In This Episode
With the beginning of the tournament just over two weeks away, Tommy and Roger dig into the significance of athlete activism as they learn more about the dangerous and abusive living situations faced by migrant workers. Formerly imprisoned migrant worker Malcolm Bidali recounts the abuses he suffered in Qatar. Human rights activists Nick McGeehan and May Ramanos also join to articulate how and why athletes and fans alike need to keep the pressure on FIFA even after the World Cup concludes.
Tommy Vietor: No matter how bleak things get, we have to try to give people some inspiration, something to believe in.
Roger Bennett: Moments like these athletes in history have worked out how to seize the spotlight, to seize the moment and create an enormous social change. [music swells]
Tommy Vietor: Welcome back to World Corrupt. I am so happy to once again be in the virtual studio with Roger Bennett. From the brilliant Men and Blazers podcast, this is the fifth episode in our six part series on the 2022 World Cup and Qatar. A mashup, so catchy and conscious that we had to give. Common a writing credit.
Roger Bennett: Oh, Pod Save America’s Tommy Vietor, some pop, some locks, some move robotic like cash money. [laughter] We stay in pocket and if you’re still listening after me reciting Common’s lyricist brilliance, friends, first we’re thrilled to have you, but we’d advise you to go back to the very first episode of World Corrupt, so you can hear why we’re doing this series in the first place. It’s all to do with FIFA’s history of unchecked corruption and what life is really like for the migrant workers in Qatar. Who built all the infrastructure needed to make this tournament even possible for the world’s viewing pleasure.
Tommy Vietor: You’ll also get to hear Roger and I, uh, try to make each other laugh at the most inappropriate times [laughter] possible. So that is, I think, a bonus.
Roger Bennett: And thank God the editors on this project work for Men and Blazers, [laugh] but Tommy, back to today’s pod and brace yourself listeners, as we dive into how the broader football world is responding or not responding to concerns about Qatar’s human rights record as we inch ever closer to the kickoff of World Cup 2022, and we should probably make it clear. We’re talking about the football world at large here. We’re not talking about the Megan Rapinoes or the Tim Sparvs of the world, both of whom you heard from in the last episode. Such singularly wonderful individuals do exist, but right now we’re looking for demonstrations. Really on a grander scale.
Tommy Vietor: So those individual players, they stepped up a little faster than the the footballing establishment, if you will.
Roger Bennett: Exactly that. Very much larger footballing establishment, which really only started the signal they were even aware a world cup in Qatar was happening back in March, 2021. With who else? The Norwegians. They took the field in Marbella, Spain before their first World Cup qualifying game against mighty Gibraltar.
Tommy Vietor: Which it turns out is more than just a rock Rog.
Roger Bennett: The mighty Gib? Yeah. They’ve got a football team too, and the Norwegians trotted out for warmups onto the field in that game, wearing T-shirts that said human rights respect, on and off the pitch. And then the very next day, Germany followed suit before their home game against Iceland. The starters lined up pre-game with human rights spelled out in big white block letters. They almost looked hand painted, splashed across black T-shirts.
Tommy Vietor: T-shirts are, I mean, look, I, I guess that’s something.
Roger Bennett: Yeah, think of t-shirts as football’s factory setting. When it comes to statements of any kind, that’s, that’s where they like to locate their activism, their protests. That’s become the norm. But as the tournament grew closer and journalists started to ask the managers, the teams, the players questions, uncomfortable questions about how they would actually approach Qatar, there was really a lot of silence, which meant that the one man who did not hold back thundered like a biblical prophet in the Book of Jeremiah. Especially because, he happened to be one of football’s most cantankerous oracles.
Tommy Vietor: Alexi Lalas?
Roger Bennett: [laughter] No, Tommy. I am talking about Dutch National Team Manager, Louis van Gaal, LVG. Really a legendary coach. A gent who’s wanted all the champions, the titles at the biggest clubs in Europe. Yes, as he’s aged, he admittedly has morphed a little bit into that wacky uncle who turns up at Thanksgiving. You all know the. The one who just dips his Turkey straight into the gravy boat repeatedly, unapologetically.
Tommy Vietor: [laughs] Please God, don’t let that be a metaphor for for something else.
