Football likely to reach nadir of post-truth reality in 2018

December 13, 2017 08:09
With next year’s World Cup in Russia and Qatar’s regional stand-off with its Gulf neighbors continuing, it is highly likely that 2018 will be a football year like no other. Photo: Reuters

As one part of my working life involves being an academic, I am forever confronted by the eternal question facing social scientists: what is reality?

To some, reality exists beyond humans; it is objective to us and we cannot influence it. For others, it is something that humans create, principally through their thoughts and behaviors, and we can control it.

Perhaps the most troubling annual challenge I face as a sport academic is understanding football’s transfer window. Deciding what reality is during the summer and winter is always a challenge, and one never knows what the truth is about the countless rumors that always circulate.

Most of us construct in our minds a transfer window reality where our teams become a stellar collection of the best players around. Generally, though, they don’t and our clubs’ signings typically fall some way short of the reality we have constructed in our heads.

The fantasy of football is like that, and many of us are susceptible to the kind of transfer rumors which, ultimately, are what Donald Trump would probably refer to as "fake news".

By now, many of us are well-versed in the reality of fake news, alongside which sits the notion that we live in a post-truth world. Fuelled by the saturation of social media, too many people have gone beyond facts and reside in a place inhabited by like-minded peer groups on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. This is bewildering, troubling and problematic for lots of reasons, not least that people are constructing realities which simply aren’t true.

Recent events across football emphasize the significance of this question, as its post-truth, fake news existence intensifies. Yet it is not just the social media trolls and influencers that we have to be mindful of; the communications management revolution that has taken place over recent decades is exacerbating matters. So much so that, with next year’s World Cup in Russia and Qatar’s regional stand-off with its Gulf neighbors continuing, it is highly likely that 2018 will be a football year like no other.

As this year’s preparations for the World Cup have continued, there have been reports in several media outlets detailing the exploitation of North Korean workers by Russian contractors working on the construction of venues. In one report, details were reported of 190 “downtrodden” North Koreans working long hours, with no holiday, the stories labeling them as prisoners of war. It was even reported that one of the workers had died during the construction of a World Cup stadium.

At a recent conference in the Netherlands, FIFA’s director of sustainability and diversity, when challenged to explain the North Koreans’ reported mistreatment, responded by saying the stories were a lie.

Almost simultaneously in Russia, when confronted with journalists demanding to know FIFA’s views on doping in Russian football, the governing body’s general secretary said the organization does not believe it is a problem. Some doubt this, as a growing number of Russia’s athletes from across a wide range of sports continue to be banned from competition for doping offenses.

Hassan Al-Thawadi, secretary general of Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy (set up to ensure the successful staging of the 2022 World Cup) was another speaker at the Netherlands conference. Given the vociferous ethical agenda of Play the Game, which organized the event, this appeared to be a brave decision by Al-Thawadi. After all, Qatar has been under hyper-scrutiny since it won the right to host football’s biggest tournament, not least for its treatment of immigrant workers.

Cause organizations and the media have rightly been shining a light on the need for labor market reform in the small Gulf state, and it seems that the Supreme Committee has been responding. However, the imprecise nature of some reporting about Qatar, allied to slower than expected progress on several reforms being implemented from Doha, means the actual situation is frequently unclear. This has created a moral maze of claims and counter-claims that has recently been thickened by a diplomatic spat between Qatar and some of its neighbors.

As the stand-off has deepened, stories about Qatar’s unsuitability to host the 2022 mega-event have grown. Indeed, significant coverage by global media outlets has been devoted to negative analyses of Qatar, ranging from its alleged funding of terrorism to how unfit the country is to play World Cup host. The problem is, during October and November the source of some such stories was proven to be rival governments who had commissioned communications consultants to plant negative stories in the media about Qatar.

The toxic mix of competing political interests and conflicting agendas now dominating world football inevitably leads one to question: what is the truth, and what is reality?

The arrival of a new year might otherwise be an opportunity to address the way in which we see football and, for that matter, the way in which football presents itself. However, with next year’s World Cup being hosted in Russia and the Gulf crisis showing no signs of abating, such a view is not just optimistic, it is completely naïve.

Despite Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin’s love-in, relations between Washington and Moscow continue to be strained. Hence, one should be mindful when reading or listening to stories about either of them that these may have been generated or perpetuated by vested, possibly governmental, interests. One should also keep in mind that for every Breitbart News Network (in the United States), there is a Sputnik International (in Russia) peddling a skewed view of their own reality.

Expect the communications bombardment around the 2018 World Cup to proliferate next year, fuelled also by the doping scandals that will surround February’s Winter Olympic Games. Similarly, unless Qatar and its Gulf neighbors reconcile any time soon, expect more of the same controversy around the 2022 World Cup. Indeed, it seems inevitable that, as Moscow hands over the tournament to Doha, football’s global information war will intensify towards the end of next year.

It a nice thought that, somehow, football alone will win through next year. However, ours is currently a fractious world dominated by extreme, heavily ego-driven politicians pushing out untruths. And with social media proving to be an immensely powerful tool for these people (and their countries), then it seems 2018 will be a nadir for football’s fake news and post-truth reality.

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Simon Chadwick is Professor of Sports Enterprise at Salford University Manchester in the UK, where he is Co-Director of the Centre for Sports Business. He is also a Senior Fellow of the University of Nottingham's China Policy Institute.