January 24, 2015
The Stuttgart-based ifa (Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations) had invited an interesting, though somewhat eclectic, list of speakers to the representation of Baden-Württemberg, and Julia Hass, an old acquaintance from the FREE conference in Copenhagen, had composed an interesting programme that touched on a whole variety of issues linked to the role of sport in international relations, cooperation and development.
Very quickly, after Grant Jarvie’s keynote speech on the more general issue of sport’s potential and limits in international cultural relations, the discussions focused on the question to what extent sport’s (and mostly football’s) amazing soft power potential was used, misused and abused (sometimes with very limited success) by both the national political actors eager to host major events and, of course, the international sports federations responsible for their organisation. The timid hope, formulated by Joseph Maguire, to move ‘from classical Realpolitik to pragmatic ethic politics in sport’ was shared by everybody, though not necessarily with the same soft optimism.
There was, however, a certain consensus among speakers and audience on how organisations like FIFA, the IOC or the IAAF, to name but the most prominent ones, could be pushed towards more ethic responsibility, transparency and accountability: by means of increasing pressure from the basis. The fact that in several democratic countries, some cities and regions have recently decided in local referenda that they were no longer willing to play the mega-event game, was acclaimed as a positive step forward on the road to raising awareness in the organisations concerned that the time is ripe for change. It was also pointed out that in a totally connected global communication environment it was increasingly difficult for some hosts to draw soft power capital from events that rather highlighted social ills and reprehensible practices no longer deemed acceptable by international standards. As often with events of this type, the lively discussions between audience and experts would have deserved more time and would probably have been just as rich without the relatively high number of individual presentations by the speakers. But leaving with regret for not having had the time to go deeper in the debate is, I presume, rather a sign of success for such a symposium.
A few weeks after the event, an recent anecdote recalled precisely that it is no longer possible to simply ignore public indignation. While at the Brussels event, the German ambassador for women’s football and former national coach of Qatar’s women’s football team, Monika Staab, had very credibly concluded from her educational work in countries of the Arab world that ‘football gives women and girls self-confidence’, Bayern Munich had to take harsh criticism for finishing their January training camp in Qatar with a friendly against Saudi Arabian top-team Al-Hilal, a match to which no female fans were allowed (and which took place almost immediately after the first flogging of journalist Raif Badawi).
What is remarkable in this context is that the criticism did not only come from backbench MPs eager to be quoted in the media, but also from former DFP president Theo Zwanziger and most notably from long-standing members of the club. Bayern president Karl-Heinz Rummenigge first refused the criticism and lauded the ‘perfect conditions’ offered to his team in Qatar and Saudi-Arabia, but was finally pushed to kind-of apologise in a public statement for failing to raise human rights issues.
What this ‘case study’ shows is of course not that professional football clubs should do the diplomatic work that their national politicians are often too hypocritical for (‘Realpolitik’?). Rather, the most interesting lesson is that the ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ (CSR) of these clubs is an increasingly important aspect of their activity. As Johannes Axter, co-founder of the association street football world pointed out during the ifa event in Brussels, ‘football’s social responsibility is not systematically recognised’. It may well be that the ethical and political component of football’s CSR will be under ever closer scrutiny in the coming years. The ‘culture of fairness’ that was highlighted in the title of the Brussels symposium is likely to become part of the expectations that prominent actors of the international sport scene will have to meet.