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How World Cup politics explain the modern world



Billions of people will watch the World Cup in Qatar, fixated on one of the world’s premier sporting festivals. But football’s governing body FIFA has also unleashed a political tempest, highlighting moral, business and geopolitical dilemmas shaping the modern world.

So far, the tournament has been consumed by more controversies off the field than have been caused by the erratic VAR video review system that can send fans into fury.

Disputes about FIFA thwarting a bid by European teams to support LGBTQ+ diversity, women’s rights, the treatment of immigrant workers who built air conditioned stadiums in the desert and the availability of alcohol in the Muslim nation raged since before the opening game. The dramas revived suspicions that a sport that presents itself as open to all ignored human rights and political repression in Qatar for a share of its host’s oil riches in a nation with little cultural or historical connection to the beautiful game.

Now that the goals have started flying in – including two for Saudi Arabia in their shock victory over Lionel Messi’s Argentina on Tuesday – FIFA will hope the politics will turn into a sideshow, even among viewers morally conflicted at watching their team in such circumstances. But the political subplot also risks a PR debacle.

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And criticism from football fan and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken about a ban on players wearing LGBTQ+ OneLove armbands Tuesday turned a sporting spectacular back into an international diplomatic spat.

“One of the most powerful things about football, about soccer, is potential to bring the world together,” Blinken told reporters in Doha Tuesday, alongside top Qatari officials.

“It’s always concerning from my perspective when we see any restrictions on freedom of expression. It’s especially so when the expression is for diversity and for inclusion. And in my judgment, at least, no one on the football pitch should be forced to choose between supporting these values and playing for their team,” Blinken said.

Briana Scurry, a retired World Cup winning goalie for the US women’s national team, told CNN’s “Newsroom” Tuesday that FIFA had brought on this political storm with its choice of venue for the World Cup.

“When you choose the country, you choose the consequences,” she said.

An event that reflects the world’s conflicts

Any World Cup – expected to draw a big chunk of the world’s population to watch its final game in December – is bound to tap into the societal and political zeitgeist.

For instance, Iranian players declined to sing their national anthem in their opening game against England on Monday, in a possible protest about the violent suppression of dissent rocking the Islamic Republic.

But discord stirred by this particular tournament, exacerbated by global football chiefs’ questionable PR responses, is offering a prism for geopolitical trends that are shaking old global centers of power at a time when the Western-led liberal order is under an unprecedented challenge.

The Qatar World Cup is the most stark illustration yet of how a small group of ultra-wealthy oil and gas giants in the Gulf are using their trillions to buy themselves a foothold among the world’s most powerful nations and to create tourism, entertainment and sporting legacies to sustain them when their reserves of carbon energy are depleted. It also shows how they are prepared to ignore liberal values to get there.

The tournament is a test case of the zeal of Western institutions – sporting teams and leagues, cultural institutions and businesses – to grab a share of the gusher of cash coming from the Middle East despite the possible threat to their values.

This mirrors a global shift in power and especially financial muscle – from the capitals of Western Europe to new epicenters in the Middle East, India and China. And football, with its massive global appeal, is taking a huge cut. Traditional working class football clubs knitted into their communities for decades now suddenly find themselves owned by foreign energy magnates. Premier League giant Manchester City was bought by a United Arab Emirates-led group. And Newcastle United is owned by a Saudi Arabia-led consortium, forcing fans to consider (or not) the ethical dimensions of their support for their hometown clubs.

Football is not the only sport changing because of this global power shift. Hundreds of millions of viewers in India for the fast and furious IPL cricket league have shifted the balance of power in the sport from England and Australia. Formula One, which rivals football’s international footprint, now sends its 200 mph racers onto multiple Middle East circuits. And Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund is trying to bust the dominance of the venerable PGA tour in the US after snapping up golf stars like Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson with massive pay incentives.

The phenomenon is known as “sports washing” in which an authoritarian nation seeking to buff up their image, despite serious criticism over their political system and human rights performance, woos the world’s top sporting stars. China was accused of such an agenda with its 2008 and 2022 Summer and Winter Olympics, where attempts at political activism largely fizzled under its repressive rule.

Corruption claims and political controversies overshadow Qatar’s big moment

This World Cup, like many recent major international supporting events, is forcing fans to consider more than the final score.

