Rugby League Week #17: The rights and wrongs of global expansion

I don’t know about you but the arrests and investigations into institutionalised corruption at FIFA almost make me glad that rugby league has remained the relatively small sport it is.

I say ‘almost’ because who among us does not think that this game of ours deserves wider recognition. At whatever level it is played, rugby league demands honesty of intent and is seldom less than engrossing.

Its professional athletes are among the finest in the world and would certainly earn any extra financial recompense and fame that came their way.

And yet as the moral car crash that is world football shows only too well, it is perfectly possible to get too big for your luxurious 6.2 litre Mercedes.

It is particularly telling, I think, that before those FBI swoops on a hotel in Zurich on Wednesday, and the announcement of further investigations into the bidding for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups that followed, not a single nation or global brand had threatened not to participate in Russia and Qatar respectively.

The reason for that is clear enough. Huge lumps of it now hiding in dodgy bank accounts or already spent on the back of “…racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering conspiracies.” Football is now so obscenely bloated a beast that out-and-out criminals long ago slipped into the vacuum left by a more general abdication of basic morality.

A process that begins with rolling around on the floor feigning injury, diving for penalties, appealing for throw-ins that you know perfectly well aren’t yours and screaming in the face of referees – all of it considered normal or at least understandable behaviour by supporters for whom a favourable result is the be all and end all, goaded on by a global media invested to a preposterous financial level itself – leads not only to massive global fraud but the deaths, yes, deaths of a reported 1,200 stadium builders at the last count.

Every one of them a father, son, brother or grandad to someone.

And that’s without mentioning the mind-boggling sums of government cash siphoned off to corrupt officials that could, instead, have been used to alleviate poverty, build hospitals, schools … as in Brazil 2014 for example.

Yet still no one in football cared enough to say “…now hold on a moment. This is not only wrong, it is reprehensible.” For how could they? After all, there are television deals to consider and other broadcasting rights. Newspapers and England flags to sell. Beer garden profits to be made and, what the heck, I’ll have a cut-out-and-keep World Cup wall-chart to fill in myself, won’t I?

It’s Sepp Blatter wot done it. Nowt to do wi’ me. I’m only watching it.

Well, thankfully, those big daft Americans from whom we enjoy extracting the piss for their endearing ignorance of ‘soccer ball’ have proved savvy enough to do the rest of the football-playing world’s dirty work for it. How proud the English Football Association and other similarly noble organisations must feel.

Yet small as rugby league currently is, all is not exactly sweetness and light within our own administrative orbit either.

You may have missed the story of Sol Mokdad or in any case not really given it much thought, what with the fortunes of your club to worry about, or seeing it as a little local difficulty elsewhere, hardly worth fussing yourself over. You know, a bit like rugby league’s very own version of the Oxford-Cambridge boat race, State of Origin, but with a little less biff.

Well, if so, perhaps you should catch up. Although you wouldn’t guess it from the scant or non-existent coverage afforded the tale in the UK, it was an outrage worthy of headline news, if not quite on the level of FIFA.

A quick Google search will complete the facts and timeline, most often to be found in middle-eastern online newspapers or via our justifiably outraged pal and contributor Steve Mascord in the Sydney Morning Herald and elsewhere.

The upshot being that after reading a grovelling apology written on high and thanks to the ‘mercy’ of the local union authorities, rugby league pioneer Sol was recently allowed to leave the United Arab Emirates without further delay.

Good. But that a man should be imprisoned for not far off a fortnight on the charge of simply staging a fledgling sporting competition without permission was an absolute disgrace.

Yes, I understand the ‘when in Rome’ arguments. Mokdad and the Rugby League International (or European) Federation should have seen this coming, gone through the ‘proper’ channels etc… blah, blah and indeed blah. After all, nudge nudge, we know what these Arab nations are like, don’t we?

And perhaps that critique is valid from a strictly pragmatic point of view. If we can ignore how such cultural relativism is cringe-worthy, patronising and contemptible when diverting attention from a basic violation of human rights.

