Rabat – As though the World Cup championship in Russia has not already been politicized enough, primarily by the ongoing dispute between Qatar and Saudi Arabia over broadcasting services, it appears that political bias may be trickling down from the behind-the-scenes wrangling over geopolitical issues to judges happy to discriminate against non-European country, perhaps for the right price.
The latest outrage was sparked by the American referee twice denying Morocco the visual assistance referee (VAR) intervention during the game with Spain, which, by all accounts, was played admirably by Morocco and ended in a 2-2 tie.
The referee refused to let Morocco review the recordings of the alleged mistakes, thus effectively disenfranchising the team after visible errors. VAR technology was likewise denied to Morocco during the game with Portugal.
Various sports experts and journalists likewise expressed their outrage at what appeared to be the bias of the judge in favor of well-known European countries.
FIFA’s history of corruption predates the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The most famous of these issues in recent times is the 2015 FIFA corruption case in which US federal prosecutors charged a number of officials with fraud, racketeering, and other crimes related to taking millions of euros in bribes.
A number of these officials continued taking money during the course of the investigation.
Although the United States is not big on football (soccer), the case reverberated widely throughout the country, as a number of officials and others implicated in the case were dual residents or nationals, or had other connections to the US.
Although the case blew open the extent of corruption, it was neither the first nor the last episode in the sordid tale of the way a sport that is supposed to be for the masses becomes a playing field for the rich and powerful.
One could argue that the Russia-Qatar mutual support society in winning the 2018 and 2022 bids despite initially poor to non-existent infrastructure, allegations of vast bribery, and human rights violations, are the prime example of how everything in FIFA can be bought.
Indeed, one needs to look no further than the political crisis between Qatar and the Saudis, which is manifesting itself not only via the broadcasting.
Qatar’s beIN Sports managed to procure an exclusive right to broadcast coverage of the event; the Saudis accused the service of running unrelated political commentary during the opening match between Russia and Saudi Arabia, which the latter lost 5-0.
Qatar, on the other hand, is accusing the Saudis of spearheading a pirate service, which the head of the Saudi Sports Authority, Turki Al Sheikh denies. Al Sheikh claims that the pirated service is grassroots and that the country is actively fighting it.
Saudi Arabia is also expanding its investment into football as part of its Vision 2030 economic development strategy. The economic plan calls for the diversification of investments from oil to entertainment, culture, and sports.
The plan has caused Saudi Arabia to engage in a number of complicated political maneuvers, ranging from competition with Bahraini investors, to a short-lived honorary appointment of Al Sheikh as an Egyptian football club head.
FIFA’s role in the story is unclear, but suspicious. Why did FIFA ever let Qatar’s broadcasting service secure a monopoly on displaying the game? Why did FIFA condemn the alleged Saudi piracy, yet take no action to investigate and punish the supposed culprits?
The dubious star of this saga is none other than the FIFA president, Gianni Infantino, who may have downplayed the concerns over piracy during the opening football match, and who is known to be a frequent visitor to Saudi Arabia, where he had met King Salman.
There is speculation that FIFA may be sympathetic to KSA’s plans to underwrite a USD 25 billion consortium-led plan to significantly expand Club World Cup and an international Nations League.
Infantino’s name may ring a bell: he was implicated in the Panama Papers corruption scandal from 2016. He was cleared very quickly, which in itself drew criticism of the process by which conveniently powerful FIFA-affiliated officials once again avoided accountability for the organization’s failings.
Soon, however, Infantino made headlines as the subject of an investigation by FIFA’s ethics committee. The investigation was sparked by a complaint regarding his replacement of the chairmen and members of the FIFA board and his allegedly seeking to influence a Confederation of African Football (CAF) election.
He was also accused of destroying attempted reforms at the organization when the head of FIFA’s auditing and compliance resigned.
Further, he is accused of having played an unseemly role in the controversial vote over the 2026 World Cup hosting rights, during the course of which Saudi Arabia engaged in heavy direct lobbying of FIFA and various countries to vote for the United 2026 bid, and against Morocco.
The bidding process was beset with accusations of political interference, including US President Trump’s tweet, which was seen as a veiled threat against countries which did not support the US bid, and Saudi Arabia’s hosting parties for high level officials from various countries, strong-arming Morocco through rhetoric from Al Sheikh.
It seems that Infantino has set an uninspiring tone for an organization with a history not only of financial misdeeds but bias against African countries and the Third World, and favoritism toward famous teams and players backed by money and power.
FIFA’s rules are disadvantageous to Africa, the world’s second most populated continent with 54 countries—only five of which may qualify for the World Cup, due to the ranking enforcement.
The qualification process has long been criticized for taking the “world” out of World Cup. African countries are not the only ones with an ax to grind against FIFA.
During the 2018 World Cup, Serbia accused FIFA of directing referees to favor their Swiss counterparts.
FIFA also covered up the Russian doping scandal for 18 months, which, if addressed directly, could have made a difference for a number of countries. There is speculation that some of the Russian players continued with doping throughout this World Cup. The scandal implicated 34 football players.
This culture of impunity, bias, and favoritism appears to have trickled down from the top to the referee level. Mark Geiger, the US referee who adamantly refused Morocco’s repeated requests for VAR and sought to restrain or disqualify as many Moroccan players as possible through the use of yellow cards, himself has a history of murky accusations.
In the US, Geiger was a source of a litany of complaints by players and coaches alike for the alleged abuse of red cards, which threatened the integrity of the game. Geiger’s claim to infamy also rests in the Gold Cup semifinals between Mexico and Panama, held in Atlanta in July 2015, where Geiger admitted that officiating errors impacted the outcome of the game. Panama, at the time, claimed that the game was fixed.
Critics argue that there is a case to be made of favoritism against African countries and for well-known European teams with Geiger. In the case of Morocco, an Italian commentator believed he unfairly denied Morocco a deserved penalty.
These issues are sparking outrage, worldwide, not just in Morocco. Many developing countries saw the 2015 corruption probe as an opportunity for a fresh start for the embattled organization. FIFA was supposed to bring together in unity and equality passionate football players and fans from all over the world.
Instead, FIFA has turned into a mechanism for wealthy world leaders and influencers to buy prestige by bribing referees and officials, and undermining, excluding, or prejudicing teams from developing countries.
Furthermore, these countries, which were disadvantaged financially from the outset and felt they were now being penalized on the basis of their origin in a case of a bizarre double jeopardy, were hoping for the restoration of justice when responsible parties would finally be called out for their misdeeds and publicly condemned.
Instead, the probe appeared to end in a miscarriage of justice. Several officials were suspended, but one of the allegedly main culprits was cleared.
Even with some officials are charged and prosecuted, it appears that not much has changed. The entire culture of FIFA may very well be based in bias, corruption, and easy manipulation by the rich and powerful.
The only answer to Morocco’s grievances may lie in the reform of the ranking system, stringent vigilance of the rules, and international commitment to holding FIFA and its donors accountable for clearly biased policies, which leave little room for accountability and for the simple enjoyment, growth, and promotion of the sport the organization once aspired to provide.