For the Game? For the World?: A Short History of FIFA’s Colonial Legacy

The most widely broadcast sporting event in the world has a 'parochial and insular history.'

On October 6, 2001, a highly charged ‘friendly’ football match between Algeria and France was brought to an end after pitch invaders stormed the Stade de France, the stadium that had been built precisely for the triumphant France ’98 World Cup. It was the first football match — and to this date — the only match played between the two countries since Algeria gained its independence from France after a riotous civil war in 1962. La Marseillaise was booed. French flags were burned outside the stadium. The French media described it as an act of “savagery” and “barbarism.”It was a clear indication that a dark colonial past weighed too heavily on Algerians to permit ‘normal’ sporting relations between their oppressors. For many victims of colonialism, the pitch invasion carried particular significance as an act of bravery and nobility; a poignant rejection of the Wests’, and indeed, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association  (FIFA’s)’ values.

The globalisation of football as a rule-bound entity has been one of the most successful projects in world history. It is a profound manifestation of the development of universal communities: ways to locate and position yourself, and your nation or community, on a global scale. The sense of shared sentiments that watching football stimulates is one place where you identify yourself in the world of others. The ability of football to help instill the local population of former colonial subjects with a sense of nationhood and revenge that transcends community loyalties and bind minorities to common social, economic and political objectives is significant. Football matches between former colonial powers and their subjects are about more than just football: they’re opportunities for former colonial subjects to defeat the nations that sought to defeat them. But despite FIFA’s long-standing ethos of bringing the game of football to the world, it’s parochial and insular history suggests otherwise.  

The ostensible aim of FIFA as a federation is encompassing and guiding the world football community, which is held together by social and political ties, under the principles of ‘fair play’. FIFA demonstrates their worth and dominance through the social, institutional, and the political. But all of that is predicated on its ideological foundations in colonialism, set against the absence of uniformity and egalitarianism. The neo-colonial ceilings imposed by FIFA effectively solidifies it as an ersatz nation: European colonial powers sought to control global football and also block out rival countries from other regions from gaining admission.

In 2014, former Brazilian football legend Romário complained that FIFA did not respect Brazil’s autonomy during the World Cup that year: “FIFA is the real president of our country. FIFA comes to our country and imposes a state within a state.” FIFA devotees have been convinced and have convinced themselves that FIFA is a source of legitimacy, continuity and guidance in a fundamentally hostile world — and that has rendered them susceptible to the partisanship, narrow-mindedness, subservience, and personal stultification that FIFA inflicts on non-European countries.

The intellectual, social and developmental framework established by FIFA — the manufacture of years of parochial, insular, and colonial mandates and regulations — became the guiding principle of FIFA’s social control. FIFA was established in 1904 in Zurich, Switzerland, to administer football competitions between eight founding countries: Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. With the exception of Switzerland, all of the founding nations were colonial powers. From the outset of its establishment, the European nations swiftly set about strengthening FIFA’s Eurocentric foundations. The founding nations had woven FIFA’s ethos around their perceived superiority over their colonised victims; they exhibited callous disdain for non-European nations, particularly those from Africa and Asia, by actively thwarting their attempts to gain admission to the federation. FIFA continuously engaged in Eurocentrism, racism and the denial of a World Cup berth to non-European nations. It was only until 1970 that Africa grew its first World Cup berth. Asia merely received its first World Cup berth in 1962. Eurocentrism indelibly became the principal ideal of FIFA governance.

FIFA’s self-professed commitment to ‘fair play’ is evidently not applied to the World Cup. The mandates that set the framework for the tournaments are based on Eurocentric ideologies. In theory, these mandates pertain to favour European nations: the cultural and ethical unity of Europe is reinforced as European nations continue to receive the most amount of World Cup slots. Few non-Western Europeans or non-South Americans can qualify for World Cups, or have a chance to be successful in World Cup competitions.