Allegations of corruption in the awarding of the tournament to Qatar, and its predecessor in Russia in 2018, have long dogged FIFA. In 2020, the US Justice Department alleged that bribes were accepted by top global football officials ahead of votes that allocated the two events. Officials in Russia and Qatar vigorously denied the allegations. Last year, the DOJ wrapped up a six-year investigation into soccer corruption by awarding $201 million to FIFA and the sport’s other global regulators, saying they had been victims of decades-long bribery schemes.

But newer controversies have rattled Qatar 2022 and left FIFA facing more embarrassing questions.

They include the plight of migrant workers who built the stadiums. Human Rights Watch, for instance, highlighted abuses among South Asian workers in Qatar as the World Cup opened. The State Department, in its latest human rights report, cited ongoing illegal forced labor in Qatar and noted construction at “FIFA World Cup-related facilities continued despite crowded worksites and the high risk of COVID-19 transmission.” CNN has not independently confirmed previous reports that thousands of migrant workers have died in Qatar since it was awarded the World Cup in 2010.

The kerfuffle, meanwhile, over an attempt by the captains of European nations to promote LGTBQ+ issues exemplifies cultural and religious clashes at this World Cup, which are unfolding every day between Western and conservative developing nations and in developed societies that include many migrant communities and diverse creeds and religions.

England, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland and Wales had planned to join the “OneLove” campaign. But their governing associations accused FIFA of threatening sporting sanctions on the players, including possible yellow cards, which could result in them being sent off if they picked up a second yellow card for a foul in a match.

There’s a question here over the extent to which visiting fans should respect local traditions that infringe their own values and freedoms. But this is also about discrimination. And there were suspicions FIFA had again caved into pressure from the Qatari government following a bizarre news conference before the first game by FIFA President Gianni Infantino, who accused ex-colonialist Western nations of hypocrisy.

“Today I feel Qatari. Today I feel Arab. Today I feel African. Today I feel gay. Today I feel disabled. Today I feel a migrant worker,” Infantino said.

Qatar, where homosexuality is banned, dismissed claims it was behind the armband ban. “Everything that happens on the pitch is a FIFA matter,” a spokesperson for Qatari organizers, Fatma Al Nuaimi, told CNN’s Becky Anderson.

Yet underscoring the selective nature of political protests at sporting events, England skipper Harry Kane, who didn’t wear an armband, joined teammates in taking a knee in a stand against racism before kickoff.

FIFA’s World Cup politics are coming to the US

It’s not new for a global sporting event to unfold in a politically charged atmosphere. US athlete Jesse Owens, for example, undercut Adolf Hitler’s claims of a Nazi master race with his showing at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. At the 1968 Mexico Olympics, US track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos promoted civil rights with Black power salutes from the medal podium. Muhammad Ali was a racial and political icon as well as a boxing one. And the 1980 Moscow and 1984 Los Angeles Olympics were hit by boycotts related to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Modern athletes, brands in themselves, seem increasingly open to causes in ways that challenge their sports’ governing officials. For example, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who refused to stand for the National Anthem in the 2016 season to protest police brutality against Black men, ignited a global sporting and political movement. But the protest also angered NFL owners who disdain insubordination from players. And the fact that Kaepernick is long gone from the league cast doubt on the sincerity of the sport’s anti-racism campaigns. The NFL also found itself dragged into a potential conflict between its many Black players and some of its conservative fan bases, a fact that ex-President Donald Trump exploited by dragging it into his culture warfare.

Other leagues, like the NBA, have been more openly supportive of players’ political expression. But it’s a thin line. Basketball has also faced criticism over its lucrative business links to China, which, like Qatar, is known for repression.

The sense that athletes may be held to higher moral standards than their government is also key to the current feud in golf. Critics have slammed top pros for taking cash from Saudi Arabia, whose nationals made up 15 of the 19 hijackers on September 11, 2001. But the kingdom is a beneficiary of huge US arms sales and President Joe Biden went there this year to seek more oil production to alleviate high gasoline prices.

The next World Cup will likely see even more political activism since it will be hosted in the US, Canada and Mexico.

