As the hype of World Cup 2022 simmers down and people get ready to jump back into the club season, Kevin Creagh looks at the impact of sportswashing, its implications for this tournament, and what it means for wider society.
On Sunday evening, December 18th, the 2022 Qatar World Cup came to an end after an exhilarating final which saw a Lionel Messi inspired Argentina beat reigning champions France on penalties to win the trophy for the first time since 1986. Pundits and fans alike were quick to proclaim this as the best and most exciting final ever witnessed. In fact, many people had already claimed the whole tournament to be the best ever. Gianni Infantino, FIFA’s current President, stated as much during the early stages of the competition. But to many, this was seen as a way to distract from the many criticisms of the tournament as a whole. This article will largely focus on just one aspect of the barrage of criticism aimed at Qatar: The charge of ‘sportswashing’.
A Tournament Under Cloud
In footballing terms, this tournament may well go down as the best in history, and with good reason too, as many big hitters underachieved, and numerous underdogs prevailed. But successive controversies and numerous scandals that preceded this World Cup leave a dark cloud.
Since the announcement by FIFA in 2010 that Qatar would host the World Cup, several questions have been raised about the legitimacy of Qatar’s bid. Their awful track record on human rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights and workers’ rights had all been highlighted in the years before the tournament. None of these issues went away and many popped up immediately before and during the tournament. Kiran Emrich wrote about many of these issues for Rebel a few weeks ago.
One footballing related issue that had been highlighted too, was the fact that Qatar had no real footballing or sporting infrastructure to speak of, besides the Aspire Academy, set up in 2004. The purpose of the academy is to help scout and develop Qatari athletes, according to their official website. The academy is Qatar’s way to recruit the best young players from impoverished countries with little to no footballing culture in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Qatar always claimed this was a humanitarian project but they had been slammed by FIFA for bending the rules and FIFA were forced to change their policies around representing countries. Through Qatar’s lenient naturalisation process, these recruits can go on to represent Qatar at international level. To that end, the Aspire Academy has been a huge success so far as 10 of their Asia Cup winning squad of 2019 and 18 of their 26 man World Cup squad graduated through this academy.
Other than the Aspire Academy, Qatar had very little footballing infrastructure before they were granted their world cup bid. As a result stadiums, metro lines, motorways, hotels and whole towns had to be built from scratch. The estimated financial cost of building this infrastructure is said to be around $200bn. The human cost was incredibly high too.
So why did the tiny, yet incredibly wealthy gas rich Gulf state want to host the biggest sporting event in the world?
Qatar’s Power Play
To begin to understand the ‘why’, we must look at Qatar’s role in the world. They are one of the world’s largest exporters of liquid natural gas, with control of one of the world’s largest gas reserves. In terms of international trade Qatar has been a major player for some time. The Qatari state has also tried hard to position itself as a major force on the global stage in a number of other ways too.
In 1996 the Qatari Ministry of Information was abolished by the Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad, and paved the way for the Al Jazeera news channel to come into existence. The setting up of Al Jazeera went hand in hand with apparent reforms in Qatar as an advisory committee to the Emir was elected and women were allowed to vote. This enabled Qatar to be looked upon more favourably in the eyes of the rest of the world. Their geographic position in the Gulf and their ties to the United States, who had moved into military bases built by Qatar in the late 90’s, copper fastened their protection in the region.
In terms of international diplomacy, the country has become known as a successful international mediator in geopolitical conflicts in the Middle East and parts of Africa. This has led to Qatar being hailed on the international stage for its mediation work. However, they are not a neutral party in the Middle East and they import tanks and arms from the US and from France.
Beautiful Game, Big Opportunities
Through the Aspire Academy, Qatar had already seen some of the benefits of international exposure through football. When their neighbours in the UAE, particularly in Abu Dhabi, began to dip their toes in different sports and gain huge exposure through it, it became clear that new possibilities were opening up. Abu Dhabi began sponsoring big football clubs in Europe through the UAE’s state owned airline Fly Emirates.
Fly Emirates has adorned the shirts of some of the biggest clubs in Europe. While not the first to use sportswashing as an inroad into new international markets, the Abu Dhabi takeover of Manchester City has opened up new opportunities for Gulf states in recent years, none more so than Qatar.
Sportswashing, as we roll into 2023, is more prevalent than it has ever been with oligarchs, sheikhs and extremely wealthy venture capitalists owning some of the biggest football clubs in the world.
The term sportswashing is used to describe corrupt or authoritarian regimes who use sport and sporting events to whitewash their image internationally. The 1936 Munich Olympics in Nazi Germany and the 1978 World Cup held during military dictatorship in Argentina are just two historical examples of sportswashing. The Dubai World Cup for horse racing, Saudi Arabia’s Liv Golf tour and the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia are more recent examples.
Sportswashing not only whitewashes a country’s reputation. It can also be hugely financially beneficial. Countries who use sportswashing as a political tool tend to invest in property and businesses and even manage to get state contracts.
