Qatar’s decision to host the 2022 World Cup was head-scratching from the start. Why, some wondered, would a Middle Eastern kingdom with fewer than 3 million people and little soccer tradition want to host the biggest sporting event?
Skeptics say the country wanted to use the prestige of the World Cup, which starts on Sunday, to recast its image as an oil producer with few international ties and a shaky human rights record.
They viewed the move, which will cost the country an estimated $220 billion, as a classic case of “sportswashing” – using sport as a forum to portray a country or company as different than many people perceive.
This is hardly a new concept, and Middle Eastern oil money has long been a major player. Where many see rich nations spending money to join the world’s elite, others see criminal attempts to hide an unwanted reputation.
“The World Cup in Qatar kicked off the discussion about sports-washing and human rights in football and it was a very steep learning curve for all of us,” Norwegian FA president Liz Klavenes said at a recent Council of Europe event.
Germany’s interior minister also expressed concern about moving the event to Qatar, saying “no World Cup takes place in a vacuum.”
“There are criteria that have to be met and then it would be better not to award such countries,” Secretary Nancy Fazer said last month in a move that sparked diplomatic tensions.
Qatar’s leader, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, hit back, saying the country “has been subjected to an unprecedented campaign the likes of which no host country has faced”.
The World Cup is just one way Qatar uses its vast wealth to project influence. By buying sports teams, hosting high-profile events and investing billions in European capitals – such as the purchase of London’s The Shard skyscraper – Qatar has integrated itself into international finance and support networks.
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. For many, it seemed like a script to show that the country has bona fide football. Some of PSG’s players are among the most famous in the world – Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Lionel Messi – and will all be at the World Cup.
American Christian Pulisic is at Premier League side Chelsea, which was owned by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich.
Abramovich was widely hailed as the savior of this team during his 19-year control of the club, but put the team up for sale this year due to sanctions related to his country’s invasion of Ukraine.
The new LIV Golf League 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 those teams’ best players, including Kevin de Bruyne, Kieran Trippier and Bruno Guimaraes, will play for Belgium, England and Brazil at the World Cup.
None of those 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 a 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 on the orders of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2018. The Saudi Public Investment Fund’s involvement became more of a lightning rod when Phil Mickelson said out loud what many already felt.
“They’re scary (expletives),” the six-time major champion said in a much-quoted interview with golf writer Alan Shipnuck of the FirePit Collective.
Families of 9/11 victims have become vocal critics of LIV Golf, highlighting Saudi Arabia’s shaky human rights record and the country’s connection to the attacks.
“Even if (he’s) truthful, it’s not good for Mickelson’s image,” said Jamal Blades, a soccer-loving executive at a tech firm in London who occasionally blogs about sports and recently completed his master’s degree in sports business and innovation. “But sports washing takes place all over the world in some form, where there are people, or governments, or businesses attaching themselves to events big and small all over the place.”
A high-profile advertiser, the US Department of Defense, was looking for positive publicity and association with America’s favorite sport, but the deal inadvertently caused a public relations problem when Colin Kaepernick knelt during “The Star Spangled Banner.”
“When (a company) wants to be an official sponsor of a team or a league, what they’re trying to do is create an affinity to improve (the company’s) reputation and get sports fans to think of (that company) in a more some way other than as a commodity producer of what this company is selling, said Steven Ross, executive director of the Penn State Center for the Study of Sport in Society.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping used the occasion of the Beijing Winter Olympics to hold a summit and show solidarity this year. Later in those games, IOC President Thomas Bach appeared 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 senior Chinese official of sexual abuse.
Heads turned when the Asian Winter Games announced it would hold the 2029 version of its event in Saudi Arabia, a desert country that is spending about $500 billion to build a winter resort it claims will be environmentally sustainable. The Saudis have long hosted golf, tennis and F1 events in their country, although they have little tradition in these sports.
“The case of Saudi Arabia is almost like the quintessential sports laundry success story,” Ross said of the country, which is the world’s leading exporter of $95.7 billion in crude oil. in 2020
Qatar, which is the 19th largest oil exporter and also shares the world’s largest undersea natural gas field with Iran, also wanted to get in on the action.
It hosted the gymnastics and track world titles, both preludes to the World Cup, which cost the country an estimated $220 billion. The country can count on the reality that, regardless of the problems that plague the hosts at the start, most global sporting events are ultimately judged by the quality of the event itself.
The country recruited hundreds of fans to receive free trips 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 emerged as major themes and are set to remain so until the championship trophy is handed out on 18 December.
Whether that’s fair depends on who you ask.
Greg Norman, the front man for LIV Golf, said this summer on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show that Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s state oil company, sponsors events on the Ladies’ European Tour, but that tour receives very little criticism.
“Not a word has been said about them, has it?” said Norman. “But why is it… why is it the boys’? Why are we ogres? What did we do wrong?’
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