dissidents across the country. And I will say Tommy I went to that World Cup with my producer Jay Dubs, and we saw what was happening and we actually talked about it at the time on the Men in Blazers podcast.
[clip of Roger Bennett]: I’ll be honest, I was last in Moscow ten years ago. The monuments, the history, the dark history, the deep history of suffering, of pain, of human inflicted ideas they seep through ten years ago. Not now, mate, this place is gussied up. I don’t know what they’ve done to their stray dogs. They seem to have got every beautiful man and woman in the whole of the former Soviet Republic and dumped them into like the five square miles around the Kremlin. Because if you go further than that, it’s like a very different Russia.
Roger Bennett: And looking back on it. Even though we kind of, listening to that clip, saw it for what it was and called it out. We were still amongst thousands of journalists who poured into Russia. And essentially did Putin’s bidding. We put pictures of ourselves on the television having a blast, you know, on Instagram, social media, in the bars, running around the subways, it has beautiful subways, and most importantly for Putin at the bloody football games all over social media. And I’ll tell you one thing I remember we went to watch Brazil versus Serbia at Spartak Moscow Stadium, just outside of the capital city. And as soon as you walked in, we were like oh my God, the Wi-Fi, the Wi-Fi’s incredible because, you know, sporting events or concerts—
Tommy Vietor: Its probably not true at the Russian public library. [laughter]
Roger Bennett: You go to the public library or you go to most American sporting events and you are pretty well guaranteed to be getting zero bars WTF. And this was the antithesis of that the internet was incredible all game and I remember I’ve got to find the clip of this, cause I actually filmed him filming himself. There was an incredible Brazilian fan, totally intoxicated in front of us, picture in your imagination, essentially Sao Paulo, Ronnie from Jersey Shore. [laughter] And this gent had traveled all the way to Russia from Brazil and spent the entirety of the game WhatsApping every single name, methodically in his address book, just the same conversation over and over again. He didn’t watch a second of the actual game that he traveled there to watch but watching him, I was like oh my God this this is exactly what Putin wanted. Just images beamed back to countries around the world, showing everyone what an incredible time they were missing out on in Russia, beautiful Russia. And ahead of that 2018 World Cup final, current FIFA President Gianni Infantino. He stepped up and said.
[clip of Gianni Infantino]: We all fell in love with Russia. All of us. Everyone who has been here for a period of time now has discovered a country that we didn’t know.
Roger Bennett: Putin being by the World Cup, that optic, that massive PR win. And he went on to thank Infantino for your glowing assessment of our efforts and presented them with an Order of Friendship Medal at the Kremlin in May 2019. This is Russia.
Tommy Vietor: Gross.
Roger Bennett: This is FIFA, and by the way, that medal Infantino has constantly refused to return despite the Ukraine invasion. Tommy, Juvenal said it best, I believe. Give them bread and circuses and they will never revolt. That’s really what this is, right? I mean, you worked in government. Talk to us a little bit about this age old policy.
Tommy Vietor: Yeah, I mean, listen, so in Putin’s case. I mean, and he said this pretty clearly, he wants to restore the glory of the Soviet Union. He wants Russia to be seen as powerful and respected and a dominant force on the global stage, with himself basking shirtless on the horse at the center of all the action. And that’s why Putin will bribe whoever it takes to get the World Cup or to get the Olympics. You know, that’s why Russia had a state run doping program so that their roided up athletes would rack up gold medals. Right. I mean, but it’s not just Putin. Nearly every political leader to some extent wants their people happy. I say nearly every because I’m not sure the North Koreans do, but they want to all want to look powerful and in control. And that’s why countries in cities compete to host the World Cup or to host the Olympic Games, even though the economic impact is far from guaranteed to be positive and in many cases has left cities and countries deep in debt. But the glory Rog, the glory of being in the center of all that action, being seen as having delivered for your country that lasts forever. I mean, Mitt Romney ran for president in part based off of his experience running the Salt Lake City Olympic Games. In 2009 my boss, Barack Obama, traveled all the way to Copenhagen in the middle of the Obamacare fight. Right. We were in the depths of a congressional battle to personally address the International Olympic Committee in an effort to bring the Olympic Games home to Chicago. And Rog, I don’t know if you remember, but that effort did not go so well. It might have failed. And we didn’t we didn’t bribe enough, is my sense. But look, the guy made the trip.
Roger Bennett: You can never bribe enough is the first rule for any autocrat who’s listening to this podcast. But when you talk about all this, when it comes to sport, the problem about what we do now armed with all this insight is that sports is always a bloody emotional release that’s what we said early it’s a joy a refuge a place to seek shelter from the storm of everyday life. I can’t tell you the joy during the pandemic when football came back in Germany to begin with, even [?] just that sense of global connection. We all felt, again, that diversion, that sense of of shared meaning and once a balls been kicked. We’re no longer furious about autocrats. We’re no longer thinking about infrastructure and no longer thinking about corruption. No, we’re watching for Messi, transcendence, for Alex Morgan, for Christian Pulisic. We’re not sitting there and analyzing soft power and protesting against it. But right now, we really are. We’re at a crossroads. A crossroads. We arguably arrived at a long time ago, but the awarding of this World Cup to Qatar was so craven. It was so brazen. The emotional, joyous sport couldn’t sweep away the rationale of what we were confronted with by this tournament, by this World Cup. Tommy.
