The World Cup, Not Quite A Mirror Of Our World

The global soccer competition features teams from a fascinating mix of developed and developing nations. Not represented are the world's two leading economies: the U.S. and China.

Saudi Arabia players during official training before opening match of the World Cup 2018
Saudi Arabia players during official training before opening match of the World Cup 2018
Mariano Turzi*


BUENOS AIRES — Soccer fans and intellectuals don't always see eye-to-eye. Academics tend to look down at this plebeian passion. And spectators, once a 90-minute match unfolds, have little interest in how the participating countries stack up, for example, in gender-equality rankings.

Still, looking at World Cup competitions from an international relations perspective is always enriching. International sporting showdowns, weighed as they are by political symbolism and significance, can been read as little wars that have mobilized a part of the country's national (human) resources. Seen more positively, sports can provide a bridge of dialogue between countries that might otherwise have to process their confrontation on the battlefield.

Others have compared systems of government to determine which is better at sports: democracies or dictatorships. Researchers also like to examine a World Cup's impact on the domestic economy, infrastructures, private consumption and the host government's popularity.

Teams are reflections of multiculturalism and integration.

This year's Russia-hosted World Cup, in particular, provides a window on the new world (dis)order. At the systemic level, organizing the World Cup is in the hands of the game's "UN," namely the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA). In 2015, Swiss police arrested FIFA executives from Brazil, the Cayman Islands, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Uruguay, Venezuela and the United Kingdom because of legal action taken by the U.S. Treasury Department. This intersection and superimposition of (power) players generate risks inside states that are both recurring and accumulative.

At the international level, the World Cup reveals power shifts. Economically speaking, 20 emerging or developing countries are taking part alongside 12 advanced or developed countries. Only half the G-20 countries set to gather in Argentina later this year are participating. Europe remains predominant, with 14 European participants. But there are also teams from eight Latin American, five Asian and five African countries. In total, 17 countries from the North are competing against 15 from the South.

Interestingly enough, the World Cup will not include teams from the world's two largest economies: the United States and China. Condolences to Donald Trump and Xi Jinping. Pope Francis, for his part, will cheer for Argentina, since FIFA recognizes 211 soccer confederations but not the Federazione Vaticanese Giuoco Calcio.

Russian security surrounds the Saudi Arabia team practicing in Moscow before the 2018 World Cup — Photo: Rodolfo Buhrer/Fotoarena/ZUMA

With regards to demographics, the World Cup will gather teams from countries with populations ranging from 200 million (Brazil) to barely 300,000 (Iceland). The tournament also boasts diversity. At a time when divisions, local loyalties and xenophobia are growing worldwide, some teams are reflections of multiculturalism and integration. That is the trend in the world soccer market. In May 2018, there were 12,425 expatriates playing in 2,235 league teams and 93 national associations. Expatriates represent more than 21% of players worldwide, equivalent to 5.6 players per teams.

One of the fruits of globalization is globalized teams. Roughly 60% of Morocco"s players and 40% of Senegal's were born abroad. For Switzerland, France and Belgium, the numbers are 30%, 10% and 4% respectively. In many cases, the percentages of national team players working abroad are higher still. All of the players for the Croatian and Swedish national teams play elsewhere, while for Colombia, Uruguay and Argentina, it's 80%.

This year's World Cup in Russia is clearly, more than ever, a global — and thoroughly globalized — competition.

*The author is an international relations professor at the Universidad Di Tella in Buenos Aires.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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