Qatar’s decision to launch itself as host of the 2022 World Cup was a headache from the start. Why, some wondered, would a Middle Eastern kingdom with less than 3 million inhabitants and little football tradition want to host the sport’s biggest event?
Skeptics say the country wanted to use the prestige of the World Cup, which starts on Sunday, to restore its image as an oil producer with few international connections and a shaky human rights record.
They viewed the move, which will cost the country some $220 billion, as a classic case of “sportswashing”: using sport as a forum to make a country or company different from what many people think.
It’s hardly a new concept, and Middle Eastern oil money has long been a major player. While many see wealthy countries spending money to join the global elite, others see nefarious attempts to hide unwanted reputations.
“The World Cup in Qatar has started the discussion about sports washing and human rights in football and it has been a very steep learning curve for all of us,” said Lise Klaveness, president of the Norwegian Football Association, at a recent Council of Europe event. .
Germany’s interior minister also expressed concern about bringing the event to Qatar, saying that “no World Cup takes place in a vacuum”.
“There are criteria to be adhered to, and then it is better not to grant to such states,” said Secretary of State Nancy Faeser last month in an effort that sparked diplomatic tension.
Qatar’s leader, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, has fought back, saying the country is “subject to an unprecedented campaign that no host nation has ever faced”.
The World Cup is just one way Qatar is using its vast wealth to exert influence. By buying sports teams, hosting high-profile events and investing billions in European capitals – such as buying London’s skyscraper The Shard – Qatar has integrated itself into the international financial world and a support network.
Paris-Saint Germain (PSG) of Ligue 1 is owned by the Emir of Qatar. His purchase in 2011 came a year after Qatar won the right to host the World Cup. To many, it felt like the script was written to show that the country is football bona fide. Some of PSG’s players are among the most famous in the world – Neymar, Kylian Mbappé and Lionel Messi – and they will all take part in the World Cup.
America’s very own Christian Pulisic is in Premier League team Chelsea, which was owned by a Russian oligarch, Roman Abramovich.
Abramovich was widely hailed as that team’s savior during his 19 years of club control, but put the team up for sale this year over sanctions related to his country’s invasion of Ukraine.
The new LIV Golf competition is funded by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, which also owns another Premier League team, Newcastle, while defending English champions Manchester City are owned by Abu Dhabi.
Some of the best players from those teams, including Kevin de Bruyne, Kieran Trippier and Bruno Guimarães, will play for Belgium and England and Brazil at the World Cup.
None of these players, or owners, received the same kind of public condemnation as those in golf who left the PGA Tour to play for LIV. Just as was the case when the football teams were purchased, there has never been any mystery as to who funded LIV, which has brazenly branded itself as a disruptive force in golf that will change the sport for the better.
According to the CIA, journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in 2018 on the orders of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. The involvement of the Saudi Public Investment Fund became more of a lightning rod when Phil Mickelson spoke out loud what many were already feeling.
“They’re scary (expletive),” the six-time major champ said in a much-cited interview with golf writer Alan Shipnuck of the FirePit Collective.
Families of 9/11 victims became vocal critics of LIV wave, pointing to Saudi Arabia’s shaky human rights record and the country’s connection to the attacks.
“Despite (he) being truthful, it’s not good for Mickelson’s image,” said Jamal Blades, a football-loving manager of a London technology company who occasionally blogs about sports and recently completed his master’s degree in sports business and innovation. “But sportswashing is happening all over the world in one form or another, with people, or governments, or corporations everywhere bonding over events big and small.”
A high-profile advertiser, the US Department of Defense, was looking for some positive publicity and a link to America’s favorite sport, but the deal inadvertently created a public relations problem when Colin Kaepernick got down on his knees during “The star-studded banner.”
“When (a company) wants to be the official sponsor of a team or league, they try to create affinity to improve (the company’s) reputation and make sports fans think of (that company) in a way other than as a commercialized producer of “whatever that company sells,” said Stephen Ross, the executive director of the Penn State Center for the Study of Sports in Society.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, seized the opportunity of this year’s Winter Olympics in Beijing to hold a summit and show solidarity. Later in those matches, IOC President Thomas Bach showed up with Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai to watch Eileen Gu, an American-born freestyle skier who competed for China, win her first gold medal. Peng’s public appearance came after her safety was in question for months after she took to social media to accuse a former top Chinese official of assault.
Heads turned when the Asian Winter Games announced they would hold the 2029 version of their event in Saudi Arabia, a desert country that is spending some $500 billion building a winter resort it says will be environmentally sustainable . The Saudis have long held golf, tennis and F1 events in their country, despite having little tradition in those sports.
“The Saudi case is almost the ultimate case of success for sports washing,” Ross said of the country leading the world in exporting $95.7 billion worth of crude oil. in 2020.
Qatar, which ranks 19th in oil exports and also shares the largest underwater natural gas field in the world with Iran, also wanted to end up in the act.
It hosted world gymnastics and track titles, both of which were preludes to the World Cup, estimated to cost the country $220 billion. The country may be counting on the reality that regardless of the issues a host faces leading up to it, most global sporting events are ultimately judged by the quality of the event itself.
The country recruited hundreds of fans for free travel to the World Cup in exchange for promoting positive content on social media about the event and the host.
As the World Cup approaches, allegations of human rights and corruption have become the main issues and will remain so until the championship trophy is awarded on December 18.
Whether that’s fair depends on who you ask.
LIV Golf frontman Greg Norman said on Fox News’ Tucker Carlson show this summer that Saudi Arabia’s state oil company, Aramco, sponsors events on the Ladies’ European Tour, but that tour receives little criticism.
“Not a word was said about them, was it?” Norman said. “But why is it – why is it on the boys? Why are we the ogres? What have we done wrong?”
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