Steven Blum

May 25th, 2023

The World Cup was the Last Straw; Sportswashing Must Stop

3 comments | 5 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Steven Blum

May 25th, 2023

The World Cup was the Last Straw; Sportswashing Must Stop

3 comments | 5 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

The 2022 FIFA World Cup kicked off last November to begin a month-long celebration of the beautiful game known as football. This World Cup was Qatar’s moment of  spotlight on the global stage, but to reach this moment, Qatar undertook a decade-long sportwashing campaign, the likes of which the world had yet to see before.

“Sportswashing refers to attempts on the parts of authoritarian regimes to improve their tarnished global reputations through sports” (Lenskyj, 2020, p.51). This phenomenon began with Hitler and the 1936 Nazi Olympics, and over the past two decades, sportswashing has become a serious diplomatic tactic for oppressive governments seeking to correct their human rights records. Premier League clubs have been taken over by Russian oligarchs and Middle-Eastern sovereign wealth funds, the Olympic Games have been awarded to China and Russia, and just last year Saudi Arabia launched the breakaway LIV Golf Tour. The human rights records of all these nations leaves much to be desired, and by appealing to “the glamor of the game”, these oppressive regimes can try and band-aid over their damaged reputations (Guardian, 2018).

Qatar was different. Qatar did not use sports to distract from the abuse of human rights. Qatar chose to abuse human rights to build the infrastructure that would allow sports to thrive, and hoped that nobody noticed along the way. When Qatar was awarded the World Cup in 2010, only one of the eight stadiums required to host the tournament existed (Whiteside, 2022), as Qatar knew they could construct the other seven stadiums through forced, migrant labor.

It was not just stadiums that needed construction. Human Rights Watch claims that during the 2010’s decade, there were, “more than 2 million migrants working in Qatar at any one time building stadiums, roads, and hotels” (Worden, 2022). The sweltering heat and strict labor practices of Kafala subjected migrant workers to inhumane working conditions across the country. The Kafala system is a practice used in many Gulf States to control the influx of migrant labor, yet this system requires workers to be sponsored by an employer to enter the country, binding workers movement, immigration status, and wages to their employer (Nguyen, 2021).

While global outrage forced Qatar into reforming some of the rules of Kafala, this does not correct the abuses upon human dignity which occurred to stage the World Cup. It has been reported that since the World Cup was awarded to Qatar, at least 6,500 migrant workers died in the construction of basic infrastructure necessary to host a tournament the magnitude of the World Cup (Pattison and McIntyre, 2021). In Qatar, this treatment is not just limited to migrant workers. Individuals who identify as LGBTQ have their rights repressed, as same-sex relationships are punishable by up to seven years in prison (Younes, 2022).

FIFA was aware of these laws when they awarded the World cup to Qatar, yet expressed no hesitations concerning their human rights record. FIFA even went so far to further their empty commitment to human rights by signing on to the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in 2016, requiring FIFA to “avoid infringing on the human rights of others” and take measures to prevent the abuse of human rights (Panja and Draper, 2020). Speaking just days before the upcoming World Cup, FIFA President Ganni Infantino claimed, “everything is ready and everyone is welcome”, and asserted that this World Cup would be the best one yet, on and off the field (FIFA 2022).

Qatar and FIFA insisted that everybody and everything would be welcome in Qatar. Fans would be able to drink alcohol in designated areas, LGBTQ+ persons visiting would be allowed to freely express themselves, and even some team captains like England’s Harry Kane planned to wear a rainbow captains armband as an act of protest (SkySports 2022). Yet, FIFA and Qatar walked back on their promises just days before the World Cup was set to kickoff; Beer was no longer sold in stadiums, LGBTQ+ fans were told be “be respectful” of Qatari culture, and England’s Harry Kane was threatened with a yellow card for every game he wore the rainbow armband.

FIFA is not a political organization, and should not make their decisions based on politics. However, what we saw transpire in Qatar is not about politics; it is about fundamental human rights, dignity, and basic respect for one another. While these issues may become political on a national level, for FIFA, this is the minimum standard which they should strive to uphold. As an organization, FIFA has explicitly said that, “FIFA is committed to respecting all internationally recognised human rights and shall strive to promote the protection of these rights” (FIFA). Yet to this date, the only substantive measure taken by FIFA towards “respecting all internationally recognised human rights” is their removal of the Russian National Team and all Russian clubs from FIFA sponsored events after the invasion of Ukraine (RFE, 2022).