Roger Bennett: No metaphor. In fact, I’m sure the Dutch have a really long compound noun for double dipping. [laughter] And van Gaal, age 71, he’s back managing his home nation, the Netherlands. And in March of this year, during a press conference, ahead of the Dutch game with Denmark, the man we call LVG, was asked about Qatar hosting the World Cup. And he said this.
[clip of Louis van Gaal]: [Louis speaking Dutch]
Tommy Vietor: Rog, can you help me out with, uh, what the notorious LVG was saying there? My Dutch is not what it used to be.
Roger Bennett: Bit rusty Tommy?
Tommy Vietor: Yeah, a little bit.
Roger Bennett: Well, let me tell you, LVG, he just completely and utterly emptied the clip, saying quote, “I think it’s ridiculous that the World Cup is there. We’re playing in a country that FIFA says they want to develop football there. That’s bullshit, but it doesn’t matter. It’s about money, about commercial interest that. That matters in FIFA.” But he said it with a lot more hu hu hu.
Tommy Vietor: [laughs] I love that. I love that honesty. So that started an avalanche of other managers and players speaking out, right? They’re inspired by a straight talk as candor, as courage. A Dutch David staring down a Swiss Goliath, right?
Roger Bennett: Not quite Thomas.
Tommy Vietor: Dammit.
Roger Bennett: The messaging we saw from so many of the other powerhouse nations in the wake of this moment, it was a lot of, we’re working on a plan. We know it’s in Qatar. We know they’ve done some bad stuff. We’re work shopping. Some ideas. [laughter] Trust us, it’s complex. It’s gonna take a little bit more time. But we got this.
Tommy Vietor: All right, I’m a democrat. I know this one. It’s the old pretending it’s not happening and hoping it magically goes away strategy. [laughter] I feel this in my bones.
Roger Bennett: Which is how I admittedly, I approached much of my life, Tommy, I like to think of myself as half human and half ostrich. And among the nations, they employed my strategy. England. They were adamant for the longest time that they were discussing, grappling with a complex plan and one source told the independents, Miguel Delaney, who’s been quite dogged on this. That they were taking so long because they wanted to do something with more authority than quote “just wearing a t-shirt.”
Tommy Vietor: Okay. I mean, look, it’s a complex situation. That’s understandable. It sounds promising. How did that turn out?
Roger Bennett: England’s captain, Harry Kane, along with a captain of nine other European nations, will wear an arm band. With a rainbow on it. During World Cup matches an arm band that supports an anti-discrimination campaign called One Love, which it’s a nice gesture for an incredibly worthy cause, but the Captain’s arm Band, it just sort of rests on their bicep for a nation that promised, remember more than a t-shirt. They ended up with something that is quite literally less than a bloody t-shirt.
Tommy Vietor: So I think we both agree that the arm band isn’t all that inspiring. But what, what did English team fans think?
Roger Bennett: Fans and media were pretty quick to announce their underwhelmed displeasure. The football journalist Daniel Storey wrote wearing an offshoot of a rainbow makes it appear as less of a targeted statement towards Qatar’s treatment of minorities and more a vague, wouldn’t it be lovely if we all got along.
Tommy Vietor: What I’m taking away from this arm band saga, uh, is that the bar was set relatively low. [laughter] Many countries have decided to kind of baby step over that thing.
Roger Bennett: I love that the arm band saga, you make it sound like an old Viking tale that’s been handed down over centuries. But Tommy, it will probably not surprise you at this point, that the game’s moral compass once again snaps towards Scandinavia and this time we’re talking about Denmark, who along with their sponsor, the athletic brand, Hummel, released muted monochromatic uniforms with the country’s crest and sponsor signage, nearly invisible. They’re gonna wear this in every game. Camouflage unobtrusively into the background of their shirts, Hummel unveiled the jerseys with a statement on Instagram in which they said they do not wish to be visible in a tournament that has cost thousands of lives. And they also released a third all black kit. That they said will represent the color of morning, adding we support the Danish national team all the way, but that isn’t the same as supporting Qatar as the host nation.
Tommy Vietor: That shows some real thought. I would say it’s unambiguous, it’s will be visible on every player on the team. Throughout the game. Seems like we’re getting better here. We’re seeing some progress.