The truth is, Sol Mokdad has built the 13-a-side code in the UAE slowly, and more latterly not quite so slowly, since 2007. It was only when he began to make serious in-roads that the UAE rugby – oh f*** ‘em, UNION – federation took umbrage. Bidding for the 2021 RL World Cup? Who do they think they are?

And it was only then that visa issues, a ‘fake presidency’ and the struggle over just who can and cannot control egg chasing emerged. Quite a coincidence.

Oh and just in case you’ve lost track of the main point here – given the tide of obfuscation, trolling and muddying brain dead whataboutery that is a reliable feature of such matters – a man was held in a cell for just short of a fortnight for staging games of rugby league.

While we might indeed hope that practical lessons have been taken on board by both the RLIF and RLEF, the most immediate questions raised ought to be about where rugby league in the UAE goes from here.

Once Mokdad’s plight became known, there can be few if any complaints about how the RLIF handled it. Quite rightly, the primary focus was on not only securing his release but also his physical and mental wellbeing, with UK rugby league journalists informally briefed to that effect. The last thing this particular prisoner (a word that still boggles the mind in such circumstances) needed was the mother of all heel-digging shit storms making his situation worse.

Similarly, when freedom was secured, Sol reportedly watching State of Origin from a bar in Beirut just after the ‘Swiss Seven’ felt a tap on its collective shoulder, it was encouraging to note that the RLIF, through its new full-time chief executive David Collier, was already going through the ‘official’ channels.

In doing so they face a – for some reason – tricky task of persuading the country’s General Authority of Youth and Sports Welfare – aka GAYSW (good job they’re not in Russia) – that rugby league is actually a different sport entirely from union, with well over a century of history behind it in countries as diverse as Australia, France, South Africa, Lebanon and Papua New Guinea.

But let’s suppose such an acknowledgement of reality is indeed reached. Who afterwards will actually organise domestic and international rugby league in the UAE, given that Sol Mokdad is no longer there as fall guy?

Will it be the UAERF (United Arab Emirates Rugby Federation); given that they seem already to have volunteered for the role and indeed appointed some poor sap of their own to do just that? How charitable. Maybe some other pioneer of whom, for the moment, only the RLIF is aware? Entirely possible.

Or are these talks really about keeping the UAE authorities temporarily sweet with a World Cup Qualifier between South Africa and Lebanon, currently planned for Friday 30 October in Dubai, to consider?

In which case, is it right that rugby league continues to do any business at all with a country that has shown time and again – not only in the case of Sol Mokdad – to have little respect at all for human rights?

We are talking after all about a place that Middle East Monitor writer Alastair Sloan, when writing about the possibility of the 2021 World Cup going to UAE, said has a horrid reputation for such abuses “…similar to that of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain…” but which is usually more successful in covering it up.

“Away from the glitz and glamour of Abu Dhabi and Dubai,” Sloan writes, “the lesser known and poorer Emirates are festering with dissent. A vicious crackdown on those who speak out against the regime is ramping up.

“The secret police have started to target women for the first time … show trials and torture are very much part of the playbook. Those reformists who can are fleeing, many to London. And like any major construction work in the Middle East, building new stadiums for the [RL] World Cup will inevitably lead to the debt servitude, virtual slavery or even death of South Asian migrant workers.”

If the RLIF wants my no doubt naïve advice, it should state, politely but firmly, that rugby league no longer gives a damn whether the UAE, UAERF, GAYSW or SWALK recognise our sport’s independence. And it can add that the UAE should get back to us when it decides to join the 21st century.

Given the paucity of serious campaigning rugby league journalism in the northern hemisphere and a widespread lack of engagement with such issues from its rank and file followers as a result, I expect few would notice either way.

But just this once, you know, it would be nice to more than just kid ourselves that a sport with such a proud record in areas like democracy and social equality remains as committed as ever to doing the right thing.

Or is the truth that, like the fans and governing bodies of just about every global sport, we are actually only in it for the cheap thrills and filthy lucre?


Tone’s Tips: Victories for Widnes, Hull KR, Leeds, Catalans, Saints and Castleford. After hugely successful Magic Weekend, Manchester Evening News reports Marwan Koukash bid to sign Ant and Dec.

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