For the 2018 World Cup, the FIFA Executive Committee decided to allocate fourteen slots for European nations (including the host nation Russia); five for Africa; four for Asia and South America respectively; three for North, Central America, Caribbean; and none for Oceania. It is probably not surprising then that, with the exception of Argentina and Uruguay, all World Cup winners have been former colonial powers: Brazil, Italy, Germany, France, England and Spain. No national team from Africa, Asia, North and Central America and the Caribbean or Oceania has ever reached a World Cup final.

What serves to unite the world through the poignancy of football becomes a device for reinforcing Europe’s colonial hegemony; as Europeans continue to receive the majority of World Cup slots, it is more than likely that European nations will continue to dominate future World Cup tournaments. These colonial characteristics become even more problematic when the hosting rights of World Cup tournaments is taken into consideration. In recent years, FIFA administrators have exercised their influence to host the World Cups in the USA (1994), South Korea/Japan (2002), South Africa (2010), Russia (2018) and Qatar (2022).  It was only 98 years after FIFA’s establishment that Asia was able to host its first World Cup, 106 years for Africa, and 118 years for the Middle East.

Was FIFA established to cover Europe’s colonial crimes?

Throughout World War I, FIFA’s administrators continued to engage in decidedly colonial behaviours. Membership steadily expanded beyond European nations with the acceptance of South American nations, including Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, and Uruguay. But FIFA’s Eurocentric ideologues were less enthusiastic about South American integration into their federation. Exponents of this view, including then General Secretary of FIFA Carl Anton Wilhelm Hirschman, invoked themes of unity and Christendom, to affirm FIFA’s position as a federation of European states. When Jules Rimet became the third FIFA president in 1921, he sought to spread the game of football beyond the European nationalist framework. Rimet, who subscribed to the ethos of nineteenth-century colonialism and Christendom, had a vision of the federation which followed an orientalist and colonial view of global development. In this, social and cultural hegemony was bestowed by a ‘modern’, European centre to a ‘pre-modern’, third world periphery.

Under Rimet’s leadership, FIFA adopted a missionary, orientalist approach to the development of football and thus, FIFA’s relationship with non-European constituencies was marked by an orientalist, Eurocentric and neo-imperialist style. From a more significant perspective, Rimet framed his goal to develop FIFA in such a manner that colonial subjects would not be entitled to equal rights as they were not considered to belong to the community of European nations. Moreover, the federation placed mandates on these nations so that they could not challenge the legitimacy of the federation itself. Upon Rimet’s departure, continental confederations were established to represent and contest in football: UEFA for Europe in 1954; AFC for Asia in 1954; CAF for Africa in 1957. The Central and North American and Caribbean confederation (CONCACAF) was created in 1961, followed by the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) in 1966. FIFA operated on colonialist terms, maintaining the dichotomy between imperial powers and their colonial territories.

End of the colonial era: a new beginning for FIFA?

The end of the colonial era marked the beginning of new complications for colonial subjects: of families separated and lives violently transformed in despondent conditions. Despite the end of the colonial era, FIFA premises its neo-colonialism on more normalised forms of rule — legislations, mandates, and elections. The FIFA governance has extraordinary organisational and operational problems — poor ethical guidelines, dilapidated structures, and inherent corruption that threatens the integrity of the beautiful game. But it’s heavily politicized nature, as well as the opportunistic presence of largely European administrators who promote a neo-colonial agenda, is one deep problem that permeates throughout FIFA’s governance. With its inherently flawed structure, FIFA is a plutocratic puppet-master that reigns over the autonomy of non-European nations by effectively controlling their decisions: it doesn’t represent the world, it represents the 1% of the global 1%. Its method is to install a state within a state, gain revenue from corporate sponsors and broadcasters, enjoy its tax-free status, and repeat the same process in another country.