Roger Bennett: Yeah, and the jerseys did set social media alight when they were announced late September. So much so that Qatar moved quickly to clap back, saying that they disputed the claim that the tournament had cost thousands of lives. In fact, Reuters quoted Qatar’s Supreme Committee saying the following, we wholeheartedly reject trivializing our genuine commitment to protect the health and safety of the 30,000 workers who built FIFA World Cup stadiums and other tournament projects.
Tommy Vietor: I’m sorry, but is that quote saying, how dare you disrespect all the workers who didn’t die. That’s the best they got?
Roger Bennett: Pretty much, I mean, a statement that would be farcically funny. If it wasn’t so incredibly tragic, and it’s also a sign that Qatar will not just hope people look the other direction, but they’re actually willing to refute and lash out at anyone who does protest in any way.
Tommy Vietor: Look, I think we’ve covered the, the wardrobes in some depth. We’ve done the Men in Blazers red carpet here. [laughter] Is anyone doing anything outside of the uniform space?
Roger Bennett: Well, let’s go back to England for a moment here Tommy. One thing the English Federation are doing that does have the potential to have substance, maybe substance curious, you would say is that they’ll reportedly invite migrant workers who’ve helped build the stadiums and infrastructure into their camp to meet with and speak with their players. The English FA has also vowed to lobby FIFA over new labor protection laws.
Tommy Vietor: Now, I’m starting to feel a little hope here, Rog because these players, the managers, everyone working in the clubs, they’re human beings, right? I mean, they are going to be impacted by hearing directly from these workers. The people who have been harmed by this World Cup, these conversations, they’ll stay with them. You know, this feels like real actionable, promise it has some potential here. What about the U.S.? What are our guys doing?
Roger Bennett: Late in October, U.S. Soccer, they quietly signed on to support Human Rights Watchers fund that’s pushing for 440 million in compensation for workers’ families. And I spoke to the comms team at U.S. Hockey and they told me that like England they plan to connect with migrant workers. They’ve got a host of tactics. To be honest, they’ve worked to ensure that the hotels and vendors in which the team is staying in Qatar will follow the labor reforms, which we’ll also get into later in this episode. They’re also taking steps to support women and LGBTQ fans who travel to Qatar to support the team by including LGBTQ branding at the fan parties that they traditionally host the night before every game. Basically, a suit of potential laden gestures.
Tommy Vietor: So, a few hopeful signs. It seems like a lot of these teams are really performing a balancing act. They know they can’t be seen as doing nothing. They also don’t want to piss off the Qatari government. They don’t wanna piss off FIFA. I guess I just can’t decide if they deserve credit for trying or, or criticism for taking so long and taking such, you know, incremental steps if we’re being honest.
Roger Bennett: Look, Tommy, it’s true. This is complex and football federations are by nature a conservative bunch. So this is what we are gonna see, really a lot of small nibbles, inferences, in the right direction. Look, we’re doing stuff and what the federations decide and what the actual individual players end up doing that, that could be so much more, but we’re not gonna know until a ball is kicked. In my heart, I would love it if it was an American player taking that next step. A player from the nation I love so much. I want so badly to see a meaningful response. And I believe that this squad, I know them so well. So many of them are bright, young, socially conscious players, but until they arrive and Avengers assemble in Qatar, all we can do is wait and see.
Tommy Vietor: Look, follow through is everything. But what you just described is a hell of a lot better than where we were when we started doing this podcast. So I’ll take it for now. I won’t get my hopes up too high. That’s the one thing that sports fans like us love to do. We love to hang our unfounded hopes on our favorite teams, and then they crush us.
Roger Bennett: So true. [music break]
Tommy Vietor: If there is one thing we wanted this podcast to be at the outset is a call to action. So now we want to pivot into this idea that we as fans have agency, we can make a difference here through our own activism.
Roger Bennett: You mean beyond my usual curling up in a little ball and carrying on in the corner, Tommy?
Tommy Vietor: We can do that too, but I wanna warn listeners in advance. This is the hard part. There is no silver bullet when it comes to activism. You don’t just sign Erling Haaland and all your social justice problems are solved.
Roger Bennett: That unstoppable terminator of a Norwegian striker, a gent known as the Nordic meat shield, a bloke who’s addicted to scoring goals from Manchester City. [laughter] You’re telling me Tommy, there’s no activist equivalent to that?