Tommy Vietor: I’m excited to watch. I will love every minute of the games, but it is hard not to feel like that joy is tempered by my knowledge of the reality of life in Qatar. I mean, there’s a great organization, Rog, called Freedom House. They score every country in the world based on their citizens access to political rights and civil liberties. It’s called your global freedom score. Syria got a one. No bueno. Sweden got 100. The US got we got like an 83. We’re like a, we’re like in that b, b minus zone.
Roger Bennett: Bite your arm off for an 83 Tommy. [laughter]
Tommy Vietor: We’re feeling good. Qatar got a 25. So not the worst in the world, but pretty bad. And like life is far worse if you’re a woman. Or intolerable if you’re gay. But you know, the really ugly thing that we all need to confront as we watch these games is the treatment of foreign workers in Qatar, because those stadiums we’re watching, these games get played in. These foreign workers are the ones who built them. They’re the ones who built the new roads. They built all the infrastructure associated with the World Cup. These are the people if you get to go to the games who are cleaning your hotel or staffing the restaurant that you’re eating at. And last year, The Guardian reported that 6500 migrant workers have died in Qatar since it won its World Cup bid. That is devastating. That is hard to move on from.
Roger Bennett: A World Cup. There was only one by Qatar corruptly given to them by football’s governing body. They clearly they clearly at this point, we just know from the investigations, the myriad of them around the world, they did not win. The right to host this tournament on merit, it happened in a fashion that was honestly thought impossible, but they did it. Coffers were filled. Even a ton of Airbus A320 — I don’t know what the plural of that is. Is it Airbus’s, is it Airbi? — Were ordered by Qatar from a French production plant in Toulouse and that was enough to encourage then French President Nicolas Sarkozy to step in and influence where and how his nation voted. And I’d say it’s pretty stark. Football will occur in a place where workers have lost their lives to build those stadia, those fields, those terraces for our viewing delight. And we know all of these things. But the thing we don’t know is what do we all do now? We’ve seen some international federations start to respond and we will no doubt see more as the clock ticks down to kick off in Qatar. And we’ll get to all of that in detail in future episodes. But what we don’t know yet is how fans will respond. What we as sports fans, that’s the thing that if you’ve gotten to this point, most of us probably share. We are all sports fans. What are we going to do? How will we consume what is essentially a World Cup soaked in blood. And we know we’re not alone in the conundrum. It’s not just us. Tommy V., me, and Jonny Oliver you know our mailbag at MeninBlazers@gmail.com—
Tommy Vietor: Nice plug.
Roger Bennett: Did I say it? MeninBlazers@gmailcom. Has been flooded with emails we get daily calls on our phone hotline people asking how they can square this moral circle.
[clip of caller]: Hey, Rog, its Joe here from Orlando, Florida. Curious what your thoughts are on watching the World Cup, given all the circumstances surrounding, you know, Qatar and how it was awarded, especially with the U.S. men’s national team participating.
Roger Bennett: And the reality is there is no simple answer to this dilemma. And so we’re going to explore it together dear listener, Tommy V., myself and you. We’re going to trace how this game of football, this beautiful, beautiful game of football, a game that can bring so much joy, whether it’s working class roots, its history, has been transformed in England. Yes, it’s become a glitzy bauble. How did the game that fills us with so much meaning on the field become soiled and wrung and soiled some more by the most craven set of self-dealing, grotesque suits? Since Waystar Royco.
Tommy Vietor: Do not talk about Kendall Roy that way, he is misunderstood.
Roger Bennett: They actually have a football team on the show. [laughter]
Tommy Vietor: Oh, God. The bigger question is, why would they even want it? You know, why do these countries want the games when they have none of the infrastructure, when they don’t have the right climate, when they know all of a sudden we’re going to be talking about their human rights record to the extent that you and I are right now.
Roger Bennett: And ultimately, the question we really hope to answer is how should we, together as fans, find a position so that we can handle all of it? How do we think through it? Do we think through it at all? Because that’s also a position why individual positions are we going to be able to find to work our way through?
Tommy Vietor: That last episode is just you and me literally shoving our heads in the sand. [laughter] That’s how this thing ends. No, I’m just kidding. Of course. Rog, I could not be more excited to be a part of this, to talk through all my layers of grief and anxiety about football, about sports, about life, with you, with the listeners. So thank you.
Roger Bennett: It’s going to be some journey Tommy V. We are just at the beginning. I’m going to close this pod the way I close so bloody many Men in Blazers pods by saying one word, courage, because we’re going to need a lot of it. [music swells]