The tournament will also show another way the world has changed. Soccer, despite the 1994 US-hosted World Cup, has struggled to make the cultural leap to become a dominant US pro sport, despite high youth participation. But the tournament will highlight the hold it has on US immigrant and diaspora communities, an increasingly important political demographic in the country.

Ever since sport went global, it’s always reflected social, cultural and religious trends and conflicts – despite calls from purists for it to remain a safe space from politics. So it’s a good bet that when the footballing circus arrives stateside in 2026, some new off the field controversy will be competing with the score for attention.

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Pandemic Politics Hold Up Gazillion-Dollar Defense Bill – New York Magazine



A soldier obeys orders to get a jab.
Photo: Jon Cherry/Getty Images

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One of the very few bipartisan traditions still standing in Congress is the annual passage of a defense authorization bill setting policy for the Pentagon and national security strategy generally. Despite all sorts of partisan tensions and efforts to take the bill hostage, this has happened for 61 straight years. Making that 62 straight years has been a priority for the lame-duck session of Congress currently under way. The House passed its version of the measure — authorizing $839 billion in defense spending for the fiscal year that began on October 1 — in July, with robust majorities from both party caucuses. It was mostly noteworthy for adding to President Biden’s spending requests and knocking down a few of the administration’s specific defense-policy proposals, notably stopping the Defense Department from scrapping certain aircraft, ships, and missile programs.

For mostly scheduling reasons, the Senate has taken longer to negotiate its version of the bill and has decided to work out a final deal with the House and the administration that can be whipped quickly through the lame-duck session in both chambers and presented to the president for his signature. But at the last minute, a dispute that has little to do with defense policy threatens to throw sand into the gears of the process: a battle over revocation of the COVID-vaccine mandate for members of the armed forces that was imposed in August 2021.

It’s entirely unsurprising that Republicans, whose base is heavily larded with anti-vaxxers and who have sought to make any sort of COVID-related requirements a big civil-liberties issue, would want to scrap the military mandate. (Twenty-one Republican governors also recently sent Biden a letter calling for this policy change.) And it seems that Democrats (including within the White House) are grudgingly willing to give them this trophy. Indeed, House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy is already crowing about it, according to the Washington Post:

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) claimed Sunday that he had worked out the arrangement directly with President Biden. Although White House officials later disputed that characterization, McCarthy described the compromise as his party’s “first victory” since the GOP won control of the House in the midterm elections.

House Armed Services Committee chairman Adam Smith isn’t conceding it’s a done deal, but it sounds like the handwriting is on the wall, Politico reports:

“We haven’t resolved it, but it is very fair to say that it’s in discussion,” Smith told POLITICO on the sidelines of the Reagan National Defense Forum. He noted that the mandate may not be logical anymore.

“I was a very strong supporter of the vaccine mandate when we did it, a very strong supporter of the Covid restrictions put in place by DoD and others,” he added. “But at this point in time, does it make sense to have that policy from August 2021? That is a discussion that I am open to and that we’re having.”

The bigger problem is that Republicans are mulling a demand that military members who refused to obey the vaccine mandate and were accordingly discharged be reinstated and even compensated. Smith says that’s a nonstarter:

While negotiators are willing to entertain the possibility of undoing the policy, Smith said GOP calls to reinstate or grant back pay to troops who refused the shot amounted to a red line. He called the push “a horrible idea.”

“The one thing that I was adamant about — so were others — is there’s going to be no reinstatement or back pay for the people who refused to obey the order to get the vaccine,” Smith said. “Orders are not optional in the military.”

It’s increasingly clear that the big question is whether Republicans will choose to deep-six the defense bill for the first time in 62 years in order to score a culture-war point about the alleged unreasonableness of a soon-to-be-past vaccine mandate. If they do, it will underscore how important resistance to COVID-prevention efforts is to the GOP’s messaging.

The dispute will also be an indicator as to whether McCarthy has even the most minimal interest in bipartisan governing once he obtains the Speaker’s gavel in January (assuming he isn’t pushed aside by his caucus’s extremists first). Back in November, he was already making noises about forcing a renegotiation of the defense bill so that it would not pass until the next Congress convenes, as Defense News reported:

“I’ve watched what the Democrats have done on many of these things, especially the NDAA — the woke-ism that they want to bring in there,” McCarthy told reporters on Tuesday after House Republican leadership elections, where the majority of his caucus nominated him to serve as speaker in the next Congress. “I actually believe the NDAA should hold up until the 1st of this year — and let’s get it right.”