In France, for example, Qatar Investment Authority (QIA), which is Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund, owns a 2% stake in French media company Vivendi. Their subsidiary Qatari Sports Investments (QSI) own Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), the Parisian football club known for breaking world record fees on footballing superstars like Kyliam Mbappe and Neymar Jr. PSG are sponsored by Qatar’s national airline Qatar Airways and have regular “Visit Qatar”’ advertisements in their home ground of Parc de Princes. QSI also recently bought a 21% stake in Portuguese club SC Braga.
BeIN Sport, a subsidiary of BeIN Media Group, the Qatari state owned global sports and entertainment brand, who also own Al Jazeera, have exclusive rights to show the French football league, League 1.
With sportswashing, there is a desire to increase influence and gain in both political and financial capital, as well as a desire for a cleaner reputation. Qatar doesn’t only have business interests in France. In London, the Qatari Royal Family own an estimated £10bn worth of property and up to £40bn in business interests including in Barclays Bank, Saintsburys, British Airways and Heathrow. The UK’s tallest building, the Shard, was built with the help of a £2bn Qatari investment.
A Guardian article from November 5th 2022 states that ‘The state of Qatar alone, not counting individual royals’ personal holdings, is the 10th largest landowner in the UK, according to analysts at MSCI Real Assets. The emirate owns nearly 2.1m sq metres (23m sq feet) of property in Britain, more than 1.5 times the area of London’s Hyde Park.’
A BBC article from October 5th 2021 is even more damning, stating that the ruling family in Qatar were mentioned in the Pandora Papers for avoiding tax on two properties in London:
‘The new leaked documents reveal properties were purchased via shell companies based in offshore tax havens and, by doing so, the ruling family avoided an estimated £18.5m Stamp Duty Land Tax when the leaseholds changed hands.’
The documents show the ruling family registered a new offshore company called Golden Satellite to purchase 1 Cornwall Terrace, rather than in the name of a member of the family. As the property was already owned by a shell company, the family purchased the shares of this company and acquired the property as if it was an asset.
The Crown Estate last sold the leasehold for 1 Cornwall Terrace in 2005 for £21m. The house was subsequently sold on through an offshore company for £84m. This meant that unlike a normal house sale, neither HMRC nor the Crown Estate received any revenue or even notification of the sale.
So with business interests in France and Britain and with international ties to the United States, Qatar has bought itself a seat at the big table. It is clear that Qatar wants to be an influential international player. The World Cup was part of that overall plan. What better way to make yourself look strong and brilliant in the eyes of the world than hosting the FIFA World Cup? It is designed to legitimise the ruling family’s reign.
The brilliant Netflix 4 part documentary ‘FIFA Uncovered’ tells the story of the overall corruption in FIFA. FIFA, football’s governing body, is the perfect example of a political institution intertwined within the capitalist system. FIFA’s decades of political corruption is the epitome of the ugliest face of capitalism at its most bare. Bribery, backroom deals, political corruption, sportswashing and close ties to different governments are all instances where FIFA’s malign political influence can be seen, despite them constantly telling us that football and politics must be separate.
We often hear from políticos, football pundits, media and football officials that football and politics don’t mix. This is complete nonsense. Football is inherently political. The very nature of the FIFA World Cup is political. Nation states playing against nation states on a world stage. The choosing of the host nation is political too. Again, bribery and backroom deals undoubtedly play a part in this.
A Reuters article, mentioning the corruption allegations by Qatari officials to FIFA executives states- ‘The organisers of the 2022 World Cup have strongly denied allegations from the U.S. Department of Justice that bribes were paid to secure votes when the hosting rights for the tournament were awarded 12 years ago.
‘Suspicion and rumours have long surrounded both the 2010 vote by FIFA’s executive to hand the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 tournament to Qatar and prosecutors set direct, formal allegations regarding both tournaments down in an indictment in 2020.’
This alleged corruption is also covered in detail on FIFA Uncovered.
These allegations, despite Qatari royal family members and officials’ protestations of innocence, never went away. Since Qatar won the vote to host the 2022 World Cup, FIFA themselves have come under criminal investigation and numerous executive committee members, that’s is, those made of of Presidents and higher ups in all of the 6 confederations, have been charged with embezzlement, bribery and corruption, some of which was linked to the Qatar vote.
Double Edged Sword
It is clear that football and sportswashing has been just one part of an overall long-term plan for Qatar to become a major world player. They’re still not there yet but they’ve chosen to try get there through geopolitical power moves, financial influence and the sacrifice of workers who built the 2022 World Cup In Qatar.
But there is a flipside to all of this. In hosting the World Cup, the Qatari state drew more attention to itself and to the human rights abuses that have occurred and continue to occur there. A wider conversation has also opened up with regard to the other Gulf states who have sought to buy up football clubs across Europe.
In addition to this, the hosting of the tournament in an Arab country meant that there was considerable support for Palestine from ordinary people there. Apartheid Israel was put under the spotlight and the Palestinian flag was on display on a regular basis, most notably by the Moroccan team who advanced as far as the semi-finals. This in turn drew attention to the Moroccan state’s occupation of Western Sahara.
As we saw with the attempt to create a European Super League last year, it isn’t always plain sailing for those who want to profiteer from the game or sportswash their image. Ordinary people who love the game can and will push back. More power to them in the new year.