The actions of Russia do require international condemnation, yet their removal by FIFA hurts only the players and coaches who have trained their whole lives to compete, and not Mr. Putin, the man who ordered the invasion. Russian footballers are not war-mongering individuals, but the officials overseeing the 2022 World Cup are human rights abusers. If FIFA truly cared about their commitment to “internationally recognized human rights”, then it would have stripped Qatar of their right to host the World Cup years ago, or better yet, chosen a different host country to begin with, and certainly not enlisted Russia to host four years prior.

Criticisms of the 2022 World Cup have been seen as a mere continuation of Eurocentric ideology and Islamophobia. FIFA President Infantino said that for the West, “this moral lesson-giving is just hypocrisy”, and it is certainly true that media coverage of the World Cup has been orientalists and out-right racists at times (Aladam, 2022). Western countries undeniably have imperfect human rights records themselves, and we should continue to call out injustices wherever we see them in the world of sport. Regardless of whether the World Cup is in Qatar or The States, FIFA should have an independent Human Rights Commission to ensure that human rights practices of a host country are in accordance with international norms and deserving of a global platform (HRW, 2022).

Sports are meant to be the platform where people, states, and nations can all come together around a common interest. Sports should also bring out the best in people and celebrate humanity. The beautiful game of football is this platform, and FIFA failed the world of football by allowing Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup. If FIFA and other international sporting bodies are truly interested in upholding their commitment to human rights, then oppressive regimes like Qatar cannot be allowed to host global spectacles like the World Cup. I am not calling on FIFA to act as any sort of political body, but to simply stay true to their promise of protecting and promoting human rights, and ensuring that humanity has a place in the world of football.

Works Cited

Aladam, M. (2022). “World Cup 2022: ‘Orientalist’ Depictions of Qatar Condemned Online”. Middle East Eye. 23 November.

FIFA. (2022). “FIFA and Qatar Ready for the Best FIFA World Cup in Just Over a Month’s Time”. FIFA. 17 October.

Human Rights Watch (2022). “FIFA: Pay for harm to Qatar’s Migrant Workers”. HRW. 18 May.

Lenskyj, H. J. (2020). “The Olympic Games: A Critical Approach”. Bingley: Emerald Publishing Limited.

Murray, S. (2012). “The Two Halves of Sports-Diplomacy”. Diplomacy & Statecraft, 23(3). P.576-592.

Nyugen, N. (2021). “Kafala Labor System Reform and the 2022 World Cup”. Georgetown University Qatar: Center for International and Regional Studies. 20 December.

Panja, T; Draper, K. (2020). “U.S. Says FIFA Officials Were Bribed to Award World Cups to Russia and Qatar”. The New York Times. 6 April.

Pattison, P; McIntyre, N. (2021). “Revealed: 6,500 Migrant Workers Have Died in Qatar Since World Cup Awarded”. The Guardian. 23 February.

RFE/RL. (2022). “Court of Arbitration for Sport Dismisses Russian Appeals of FIFA, UEFA Bans”. RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty. 15 July.

Sky Sports. (2022). “England Captain Harry Kane Will Wear OneLove Armband at Qatar World Cup Even if FIFA Prohibits It”. Sky Sports. 11 October.

Whiteside, P. “Cost of the Cup”. SkyNews.

Worden, M. (2022). “The World Cup is Exciting, Lucrative, and Deadly”. Human Rights Watch. 23 August.

Youes, R. (2022). “A World Cup of Shame: FIFA Fails LGBT Rights Test in Qatar”. Human Rights Watch. 7 July.

About the author

Steven Blum

Steven Blum is an undergraduate student at American University’s School of International Service majoring in International Relations with a focus on justice and human rights. He is currently a Junior Fellow at the McCain Institute for International Leadership, and previously worked for the International Rescue Committee in his home state of Maryland.

Posted In: Activism | Culture