The 2022 Qatar World Cup is now well under way but the controversies surrounding the event don’t seem to be dying down in the media despite the best efforts from FIFA and the Qatari regime to “focus on the football”. In fact, this has arguably become one of the most politically charged major world sporting events of recent years, with engagement coming not just from fans but also from competing athletes and sports officials. FIFA have been particularly under pressure in the run-up to the tournament, with President Gianni Infantino delivering a bizarre monologue comparing his own childhood bullying experience to the suffering endured by migrant workers at the hands of the Qatari regime, which has since blossomed into a trending meme template on social media. Part of the reason politics continues to linger is that there doesn’t seem to be a dominant consensus yet, which has resulted in some quite interesting discourse about the role of sports in international politics.
On the one hand, this issue might seem fairly straightforward because it only takes a quick overview of Qatar’s human rights record and international activity to question whether they ought to be hosting such a major world event. Freedom of expression is limited, with public opposition towards the government regularly resulting in arbitrary detainment and sentences based on unfair trials. Doha has also been described by US officials as the biggest source of private donations to terrorism in Syria and Iraq, with huge sums of money being funnelled into Hamas, Al-Qaeda and ISIS. Qatar’s Kafala system has been widely described as modern-day slavery, with 94% of its workforce being from vulnerable foreign backgrounds, subject to dangerous working conditions and unable to leave the country without permission from their employer. If that wasn’t enough, homosexuality is strictly illegal and can result in up to 10 years imprisonment or potentially death for Muslims under Sharia Law. Shocking testimonial evidence has now revealed that Qatari police actively hunt gay men by luring them into hotel rooms and, in some cases, gang raping them. Altogether, the impression we get of Qatar is probably not one we would wish to celebrate on an international platform, so the Western backlash seems entirely justified.
Despite vehement denial from fans, football has always been inherently political and there is a long history of it being weaponised by equally oppressive regimes. The World Cup has been hosted in fascist Italy in 1934, Argentina in 1978 under a military dictatorship and most recently Russia in 2018 even after the annexing of Crimea. Outside of FIFA, Real Madrid’s historic success was largely due to the influence of Franco, another fascist dictator, and the club continues to receive charitable status from the Spanish government. More recently, Newcastle United was purchased by the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, who will no doubt adopt the same strategy of avoiding financial fair play as Manchester City’s owners. Looking towards sports as a whole, the recent Usyk Joshua rematch was hosted in Saudi Arabia, which has arguably an even worse record than Qatar, and the 2022 Winter Olympics took place in China, who have up to 1.2 million Uyghur Muslims detained in concentration camps. It’s clear then that sportswashing is not a new phenomenon and yet the debate seems to have shifted slightly with this World Cup.
Critics of the boycott movement have been quick to point out the Western hypocrisy towards Middle Eastern countries, when their own records are nothing to be proud of. Speaking to Emily Maitlis on the News Agents podcast, Piers Morgan pointed out that one in four countries in World Cup finals outlawed homosexuality and questioned whether Britain could be considered “morally clean enough” to host, given its involvement in the illegal invasion of Iraq. This argument becomes all the more poignant when considering that America will be hosting the event in 2026 and has faced heavy criticism for its stance on abortion, use of torture and the death penalty. The question that human rights activists need to provide a definitive answer to, therefore, is what the minimum standard ought to be for a country to host an event like the World Cup. Some have tried to shift the conversation away from moral condemnation and towards practical improvements, arguing that, as a bare minimum, host nations must be able to ensure the safety of all visiting fans. As a queer man, I can confidently confirm that Qatar does not meet these requirements but, having gone out to watch England play Iran wearing a pride flag and ended up becoming a victim of hate crime, I’m not sure the UK does either. Probably the strongest argument put forward against Qatar 2022 is that it has directly contributed towards modern slavery as the driving force behind their infrastructure investment. No amount of whataboutery can overcome the damning reality that 6500 migrant workers died building the stadiums we are seeing on TV, which makes this World Cup truly unique.
However, even if we can overcome the aforementioned challenges to the Western perspective, this does not guarantee that a boycott is the right course of action. Aaron Bastani, cofounder of the alternative left-wing Novara Media platform, was quick to point out that refusing to watch a football match on TV is not a form of political action and that visiting the country, speaking to workers and Qataris is arguably a less passive form of engagement. Fundamentally, it should not be the responsibility of fans and competing athletes to apply social pressure when the governing authorities, be it sporting or otherwise, hold the power in choosing whether or not to participate. That being said, the distinct lack of Western fans at the tournament has revealed just how little Qatar are expected to gain in the way of tourism and foreign approval, with the hosts having to resort to paying fans to fill empty seats. What very few sources are talking about is how embarrassing this has been for Qatar, who seem to have been completely unprepared in dealing with the level of media exposure they have now opened themselves up to. Days before the first match, Qatari security threatened to break a Danish TV crew’s camera during a live broadcast and rumours began to circulate that eight Ecuadorian players had been bribed $7.4 million to throw the opening match against the hosts. Videos of fans singing “we want beer” also went viral, turning Twitter into a meme goldmine.
This might all seem insignificant but, from the Qatari perspective, it’s a significant blow because they have been trying to buy their way into the world of football for over a decade, in an attempt to achieve soft power goals in the international community. Qatari sports policy extends far beyond major sporting events like the World Cup and includes the acquisition of high-profile clubs like Paris Saint Germain, the building of a world-class airline, which sponsors other major teams like Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Roma as well as the positioning of itself as a leader in sports medicine. What has actually been exposed here isn’t Qatar’s appalling human rights record, which everyone was already aware of, but rather their inability to integrate with football culture, despite colossal financial efforts. Bearing in mind the disruption to domestic football caused by the tournament being hosted in the winter, it could be argued that the real reason FIFA has received so much backlash is not due to a greater interest in LGBTQ+ rights but simply because, from a football fan’s perspective, this will be one of the worst World Cups in history.
Overall, it’s difficult to know whether any progress has been made in discourse about the role of sport within international politics. On the one hand, with competing teams like Germany making bold protest gestures, FIFA is under more scrutiny than ever before and might be forced to respond to pressure from human rights activists. On the other hand, if the recent comments from Infantino about North Korea being a potential future host are to be taken as anything more than a tantrum, then strict authoritarian regimes might become the new norm at the World Cup. Like it or not, fans need to accept that sportswashing is a real thing and decide what their stance is on football being used to legitimise oppressive regimes within the international community. Increased investment is, of course, a good thing for the sport but if this interest is coming only from Russian Oligarchs and Middle eastern sovereign wealth funds then the beautiful game is in danger of becoming nothing more than a play toy for some of the world’s most unsavoury people.