That McCarthy is apparently willing to put national security policy on hold so that he can pursue the idiotic MAGA crusade against a “woke military” tells us a lot about the kind of conduct we can expect from him going forward. If he does hold the defense bill hostage, we’ll know that he may formally hold the Speaker’s gavel, but Marjorie Taylor Greene owns it.

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Politics Podcast: Warnock Has The Edge In A Close Race – FiveThirtyEight




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It is Election Day once again in Georgia. While this year’s Senate runoff will not determine control of the Senate, it will still decide the state’s representation in Washington for the next six years. It will also be another high profile test of a candidate — Herschel Walker — handpicked by former President Trump.

In this installment of the FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast, Galen Druke speaks with Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporters Tia Mitchell and Greg Bluestein about how things have looked on the ground in the final stretch of the campaign.

Later in the show, ABC News reporter Brittany Shepherd describes the internal debate within the Democratic Party over what a new presidential primary calendar might look like in 2024.

You can listen to the episode by clicking the “play” button in the audio player above or by downloading it in iTunes, the ESPN App or your favorite podcast platform. If you are new to podcasts, learn how to listen.

The FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast is recorded Mondays and Thursdays. Help new listeners discover the show by leaving us a rating and review on iTunes. Have a comment, question or suggestion for “good polling vs. bad polling”? Get in touch by email, on Twitter or in the comments.

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Trump's slow 2024 start worries allies – CNN




Back in 2015, Donald Trump’s first campaign rally in Iowa as a contender for the Republican presidential nomination came just 10 hours after he declared his candidacy in New York. The following day, he was across the country in New Hampshire, with plans to visit South Carolina before the end of his first week.

But seven years later – and nearly three weeks into his 2024 presidential campaign – Trump has yet to leave his home state or hold a public campaign event in an early voting state.

Trump’s disengaged posture has baffled former and current allies, many of whom experienced firsthand the frenetic pace of his two previous White House bids, and who now say he’s missed the window to make a splash with his 2024 rollout. The uninspiring launch of his supposed political comeback comes as his campaign appears to be operating on auto pilot, with few signs of momentum or enthusiastic support from donors or party heavyweights.

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“I don’t know why he rushed this. It doesn’t make sense,” one Trump adviser said of his lackluster announcement speech last month, which came one week after Republicans delivered an underwhelming performance in the midterm elections and as the rest of the party turned its attention to the Senate runoff contest in Georgia.

Trump’s call to terminate the Constitution is a fantasy, but it’s still dangerous

Trump’s announcement was roundly panned for lacking zest, so much so that some audience members attempted an early exit, and his recent hosting of Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes and embattled rapper Kanye “Ye” West at Mar-a-Lago only further galvanized GOP opposition against him. A person familiar with the matter said Trump spent the Sunday after Thanksgiving asking people around him if they thought the backlash to his private dinner with Ye and Fuentes was truly damaging.

“So far, he has gone down from his bedroom, made an announcement, gone back up to his bedroom and hasn’t been seen since except to have dinner with a White supremacist,” said a 2020 Trump campaign adviser.

“It’s 1000% a ho-hum campaign,” the adviser added.

The only other notable event to occur since Trump announced he was running again was both unintended and dreaded for weeks by the former president’s attorneys. Just three days after Trump launched his campaign, Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed a special counsel to oversee two ongoing criminal investigations into the 45th president and his associates.

While some Republicans long speculated that Trump entered the presidential race early to inoculate himself from further legal peril, his candidate status instead appeared to serve as the catalyst for Garland’s announcement.

A Trump campaign spokesman said the former president has held “multiple events since he announced,” noting his remote appearance at the annual Republican Jewish Coalition summit last month, video remarks to a conference for conservative activists in Mexico, a Patriots Freedom Fund event, his remarks at two separate political events held at Mar-a-Lago, and a tele-rally Monday night for Georgia Republican Senate hopeful Herschel Walker. None of these events were billed as campaign events.

