This Thursday, June 12, the world’s largest moot court is scheduled to begin in Brazil. Advocates from 32 nations will plead their claims of battery, contempt, and perjury to international panels of sweaty jurists in knee socks. Between these impassioned appeals, some of the litigants may kick a ball around. But while we can never be too sure about the quality of soccer at the World Cup, the rulings by referees on penalties and red cards are sure to provide high drama.
Over the next four weeks and 64 matches, I look forward to using the World Cup as a lens to examine the internal jurisprudence of soccer as well as the external legal baggage surrounding the phenomenon of global football. Internally, soccer has inspired academics to consider topics such as the efficacy of crossing the ball and how best to miss penalties. In my own work, I’ve wondered whether the limited set of referees’ rewards and punishments exacerbates incentives for the melodramatic deception so prevalent in World Cup play. Externally, soccer generates a reliable and entertaining array of cultural and legal clashes over topics such as free speech, criminal justice, and the political economy of governing institutions. With billions of dollars and eyeballs focused upon Brazil for the next month, the tournament should provide a captivating performance of humanity at its athletic best and litigious worst.
Even before the play begins, the World Cup is attracting legal problems like cachaça draws English hooligans. FIFA is struggling to gloss over local demonstrations against heavy spending and heavy-handed policing, but it’s awfully difficult to ignore the spectacle of Brazilians — Brazilians! — protesting the world’s largest celebration of their jogo bonito. FIFA also faces allegations of corruption in fixing matches and in its award of the 2022 tournament to Qatar — though who could suspect chicanery in the choice of a desert, at summertime, in a petro-state with barely enough citizens to fill a stadium? Early rumors suggest FIFA may fix things by holding a revote — or, as it’s known in the bribery game, double-dipping.
My favorite legal case to arise out of this World Cup so far comes from France. When the national manager, Didier Deschamps, snubbed Manchester City star Samir Nasri in his selection of players to represent La République, Nasri’s English girlfriend took earthy exception. She tweeted accusative expletives as pungent as a ripe Reblochon about France and Deschamps. Deschamps and the French Football Federation then promptly sued her under a quaint cause of action proscribing “public insult.” Perhaps she can win a dismissal by impleading Twitter under her new right to be forgotten. My fellow Europeans always impress with their boundless faith in the ability to litigate their way to utopia.
As for the actual kicking of soccer balls, early headlines are focusing upon the absence of leading kickers. So far, injuries have disqualified many, including Marco Reus from Germany, Radamel Falcao from Colombia, and Franck Ribery from France (mais, désolé, still no slot for Nasri). Cristiano Ronaldo from Portugal and Luis Suarez from Uruguay are racing to recover their health in time for kick-off. Also missing are galácticos from countries that failed to qualify: Gareth Bale from Wales and Zlatan Ibrahimovic from Sweden, to name some of the most expensive. The Swede handled the failure with the graciousness of a Viking, declaring that a World Cup without him “was nothing to watch.”
Much of the caviling about FIFA and these absences may be due to a massive press corps assembled for a spectacle that has yet to begin. My prediction is that once the games kick off, the high-stakes competition and reliable jingoism will conspire to provide lots of compelling football. And plenty more cries for la justice.