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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 4, January 14, 2023

Sports Mania as a tool to earn billions for the corporates and also lull the masses into a make-believe world | Kobad Ghandy

Saturday 14 January 2023, by Kobad Ghandy

Sports should be made an essential part of the curriculum in schools and colleges. Sports like football, hockey, athletics, badminton, table tennis, tennis, swimming, cycling, etc are dynamic and should be an essential part of the training of our youth but also a major source of entertainment for children and adolescents. In my youth there was nothing I enjoyed as much as playing badminton, tennis, table tennis or swimming and cycling. Of course football and hockey would be one of the best and most enjoyable. It is also excellent for the health and mind of the individual. Playing a sport is a hundred times more enjoyable than watching it on TV and should be encouraged and subsidised not only by the schools/colleges but also government and local bodies.

But today’s schools and colleges neither have grounds nor are the facilities available to most and it is only the rich who can get their children to access it through clubs and other such institutions. On the contrary instead of sports, children are encouraged to spend hours on addicting video games, and other mobile/internet mania and most people get obsessed by sports on TV seen not only in the recent football world cup but also IPL leagues and other sports events promoted by the ruling classes and the imperialists worldwide. Not only has sports-viewing become one of the major money-spinners for the big corporates and their brands, it has a sinister design to also lull the masses into a make-believe world and further enhance the couch-potato passive syndrome.

 Marx once said that religion acted as an opium of4the masses, the same could be said for the mania whipped up around sports today.

Marx said “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.
It is the opium of the people.” Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Introduction (1843)

At least religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, TV sports is not even that. When TV was non-existent or did not have such a reach (now even through mobiles) it may have been different; but what we see is no longer sports but sheer business, with the added advantage of inciting national hysteria which diverts from the sorrows of life around us. We get transported into a make-believe world of ‘super-humans’ as if in battle, with the country involved whipping up a fake national euphoria. But even without this national euphoria there are favourites in the IPL League depending on which state one belongs to and internationally the football world cup instils the maximum mania particularly in Latin America, but also now worldwide.

So, for example for Argentina which is reeling under one of its worst economic crises ever, all is forgotten in the euphoria of winning the world cup. The inflation rate in Argentina was more than 92% in November 2022 --- i.e almost double that of last year. Highest rate in 30 years. Other central banks have been raising interest rates by 0.75 basic points but in Argentina it has been hiked 75% in the nine months of 2022. Normally such high levels of inflation are connected with high growth, but in Argentina GDP has been contracting for three consecutive years of 2018, 2019 and 2020. Also, before 2018 Argentina saw a contraction in 4 of the previous 9 years. In the 2020 pandemic year, it contracted as much as 10%. It’s GDP was $ 533 bn in 2008 and a mere $ 568bn in 2021. If one considers the inflation during this period it amounts to a huge decline in the GDP. On the other hand Argentina will fly back home with prize money of $42 million, which is approximately equal to Rs 344 crore. This is a gigantic 0.1% of its entire GDP. It is the highest-ever prize money awarded in FIFA World Cup history. Compare that to the lives of the common Argentinians.

 In the celebrations in Buenos Aires over 4 million (out of a 34 m population over 15 — i.e.12% of the entire population) came out onto the streets forgetting that 4 out of every 10 live in poverty. But Argentina has a great revolutionary history which is not only football. In 1972 about 3 million people came on the streets to welcome Peron back after 18 years in exile by a military junta. Argentina also gave the world Che, killed by the CIA in 1969. In those days Maradona continued the revolutionary tradition within football hailing Che and standing against imperialism.

 But Messi is no Maradona. Soon after the victory he became brand ambassador for Saudi Arabia though he made $ 122 million in the previous year through football. In March 2010, he was appointed a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and, recently, worked closely with the UN on the Covid Agenda. He is the brand ambassador of large number of products from Byjus to Tata Motors. A multi-millionaire, though adored by the populace he has become a major agent of the rulers and imperialists — exactly the opposite of what Maradona stood for.

 But Messi is not alone in this money spinning sports business; all top sportspersons, whether in cricket, tennis, badminton, golf et al become part of the millionaire club of the world and brand-ambassadors of major products and even instructions/countries, earning in their millions, while the masses worship them blindly. Tendulkar is an example in India and so are many of the earlier and current cricket captains.

But is the money in the IPL is in crores in the foot ball world cup the money is in millions of dollars. This years football world cup, those countries who went out in the groups were allocated £7.4m each in prize money, while all 32 nations at the tournament were given £1.24m ahead of the competition to cover preparation costs. The 2022 World Cup will award a whopping $440 million in prize money, according to FIFA. With the viewership growing exponentially each four years FIFA revenue reaches new levels each four year cycle..