Tommy Vietor: The Nordic meat shield. That is incredible. [laughter] Uh, sadly, no, there is no activist meat shield. And if we wait for one or if we invest too much hope in any one individual. We’re just destined to be disappointed. I saw this happen with my old boss, Barack Obama in 2008. The votes had barely been counted when the pundits started to write articles like will Obama’s election end racism?
Roger Bennett: Do they call him the Illinois meat shield?
Tommy Vietor: We still have time.
Roger Bennett: President Obama. He’s really more of a technical wing back type. Also fancied himself from a free kit within 30 yards. But hold on, Tommy, did you just say end racism? You’re taking the piss. I feel pretty safe saying that no one election or a single person can erase more than 200 years of history.
Tommy Vietor: Change doesn’t happen overnight and change doesn’t happen because of any one individual. It comes through sustained focus from all of us. That’s true in politics. It’s true with FIFA and with the human rights challenges around this World Cup.
Roger Bennett: The arc of the moral universe is, long but it bends towards hashtags, [laughter] or something like that.
Tommy Vietor: And occasionally the arc snaps back, hits you in the face, and you’re stuck talking about Donald Trump for six years. But again, I digress. The first step in our process to try to figure out how to write the wrongs from this World Cup though, is to listen to the people who are actually hurt. And that’s why we reached out to Malcolm Bidali.
Roger Bennett: Malcolm’s an incredible bloke. He’s a labor rights activist from Kenya. He spent several years working in Qatar as a security guard and while he was there, he started to document the conditions. He started to blog about them under a pseudonym until the Post got popular and he was outed. And then Malcolm was arrested without charges. He was interrogated, he was imprisoned, and ultimately deported.
Malcolm Bidali: Why I migrated is not so different from like why other people migrated, you know, just trying to find a better life. I used a recruitment agency and I paid $1,200 both times. Not me personally, like my mom, she’s supported me like from way back you know?
Tommy Vietor: Now, Rog Malcolm may have paid a, a princely sum to get to Qatar, but the conditions he found once he arrived could not have been further from the luxury cosmopolitan image of Doha that Qatar likes to project in the media.
Malcolm Bidali: People see Qatar, as you know, with all the high rises and the skyscrapers. But they’re actually like slums and places where you wouldn’t even imagine would exist in Qatar. So we had like cramped living conditions and you find like one room, one tiny room, you fit in like 6, 8, 10, 12 people depending on, you know, the size of the room. And there is no sense of privacy at all. And. You also have mold on the walls. Dead bugs obviously on the bed.
Tommy Vietor: No one should have to live like that, Rog but especially not in Qatar, where as we talked about in previous episodes, the actual Qatari citizens are some of the richest people in the world per capita because of Qatar’s tremendous oil and gas resources.
Roger Bennett: I remember when the Emir of Qatar brought six Greek islands back in 2013. I don’t know. Maybe only buy five islands [laughter] and use the savings to build decent housing.
Tommy Vietor: I like this brainstorm, or maybe rent out one of your islands for a couple hours?
Roger Bennett: Thomas, are you pitching me on one of your timeshare Ponzi schemes again? [laughter] Where? Where, where you going with this mate?
Tommy Vietor: Let’s get back to Malcolm, who, for the crime of blogging about his own life, was even put in solitary confinement, which many experts argue is a form of torture.
Malcolm Bidali: Solitary confinement was tiny room, no windows camera on the ceiling. Mattress on the floor. It was just like disorienting because they would sometimes turn up the thermostat. They would mess with thermostat, so it sometimes it was really hot, sometimes really cold. You have no sense of time. Basically, they just disoriented you.
Roger Bennett: We ask Malcolm what he wants, World Cup fans to know about his experience and that of countless other migrant workers in Qatar.
Malcolm Bidali: This World Cup was only made possible through the efforts, the hard labor and the sacrifices of migrant workers, they are the ones who are slaving away, like under the sun, you know, in their conditions. And they managed to build all this infrastructure, all this amenities, all this, basically everything you see, like a migrant was involved there. As human beings, we could try to be more proactive and be more involved in these stories, in these human beings. And we should strive to hold the government of Qatar accountable, the people who make the decisions. And also we should be vigilant, not just during the World Cup, but also after Qatar knows that the World Cup is happening, whether we like it or not, and there’s nothing we can do. So they can do pretty much what they want, which is very scary. I believe things will get much worse because of the spotlight will decrease significantly.
