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  • Dr. Gavin Weeks

Purposeful leadership at the world cup


What is the difference between ‘having purpose’ and ‘being purposeful’? I’ve been thinking and talking a lot about this recently and the current World Cup is a brilliant demonstration of the difference.

FIFA has ‘a purpose’ – it is written very clearly on their website. Within the statement, these words stand out:


The new FIFA is modernising football to be global, accessible and inclusive in all aspects. Not just on one or two continents, but everywhere.


There is an obvious disconnect between the clarity of that statement and the murkiness of FIFA’s actions and decisions. In particular, the very fact that the world cup is being played in Qatar, an openly hostile environment for LGBTQ+ fans. The physical infrastructure of the tournament is tainted with the deaths of migrant workers (estimated by some journalists to number in the thousands). These deaths are barely acknowledged by the leaders of either FIFA or the Qatari regime. Of course, this is not the first time that FIFA or indeed other global sports organisations have been criticised for their alignment with regimes whose values seem so at odds with their own words. The words in FIFA’s purpose statement ring hollow.

The corruption of the decision-making process is well publicised and leaves many of us feeling entirely cynical about the world cup. However, it is the leadership (or lack of) that is under the spotlight. FIFA President Gianni Infantino’s now-infamous attempt to align himself with minorities on the basis of having been mocked at school for his ginger hair is one small piece of evidence of an organisation that is unable even to state its position clearly.

Ehsan Hajsafi is the captain of Iran. In an interview prior to the beginning of the world cup, he said the following:


“We have to accept that the situation in our country is not good and that our people are not happy, they are discontent…we are here, but it does not mean we should not be their voice or that we should not respect them. Whatever we have is theirs.”


In calm, understated language, he aligned himself with the people in his country who are protesting, and dying at the hands of, an oppressive political regime. He had clearly thought about the potential power of his words, the way in which he could use his platform to amplify the message of his people. Despite his measured tone, in the context of a regime that does not tolerate criticism, Hajsafi was at far greater risk than the FIFA president. Clearly, he is a man who has thought about the things that matter most to him and the power that he has as a national hero. Unlike FIFA he may not have a neat ‘purpose statement’, His actions, however, are deeply purposeful.

Watching the Iranian team secure a win against Wales, and seeing their emotional reaction to the win, it was clear that the whole team are playing with a sense of purpose that extends far beyond winning and losing.

These are just two stories that will capture the imagination of sports fans for the next few weeks, some that make us feel cynical, others that leave us feeling hopeful. FIFA are floundering but I hope we pay attention to the stories of individuals and teams who are trying, amidst all of the complexity involved, to stand up for what matters most. They are connecting to causes that matter far more than who lifts the Jules Rimet trophy on 18th December.

For the record though, if England happen to be playing that match, nothing else will matter (for the following 90 minutes anyway).

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