Sports has a viewership more than any other visual on the TV/mobile and so it is the major money spinner and advertiser in the world today. Advertising campaigns for the World Cup are some of the best around. For good reason too — football World Cups are the most watched sporting events on the planet.

FIFA reported that 3.572bn people watched the World Cup in 2018 which took place in Russia. That is more than half of the global population who are aged four or over. Just the final between France and Croatia was watched by 1.12bn people globally. This year it was estimated that the viewership would rise to around 5 billion people according to FIFA president Gianni Infantino. Imagine the TV and Ad revenue from such a mega event. FIFA revenue from tv broadcasting rights shot up from $ 600 million in 2014 to $ 2,500 million in 2018 and is said to reach astronomical figures this time. Broadcasting rights are given to the highest bidder, so no wonder it was Ambani’s TV network that had the exclusive rights in India adding to his viewership and money — both from subscriptions and ads.

Though the football world cup is the largest TV event in the world, the IPL in India and the Super Bowl in the US, the British Premier League, etc are major TV events in their respective countries. The Indian Premier League (IPL) 2020 season turned out to be the most-viewed IPL season ever, breaking all previous records. As per BARC India viewership data, the T20 league had an overall viewership of 405 million. As per Statista, the viewership of the Super Bowl LIV last year across the world was around 150 million. Even this year, the Super Bowl’s viewership outside the United States is estimated to be in the region of 30-50 million, adding to the 96.4 million it recorded locally.

This year’s top IPL players are being auctioned for figures around Rs. 20 crores each. To get a wider reach for sports in India the world hockey event is said to take place in Rourkela in January 2023. They also are promoting league tournaments in Kabbadi to capture the poorer and rural audience.

Seeing this as an opportunity to earn billions and also drug the world populace for an even longer period the 2026 football world cup set to be spread across the different states of the US and Canada is now going to have 48 teams instead of the current 32 that were in the final qualification rounds till now. The tournament will be the first World Cup with 48 participants and the organisers have certainly gone big with their selected 16 stadiums. That means dragging on the matches for more days, drawing in 16 more countries directly into the euphoria, and garnering even greater viewership giving increasing revenue to FIFA from TV rights and more to the channels for their advertising. It is a win-win situation for the big corporates, FIFA, advertisers, the rulers of the respective countries with the drugging of the vast populace who by that time will be at the end of their tether given the oncoming world economic crisis. Celebrate football, drown your woes as in Argentina today.

Now let us turn to Qatar and its role in the present World Cup. Guardian reported that its vast, gasfuelled wealth and the $500m (£380m) a week it was at one stage spending on new stadiums, transport links and infrastructure. But despite the billions spent, Qatar’s World Cup infrastructure has been built on the cheap. Hundreds of thousands of workers have been forced to pay for their own recruitment and labour for years earning poverty wages.

According to the report, 2,711 Indians were among the migrant workers who died in Qatar since 2010 building these stadiums. With just a year to go for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, a report has claimed that over 6,500 South Asian migrants workers—from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka—have died since Qatar won the rights to the cup in 2010.

And practically the entire construction was done by Chinese companies earning windfall profits. But there is hardly a word on this. Veritably everything was built by China for the world cup. World cup buildings got green electricity from a next generation power station which harvests only solar energy, built by the Power Construction Corporation of China. People were taken where they need to go in a fleet of 888 fully electric buses, made by Yutong Bus, a Chinese firm that has quietly become the world’s biggest bus make. The main stadium was built by China Railway Construction Corporation: that’s the firm that pops up in Africa and Europe and around the planet, known for its extraordinary ability to create infrastructure in difficult environment. What’s a sporting event without souvenir merchandise? It’s estimated that almost 70 per cent of World Cup related goods, from footballs to flags to jerseys to whistles, came from a single location in China, a southeastern city called Yiwu. A purpose-built extra-large reservoir provided clean drinking water for sports people and fans. It was constructed by Gezhouba Group, from Wuhan. The stadium-building operations needed huge amounts of heavy equipment, from massive earth movers to cranes — nearly 100 of these were supplied by China’s Sany Heavy Industry, one of the world’s biggest construction firms. The most innovative venue was Qatar’s Stadium 974, which can be disassembled and reassembled anywhere.
Designed by a Spanish architect, the 974 building blocks were made by China International Marine Containers. Notice all the LED floodlights everywhere? They came from the Unilumin Group of China. Most people say airconditioners are a must for survival in that environment — and China’s Midea Co supplied 2,500 aircons for the event. Last but not least, this was the most expensive sporting event in world history, and needed a lot of support from businesses. Nineteen China firms signed up to sponsor the event, of course with advertisements. China also built a massive artificial pool to supply drinking water at a cost of $ 6 bn. Qatar with a population of 3 million expected about a million guests during the world cup. They are as culpable as Qatar for the human rights abuses.