Tommy Vietor: So that’s really the key point here, Rog. It is too late to prevent the World Cup from happening in Qatar, but when the games are over, the damage doesn’t go away. Life doesn’t magically get better for these migrant workers. So the question is how do we use this period of acute attention on the World Cup to push for changes and to help people now.
Roger Bennett: And to try and answer that question, we’ve interviewed a slew of brilliant people from some of the leading human rights organizations around the world. And Tommy, you know, I realize I’ve never known what the right collective noun for that is. Is it a swarm, a shoal, a pride? [laughter]
Tommy Vietor: A murder of crows? I don’t know, too on the nose there. Sorry.
Roger Bennett: It’s a gaggle, let’s say a gaggle and in previous episodes you heard from Michael Page at Human Rights Watch, you heard from Nick McGeehan at Fair Square. And today we’ll hear from May Ramanos of Amnesty International. Now, all these organizations have spent years documenting and publicizing the treatment of migrant workers in the Gulf, and May told us Qatar did make some changes to its labor practices.
May Ramanos: Eight years into this. Qatar finally agreed to sign this agreement with the International Labor Organization saying, we are going to reform the system. We’re going to get rid of the system. Migrant workers can leave the country without the permission of their employers. They can change jobs too. We have a new minimum wage, $275. We have also, these are new courts, labor courts. If you are not paid, you go to the courts three weeks. You have your judgment. If the company did not pay you, this is a fund we created and the fund will pay you. And I think since then we have started to see some improvement. But while the legal framework is better, sadly the enforcement of these changes remain very weak, meaning that abuses continue to take place.
Tommy Vietor: Malcolm Bali, he agreed.
Malcolm Bidali: On paper they have made changes, but in reality, it’s still the same, if not worse, nothing has changed.
Tommy Vietor: And the Qatari government is hoping that nobody even talks about these issues. In fact, they initially tried to impose a series of restrictions on journalists covering the World Cup that included banning international TV crews from filming where migrant workers live, and they even threatened news outlets with criminal and civil liability if they produced reports “offensive to Qatari culture,” Rog.
Roger Bennett: So basically the message is, do our PR or go home.
Tommy Vietor: So much for recording, episode six of this bad boy in Doha, right? [laughter] Though I should note, Rog, The Guardian who broke the story about all these press restrictions and so many other stories about this World Cup later reported that Qatar amended its film permit application and relaxed some of these rules.
Roger Bennett: These aren’t empty threats. And in 2015, two BBC reporters, they were arrested for investigating the treatment of migrant workers as were two Norwegian journalists just last year.
Tommy Vietor: Now, luckily, there are still journalists doing courageous reporting in Qatar and even more importantly, we all have a voice we can help get the word out ourselves.
Roger Bennett: It’s why we wanted to do this series in the first place. We, we have to use this moment while the whole world is watching to put as much pressure as possible on FIFA and Qatar to right these wrongs.
Tommy Vietor: That’s why many of the human rights groups we talked with are leading a campaign called the Pay Up FIFA Initiative. Here’s Nick McGeehan from FairSquare.
Nick McGeehan: There’s a campaign going on just now to try and get FIFA to provide 440 million in compensation to the families of workers who died and to other workers who lost their livelihoods in Qatar. What could be a better outcome from this really pretty rotten situation than to actually be able to go to some of those families and put money in their pockets, get their kids back in a school, and make sure that some women doesn’t have to go up at three in the morning and sweep roads outside our house. People can tweet about it, you know, ask their broadcasters to try and raise these issues and talk about these issues when the tournament’s on.
Roger Bennett: Just to be clear, we’re the first ones to admit that hashtag activism feels small in the face of these enormous challenges. But if enough people call out FIFA and the football associations that remain silent, they might actually listen.
Tommy Vietor: We made some social media graphics that listeners can use to help spread the word. Rog and I will tweet them out. We’ll post them on Instagram and you can find them on the Crooked Media website. That said, changing labor practices in Qatar itself will be a lot more difficult. Now, in fairness to the Amir of Qatar, a major obstacle for him is the fact that a lot of Qatari citizens don’t want things to change.
