Qatar’s World Cup: sportwashing stains football’s image

Editorial – The Guardian

The tournament may highlight the Gulf state’s money and power – but it has also further exposed its human rights abuses

If sportswashing was once a novel concept, it now appears standard for major international events. But the World Cup, which kicks off next Sunday, so far seems to have done more to stain the image of football than improve Qatar’s. Diehard fans as well as human rights campaigners have complained that this looks more like a grubby hymn to money and power than a joyous celebration of the game – even if the drama and tension of the tournament will end up overwhelming many people’s qualms.

The shock decision to award Qatar the contest was controversial even in 2010. But with revelations over the treatment of migrant workers and the spotlighting of its anti-gay laws, concern has steadily mounted. Last week, a Qatar World Cup ambassador described homosexuality as “damage in the mind” and Sepp Blatter, the former head of Fifa, said Qatar was a bad choice as host (though only because it was “too small a country”).

Defenders of the decision say that high-profile events can be leverage for improvements in human rights. In Qatar’s case, there has been modest progress, including a (very low) minimum wage. But time is running out to effect further change, and there is scepticism about whether even small gains will endure. The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi and 2018 World Cup did not bring rights improvements in Russia. The years between the 2008 summer Games and this year’s Winter Olympics saw increasing repression in China.

Part of the problem is that wealthy but repressive states seem to feel they have the most to gain from hosting such events. It is no secret that Saudi Arabia, which will host the 2029 Asian Winter Games in the heart of the desert, is determined to win an Olympics. Regimes seeking kudos have gained the assistance of sports stars – from David Beckham to Pep Guardiola – and international institutions who employ high-flown rhetoric about athletic excellence and global friendship while trousering large sums. Allegations of corruption have long dogged the International Olympic Committee. Sixteen of the 22 voting members of the Fifa executive committee that handed the World Cup to Qatar have since been implicated in or investigated over alleged corruption or bad practice (though not all of them in relation to that decision).

Attempts to deflect criticism only make it look worse. Fifa has told national teams that its job is not “handing out moral lessons” and that the game should not be “dragged into every ideological or political battle”. That rightly got short shrift. Ten European football associations – including those of England and Wales – replied that “human rights are universal and apply everywhere”. They have also urged Fifa to deliver on two as-yet unmet promises: a compensation fund and centre for migrant workers. Several national captains will wear rainbow armbands to support the OneLove anti-discrimination campaign.

But the challenge posed by sportswashing won’t truly be addressed unless international governing bodies undergo fundamental changes. Though they show little sign of taking that on board, this World Cup suggests that at last some national associations may be starting to think differently. At least some players and officials are realising that football must up its game.