When it comes to football, Qatar isn’t exactly a household brand in the sports world. They were unable to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. In August 2021, they were ranked 42nd in the FIFA World Rankings. It had never received a higher ranking. India was one of the top ticket-buying nations. But photo portraits of the workers who built the Lusail stadium where Sunday’s final was held were taken down from its walls just before the tournament started. Few of the 88,000 people inside were from this class.

Qatar, with Chinese help, has built seven stadiums for the World Cup finals as well as a new airport, metro system, series of roads and about 100 new hotels. An entire city has been constructed around the stadium which hosted the final match. Qatar’s government says that 30,000 foreign labourers were hired just to build the stadiums.

In 2016, Amnesty International claimed Qatar (and the Chinese companies) was using forced labour to construct stadiums, alleging that wages were being withheld, passports confiscated and that workers were living in squalid conditions. The Guardian reported that 6,500 migrant workers up to 2021 had died since Qatar won the World Cup bid.

And while the eyes of the billions were glued to the TV screens the Qatar establishment was surreptitiously bribing their way into European elite circles. Belgian prosecutors investigating allegations that Qatar has sought to influence EU policy by bribing European parliament officials have charged four people with money laundering, corruption and participating in a criminal organisation. Charges come after Belgian police made six arrests and seized phones, computers and €600,000 in cash. According to Belgium’s federal prosecutor, officers examining one of the biggest alleged corruption cases in the parliament’s recent history believe a Gulf country — identified by Belgian media as Qatar — has used bribes and gifts to try to influence decisions at the legislature.

Although the prosecutor’s office did not identify the four by name, a judicial source told Agence France-Presse that they include Eva Kaili, an MEP (Member of the European Parliament) for the social democratic Greek Pasok party who serves as one of the parliament’s 14 vice-presidents. Of course, this is what has come to light till now, the extent of the murky deals not yet known can only be imagined.

Sportswashing is a term used to describe the practice of individuals, groups, corporations, or governments using sports to improve reputations tarnished by wrongdoing. A form of propaganda, sportswashing can be accomplished through hosting sporting events, purchasing or sponsoring sporting teams, or participating in a sport. At the international level, it is believed that sportswashing has been used to direct attention away from poor human rights records and corruption scandals. At the individual and corporate levels, it is believed that sportswashing has been used to cover up vices, crimes, and scandals. Sportswashing is an example of reputation laundering. Sportswashing was first consciously used by Hitler during the 1936 Olympics after he came to power in 1933 to create a positive image throughout the world. At the event Jews were consciously treated well and particularly blacks who were then facing extreme forms of racism were particularly accommodated. They all returned to their home countries praising the Hitler regime which then went on to butcher jews and communist by the millions.

Meanwhile in its desperation to host the 2030 World Cup a team in Saudi Arabia has bought Cristina Ronaldo of Portugal for a whopping £ 177 million — the highest ever given to any footballer in the world, i.e. Rs.1,700 crores. The Saudis like most of those oil rich countries are dictatorial and oppressive, but today it is just money that counts.

Meanwhile, in India, besides cricket being a money spinner and most of the country obsessed by the matches and betting, most sports are neglected and also filled with corruption. In mid-December for example, Kerala’s 10-year old cycle polo player died in mysterious circumstance in Nagpur after her team was denied official accommodation followed by neglect in the hospital. Nadia Fathima had great potential but.......And with the IPL auction taking place the players sell themselves to the highest bidder of the 10 competing teams. Sam Curran went for Rs.18.5 crores, other top players a little less. Cameron Green went for Rs.17.5 crores.

Meanwhile, there are many horror stories that like those of Nadia; a few come out in the open, others are brushed under the carpet. India’s sports budget as it is, is miniscule; within that much is swallowed in corruption. So, in most sports events, including the Olympics, India is nowhere, worse even that tiny African countries. And when individual talent flowers on their own effort as in badminton, chess, tennis, etc it is only after they shine that the advertisers and govt enter and make them millionaires.

In India today it is a handful of sport (and film) stars that make millions while the masses are brainwashed to idolise while the bulk of entertainers and sports people live in poverty and are forced to improve their talent at their own expense. Like the numerous other cases the Nadia issue is off the media and peoples’ attention but cricket and football stars continue to do the rounds.

Let us demand of the government, schools and other institutions to make sports available to all and encourage it at all levels. Demand that the govt increase its sports budget and appeal to the masses to come out and play sports rather than waste our time watching it on TV. Today sports viewership is consciously being promoted worldwide, not only for its money-making ability but also to drug the masses into a slumber and euphoria distanced from the realities around us — a sort of nasha in a make-believe world, somewhat like the entertainment industry. In fact sports viewership has become an important part of the entertainment industry.

January 3rd 2023

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