Roger Bennett: I’m sorry, Tommy, did we just hear you say in fairness to the Emir?
Tommy Vietor: Uh, yes. I, I got a, uh, all expenses paid trip to Doha like my guy Tom Brady and look, now I see things clearly.
Roger Bennett: Oh, I’m sorry, Tommy. Did you just compare yourself to Tom Brady?
Tommy Vietor: Thought I could just slip that one in there. I guess not. Uh, okay. This is a deep cut Rog. Last year, Tom posted this bizarre, highly produced video about his family trip to Qatar. On his Instagram page, he was talking about hanging out with the Emir’s sister and it, it hurt my heart.
Roger Bennett: No, they call him the good Tommy. That’s all I’m saying over there. [laughter] And it also turns out that a vacation in Doha, maybe it’s not great for your marriage.
Tommy Vietor: Oof. Too soon, Rog. But also duly noted [laughter] the point I was trying to make before you rudely interrupted my fantasy about vacationing with the Brady family is that even if leaders try to make these kinds of systemic changes, it takes time and constant attention to implement them because there will be resistance from people, resistance from institutions that just don’t want to change.
Roger Bennett: And speaking of people and institutions that don’t want to change, FIFA’s also announced that cities and stadiums must meet human rights requirements as part of the due diligence around the next World Cup 2026, which remember listeners will be held in the United States, Mexico, and Canada, NAFTA Land. [laughter]
Tommy Vietor: It’s good to hear that FIFA is diligent about something other than collecting bribes. [rimshot sound effect]
Roger Bennett: I guess, we’ll find out. And these changes are obviously too late for Qatar, but they are important and the real test will be whether FIFA actually abides by them because we know that Saudi Arabia is already planning to spend $40 billion to bid for the 2030 World Cup in a joint effort with Egypt and Greece.
Tommy Vietor: Yeah, Rog, it’s safe to say that if Saudi Arabia and Egypt are awarded the World Cup, the new FIFA human rights considerations are as worthless as Tom Brady’s promised to never leave New England.
Roger Bennett: Tommy, don’t you have one of those therapy sponsors on some of your many podcasts? Because just saying you might wanna start using it.
Tommy Vietor: It’s not a bad idea Rog.
Roger Bennett: Tommy, let’s get into it here a little bit and discuss how we are feeling about this World Cup. You know, we’re nearly finished with five episodes of this podcast. It’s really been a journey on which we both set out together to learn more about this competition, the way it was awarded, the very real human cost of which it’s come. So, Tommy, let me ask you this. How are you feeling?
Tommy Vietor: Other than a bit like, uh, Matt Damon and Robin Williams on the couch right now? [laughter] It’s not your fault Rog. It’s not your fault. I’m not gonna let a single nineties movie reference go unspoken on this podcast. Okay, some positives. First, I’m a positive guy.
Roger Bennett: Please.
Tommy Vietor: I feel. So much better informed now about the treatment of these migrant workers and the true human cost of letting Qatar host these games. I know you, you signed up to do this podcast with me because you thought, oh, this, this foreign policy nerd will know this stuff already. It’ll be like a cheat sheet. But I truly learned a lot from all the people who agreed to talk with us. And, you know, I’m so grateful to them for their time, but it also, it just, it made me angrier about this whole situation. I also feel grateful to all the people who have listened to this podcast so far and who have told us how much they have been struggling with all the same issues. And look, I’m amazed by the fact that people actually wanna listen to us work through this stuff in real time. I didn’t see a single tweet that was like, shut up, watch the games. You know, like, stick to politics, you loser. Or at least you know, not from people who didn’t already think I was a loser.
Roger Bennett: Didn’t wanna mention it, but that one tweet from your mum. Surprisingly harsh.
Tommy Vietor: She can be brusk. [laughter] But look, I, I’m also excited that the campaign to get these workers and their families, some sort of financial compensation seems to be gaining steam. I, I really do think that is achievable now. Okay. Reality check, like what is daunting and what will probably keep both of us on the, the psychiatrist couch for some time now is the reality that sports are big business and only getting bigger. And the more money that washes into these games, the bigger the TV deals, the brighter the stage, the more it will attract exactly the kinds of people who put profits ahead of human lives. That is what we’re up against. Over to you, Rog. Can I be your, your Dr. Melfi to your, uh, your Tony Soprano?