Trump’s current campaign trajectory has left both allies and Republican opponents wondering if he will flip a switch in 2023 or fail to adapt to a different political environment. Even as the GOP’s undisputed 2024 frontrunner, some of his closest allies say he simply cannot afford to take his position for granted at a moment when influential Republicans appear exceedingly interested in dislodging him from his influential perch.

“If Trump was working in a lush jungle environment in 2016, he is in a desert today,” said a Republican close to the former president. “The political landscape has totally changed. He was irresistible because no one understood him but now everybody knows how to deal with him, so the question is, can he recalibrate?”

Some sources said Trump’s first-out-of-the-gate strategy, which was said to be partly aimed at clearing the GOP primary field, already looks poised to fail.

“You know what it’s done to dissuade people from getting in? Nothing. He hasn’t hired anyone. He hasn’t been to the early states,” said the 2020 campaign adviser.

Trump’s lack of impact was on display a week after his announcement, as other 2024 Republican hopefuls took the stage in Las Vegas for the annual RJC summit. Some attacked the former President, while others, once allies of Trump, indicated they were ready to take him on in 2024.

Just days before the event, Trump’s team announced plans for him to address the group remotely. Two people familiar with the matter said his virtual address was organized by aides at the last minute after he grew agitated upon realizing the event was a cattle call for Republican presidential prospects and he was not on its original list of speakers. The Trump campaign spokesman disputed this account, saying Trump’s remote remarks were planned “many weeks prior to the event.”

Other sources who for months harbored concerns that Trump wasn’t as enthusiastic about running as he was letting on in public appearances now say his inactivity has increased their worry. Apart from a planned fundraising appearance for a classical education group in Naples last weekend, the former president has yet to announce any events before the end of the year. A person familiar with the matter said Trump’s team is toying with a pre-Christmas event of some kind, though his campaign has not yet finalized any travel. In a statement last week panning a move by Democratic officials to put South Carolina first on the party’s primary calendar, Trump appeared to tease a visit to Iowa, currently the first state to cast votes in both parties’ presidential nominating contests, “in the very near future.”

“I can’t wait to be back in Iowa,” he said.

Campaign is ‘taking a breather’

Inside Trump’s campaign, sources said his current approach is entirely intentional, dismissing concerns that he has forfeited the spotlight at a critical time but acknowledging that Trump is currently working with a bare-bones staff.

The campaign “is doing exactly what everyone always accuses [them] of not doing – taking a breather, planning and forming a strategy for the next two years,” said one source familiar with Trump’s operation said.

Senior staff are holed up working on a plan,” this person added, noting that Trump’s campaign travel is expected to begin early in the new year, right as possible rivals who have taken the holidays to mull their own political futures may start launching their own campaigns or exploratory committees.

And while some Trump allies have been surprised by his lack of a hiring spree right out of the gate, his campaign has been content to maintain a lean operation while he’s the only candidate in the field. The former president is not expected to tap a formal campaign manager, instead elevating three trusted advisers – Susie Wiles, Brian Jack and Chris LaCivita – to senior roles, but allies said he will likely need to build out his on-the-ground staff in early voting states in the months to come, as well as a robust communications operation if he finds himself in a competitive primary.

While those hires don’t need to happen immediately, people close to Trump said his early entry into the 2024 race does raise questions about how he will sustain campaign-related costs over a longer period than other candidates who declare later, including chief potential rival Ron DeSantis. CNN has previously reported that the Florida governor, should he decide to take on Trump, would announce next May or June, after the conclusion of his state’s legislative session and just months before the Republican party could host its first primary debate, according to a party official involved in debate planning.

“The question a lot of us have is can Trump sustain a campaign for two years. That’s the real difficulty here. The pacing we’re seeing right now is designed to do that,” said a person close to Trump.

In addition to planning rallies and events and building momentum around the former President, the campaign staff is also looking at how to best insulate Trump after many were caught off guard learning of Trump’s dinner with Fuentes and West. The event, and the days of fallout and negative coverage, has expedited some of the campaign’s long-term plans, including ensuring a senior campaign staffer is always with the former president, a source familiar with the campaign said.

Trump’s White House staff worked with resort staff during his presidency in a similar fashion to protect Trump from potentially “unsavory” guests of members, the source said. Those close to Trump blamed “low level staffers” for allowing Fuentes to slip into the resort without any flags being raised.

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