Today, there are 195 independent sovereign states and 211 FIFA members. Many of those FIFA members, including Algeria and Senegal, use FIFA in order to escape their colonial past. These nations acquire FIFA membership, but FIFA typically grants them little sovereignty due to the federation’s hierarchical structure. Jockeying for a piece of influence is a mainstay for non-European nations under FIFA governance. FIFA seldom cares about Gibraltar, Palestine, Northern Cyprus or any politically disputed territories, but will use its capitalist marketing strategy to structure football matches along problematic nationalistic lines, provoking nationalist sentiments and adding historical drama, largely in the interests of profits for the clubs, and ultimately, FIFA. Since its inception, all eight of FIFA’s presidents have been Europeans, with the exception of the Brazilian João Havelange and interim President Issa Hayatou (2015-2016) from Cameroon. Eurocentrism indelibly became the principal ideal of FIFA governance. This construction of white identity reinforces colonial epoch; the racial fantasy — celebrating and unifying whiteness — that FIFA promotes is damaging to the game that works to make sure every group is fairly represented.

Racism in football: a profound reflection of FIFA’s dark history

Today, football fans foment vicious racism and alienation in stadiums and online forums, directing the same pro-European and colonialist rhetoric espoused by the early administrators of FIFA. There are several examples depicting this narrative, but the most important ones reflect FIFA’s failure to address its ideological flaws. Many players of immigrant backgrounds in Europe describe racist abuse as being part of the game and something that one needs to adapt to. Athletes from minority groups continue to suffer both individual and institutional forms of racism. Even countries, which display some of the most ethnically mixed national teams in Europe, face controversies when it comes to the social inclusion of ethnic minorities and to race relations.  

The modern, casual deployment of racism and vilification from fans – by which FIFA refuses to address, and in fact, inadvertently promotes — speaks to FIFA’s ongoing legacy of treating minorities as racially inferior. Recent examples include Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling being racially vilified by Chelsea fans in London, or Kalidou Koulibaly of Napoli FC subject to racial chants and having a banana peel hurled at him during a match against Inter Milan. The problem is even more pronounced within the governance of FIFA. Whenever a racist incident occurs, FIFA investigates, doles out fines and gives the fans (or teams) a derisory slap on the wrist. But as history suggests, simply fining clubs doesn’t work. But racism runs deep in football and is in fact common practice in European leagues such as the Premier League in England or Bundesliga in Germany. But the problem is more prevalent in other countries such as Italy and France, where incidents of racism aren’t merely acts of individual folly, but of widespread group planning: those who align with an extreme form of fandom. These ‘ultra’ fandoms — usually dressed in paramilitary uniforms and invoking fascist symbolism — yearn for a footballing world where words like “equality” and “multi-racial” are simply non-existent. In a country like Italy, where the far-right interior minister Matteo Salvini dismisses attempts to block out racism in football as an act of cowardice, and where fascism is terrifyingly on the rise, these problems will only continue to persist.

The problem is even more entrenched within FIFA. In 2011, then FIFA President Sepp Blatter notoriously remarked that racism on the pitch can be solved “with a handshake”. This is not to claim that FIFA does not address issues of racism, but rather, FIFA’s underlying response to racism is very much immiserated in its colonial foundations; the football field becomes a place where whiteness is redeemed as a saviour of ethnic minorities.

While FIFA superficially plays a central role in global football governance, this only exposes the urgent need for robust reformation and restructuring to fundamentally dismantle its colonial philosophical and ideological foundations. The dream of an ethnically plural FIFA administration is now an even more remote prospect. Considering the current racial makeup of football clubs around the world, having an ethnically plural FIFA administration is not only necessary to strengthen the federation, but necessary to make meaningful contributions to football itself. Football has long served as a weapon for resistance against external cultural and political exploitation, and minority groups have displayed a skillful capacity to adapt football and redefine its institutional hierarchies. It’s time FIFA dismantled its European hegemony and adapted to football’s current climate.

FIFA is not a state nor an army, but its significance lies in its geopolitical influence and ability to control billions of followers through the decisions they make on a constant basis: the hosting rights for World Cup tournaments; the allocation of World Cup slots for different regions; and the awarding of awards and medals to football players. It is almost inconceivable that the FIFA administration — riven across all times and utterly beset by greed, partisanship, corruption and flawed governance — can continue to speak for the football community. If FIFA is to move beyond its disconcerting past, FIFA’s ideologues must eradicate its heavily politicised nature and think of football governance beyond the dominant Eurocentric framework it was founded upon. Only then can FIFA become a voice for all.