Roger Bennett: Those goddamn ducks. [laughter] Here’s what I will say, Tommy. I, I’ve always believed that for me, what’s so great about sports in general, football in particular, is that they acts as a mirror that holds up a reflection to the world, the cultures, the politics that surround it, and honestly, I’ve always loved that and naively thought that was a great thing. You know, in 1996, England, which have been so down, so lost a bit like now, but back in 1996, they hosted the European Football Championships and it was just, it was phenomenal to witness the nation. Before our eyes almost learned to love itself again. It was a summer in which Cool Britannia was proclaimed, possibly, possibly the apex of joy in post Statue of Britain time when incredible British culture was suddenly just surging all over the world.
Tommy Vietor: Rog, is this is another story about Oasis man? [laughter]
Roger Bennett: I’m only trying to keep them from my other podcast, Slide Away Today, but you also saw this two years later, 1998 World Cup in France. We all watched a multiracial team known as The Black, Blanc and Beur it was dominated by stars from former French colonies. There was Lilian Thuram born in Guadeloupe, Christian Karembeu from New Caledonia, Patrick Vieira, Senegal, and of course the great Zinedine Zidane, born in France to Algerian parents. [clip of sports broadcasting] They delivered victory for a delirious home crowd. At the very same time. Le Pen the far right, were trying to spread their poisonous venom and this team showed both the world and France a new face, a proudly multicultural nation that could be the best in the world. Similar thing happened in Germany, 2006, a World Cup that’s often viewed as modern Germany’s coming out party.
[clip of broadcaster]: The Olympic stadium at Berlin explodes into noise and color because Germany have done it.
Roger Bennett: Some 17 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. They put on a competition that was so joyous, a unified Germany showed itself ecstatically to the world.
Tommy Vietor: I love that story. I’m, I’m no longer looking back in anger. [laughter] I’m feeling better already. Rog.
Roger Bennett: Or, as Liam would say, it’s getting better, man. But that was the good news, the bad news. Brace yourself, Tommy. What I’ve also come to learn at least since 2010, is that it also works the other way. And as our world becomes ever more chaotic, dark, and full of terrors, we get to watch those horrors play out in front of us. Football. Yes, it’s still a mirror, but what we now glimpse in its reflection, it’s become abhorrent. Russia 2018, Qatar 2022, and when Qatar’s Emir thanked Vladimir Putin a few weeks ago for what he said was Russia’s support organizing the upcoming World Cup. These allegiances, this propaganda, these headlines, that’s what makes the cognitive dissonance ahead of this World Cup just so incredibly difficult.
Tommy Vietor: That awareness is what they call progress. Rog.
Roger Bennett: Yeah, that is true. And by the way, I also have to try and force myself to believe in the general goodness of humanity. I do. I do. And we are seeing glimmers of hope. I mean, mayors across France have said that they’re not gonna hold the big watch parties in town, squares this World Cup, and the local authority in London quickly followed suit. So we’ll be deprived of all those television shots and social media videos of people flinging beers into the air every time Karim Benzema or Harry Kane scores, which I think is really the point of football, of beers in the air. But ultimately these are small gestures in which can only take a modicum of solace. But there is another item which somewhat dulls my perpetually razor sharp anxiety and that, that’s a knowledge that in moments like these athletes in history have worked out how to seize the spotlight, to seize the moment and created enormous social change. You mentioned in the first episode of this podcast about the legendary U.S. track and field star Jesse Owens winning four Olympic medals and then delivering a big American FU to Hitler at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Tommy, Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe, Billy Jean King, and it’s not just American athletes of your, this World Cup Raheem Sterling will lead the English attack. This. This is an incredible gent who recently confronted the entire nation about the racism of the same British football since its inception, and he’s not alone. Marcus Rashford may be in a bit of a slump on the field at the moment, but Marcus Rashford, the Manchester United Striker, took on the entire British government during the pandemic to ensure that food insecure children were able to eat at school. And Thomas, it’s these people who give me so much hope as we head into this World Cup and as our old friend Morgan Freeman says, Tommy hope is a good thing. Maybe the best of things.
Tommy Vietor: I love that Rog. So, me and hope, we go way back. [laughter] It has a layered meaning, there’s a literal definition obviously, but I love that story you just told about the French mayors kinda leading the charge here cuz it reminds me of the time when I was working for Barack Obama in Iowa back in 2007. We were getting our butts kicked in the primary by a lot of different people, by the way. And we did something that honestly, I felt was stupid at the time, which was instead of making yard signs for people that said, Obama, you like, you know the name of the guy that we want you to vote for. The sign said hope. And I bring that up because it was a lesson for me when it worked, when people loved them, when it inspired people about never underestimating the power of hope. No matter how bleak things get, we have to try to give people some inspiration, something to believe in. And so look, I. I hate the fact that we put so much pressure on these players. It shouldn’t all be on Megan Rapinoe and Raheem Sterling to lead while these big corporations and governments fall on their faces.
Roger Bennett: Amen.
Tommy Vietor: But when you hear Megan Rapinoe talking about doing the right thing, when it’s hard, when I hear you talk about the courage that Raheem Sterling showed in confronting racism, I feel like there is potential there to create the spark that leads to something so much bigger, some real lasting change. And Rog, before we go, we should mention that we will be recording a sixth episode of World Corrupt at some point during this tournament. So this is not a good goodbye. It’s just, uh, see you when something politically heinous and humanly despicable probably happens.
Tommy Vietor: So before we sign off and head into what we firmly established on this podcast and must continue to acknowledge it can’t be repeated enough, is a World Cup soaked in blood. But I do wanna leave you on this. Our final episode before the tournament kicks off with one of the, the crumbs of hope I just spoke about, part of a video the Australian national team released just about a week ago, in which the Aussie players, the Socceroos, as they’re known stared directly into the camera. And confronted the very issues we’ve spoken about over the first five episodes. It’s proof that the athletes in Qatar are above all human beings, and that the empathy, along with our action, it may lead to change going forward. And with that, I’ll leave you with one word. Courage.
[news clip]: We have learned that the decision to host the World Cup in Qatar has resulted in the suffering and in the harm of countless of our fellow workers. / These migrant workers who have suffered are not just numbers. Like the migrants that have shaped our country and our football, they possess the same courage and determination to build a better life. / As players, we fully support the rights of the LGBTI plus people, but in Qatar people are not free to love the person that they choose. / Addressing these issues is not easy, and we do not have all the answers. / We stand with [?], the Building and Woodworker International and the International Trade Union Confederation, seeking to embed reforms and then establish a lasting legacy in Qatar. / This must include establishing a migrant resource center effective remedy for those who have been denied their rights and the decriminalization of all same sex relationships. These are the basic rights that should be afforded to all and will ensure continued progress in Qatar. / This is how we can ensure a legacy that goes well beyond the final whistle of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. / One that football can truly be proud of. / One that football can truly be proud of. / One that football can be truly proud of. / One that football can truly be proud of. / One that football can truly be proud of. [music break]
Tommy Vietor: World Corrupt is an original podcast collaboration from Men in Blazers and Crooked Media’s Pod Save the World alongside Roger Bennett, I’m your host, Tommy Vietor.
Roger Bennett: The executive producers and writers of World Corrupt are me, Roger Bennett, my great friend Tommy Vietor and Men in Blazers’ Jonathan Williamson, who incredibly edited and sound designed the episodes, bit like Phil Collins drumming and singing at the very same time.
Tommy Vietor: [laughs] A talented man. From the Crooked Media side. Our executive producers are Michael Martinez, Sandy Girard, and Giancarlo Bizzaro. Our producers are Ryan Wallerson and Haley Muse, and our associate producer is Saul Rubin.
Roger Bennett: For Men in Blazers, our producer is Miranda Davis and Martin S.
Tommy Vietor: This episode was fact checked by Nikki Shaner-Bradford. Music by Vasilis Fotopoulos.
Roger Bennett: With editing assistance from Nick Firchau.
Tommy Vietor: Additional production support from Crooked Media’s Zuri Irvin, Kyle Seglin and Ari Schwartz.
Roger Bennett: And Men in Blazers Mix Diskerud.
Tommy Vietor: Special thanks to Crooked Media, Julia Beach, Amelia Montooth and Matt DeGroot.
Roger Bennett: As well as Men Blazers. Scott Deon, Michael Milberger, and Alex Sale for their promotional social support and love.