This month, the World Cup will kick off in Qatar, the first Middle Eastern country to host the event. This is a historic moment of pride for both Qatar and the Middle East, a region that has been unfairly overlooked in world football (or soccer for Americans). Still, Qatar’s lack of both soccer history and sporting infrastructure, as well as its minuscule size, make it a seemingly bizarre choice to host the world’s most-watched sporting event. Qatar’s underlying motive drove it to bribe its way to hosting the tournament: like many authoritarian countries, Qatar is attempting to launder its world image through sports.
Qatar is betting big that this will be a successful rebranding for the country, spending an estimated $220 billion on the tournament. But its success in drawing the world’s attention could also be an opportunity to expose an expected 5 billion viewers to Qatar’s human rights record and the larger issue of sportswashing.
To obscure their repressive policies and unsavory global reputations, countries including Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar weaponize sportswashing: the use of sports to improve their public image by distracting attention from violent or corrupt behavior. This can look like buying sports teams, hosting major sporting events, and paying famous athletes to do tourism ads.
Since the World Cup was awarded to Qatar, 6,500 migrant workers have died in the country while others face labor abuses and wage theft. Many of those who plan or participate in labor rights strikes have been detained, and thousands of poorly paid migrants are now unexpectedly being sent home, left indebted and jobless. And Qatar’s labor abuses were well-known before the country was awarded the World Cup. A 2011 report from the US Department of State cautioned that Qatar was engaging in the same forced labor practices that are now on display in the lead-up to the 2022 World Cup. Qatar bought its way to hosting the tournament to distract from such rights violations and rebrand itself to the Western world and beyond.
The World Cup presents an opportunity to harness international attention and expose the injustices that have led to Qatar’s attempt at sportswashing.
Other Gulf countries have tactically utilized sportswashing to repair their reputations stained by participation in war and murder. Saudi Arabia recently formed the LIV Golf Tournament and purchased the famed English soccer club Newcastle United. United Arab Emirate’s Sheikh Mansour now owns Manchester City, and Qatar’s Nasser Al-Khelaifi bought Paris-Saint Germain, France’s largest soccer team. These purchases are not coincidental, nor are they motivated by financial gain — profits are minimal for ownership groups, and losses can be high. Instead, the purpose of these purchases is reputation revamping, associating a team or tournament’s success with the sponsor instead of with stories like the killing of journalists, subjugation of women, and systemic violence toward LGBTQ people.
Calling for fans to not watch the world’s most popular sporting event is not a practical solution, but calling on them to look beyond the games is. International sporting events have repeatedly been used as platforms for protests that aim to spread messages to a global audience. In 1960, Taiwanese athletes protested at the Olympic games following pressure from China to have the island compete as the Republic of China. In 1968, US sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists and bowed their heads on the Olympic podium as “The Star-Spangled Banner” played to bring attention to racial injustice within the United States. In 2021, English soccer players took a knee before games kicked off to protest racism, taking inspiration from Colin Kaepernick and other American football players.
Fans have a role, too, and can love the game but use it to bring attention to human rights abuses. Earlier this year, hundreds of people protested China hosting the Winter Olympics and Paralympic games because of the treatment toward Uyghur Muslims, which eventually led to diplomatic boycotts by the United States, Canada, India, Estonia, Denmark, and a few others. The World Cup, therefore, presents an opportunity to harness international attention and expose the injustices that have led to Qatar’s attempt at sportswashing.
ETHICALLY ENGAGING WITH THE WORLD CUP
Fans can ethically and responsibly engage with the World Cup in four ways. First, the World Cup provides a great opportunity to learn more about Qatar’s record. Listen to the stories of those working in the Gulf, like the migrant workers featured in this podcast series. Watch The Worker’s Cup documentary set inside Qatari labor camps. Read “Does Skill Make Us Human?” Learn as much as possible about the ugly behind-the-scenes and bring it up in conversations about the World Cup.
Second, show solidarity for those who decide to protest at the tournament. Though no team has announced plans to boycott Qatar’s World Cup, fans and campaigners are pressuring players and teams to call out the host’s behavior. At least one team has condemned Qatar’s human rights record, and a number of high-profile players have spoken out. Fans should show support for players who face backlash and sanctions, rewarding their moral stands with sponsorships and praise.
Third, engage thoughtfully. Denmark has composed “protest kits,” including World Cup shirts, to honor the migrants who have died during World Cup-related preparations and construction. Soccer’s notoriously corrupt international governing body, the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA), has banned Denmark from wearing their warm-up kits, which featured the statement “human rights for all,” instructing teams to instead “focus on the football.” Not all are adhering to FIFA’s pleas, however, with some cities ditching World Cup festivities. The international attention Iran’s soccer team recently received for protesting against the Iranian government reveals that such demonstrations of opposition can be effective.
And finally, keep up pressure on FIFA and the International Olympic Committee, both of which are facilitating sportswashing. The United States has previously investigated FIFA for its blatantly corrupt practices, including memorable instances like an official who was paid such exorbitant bribes that he could keep an apartment in Trump Tower just for his cats. Given that the United States is slated to co-host the 2026 World Cup, there is an opportunity to pressure FIFA into changing its behavior.
CREATING POLITICAL WILL
If, at the end of the World Cup, viewers of the tournament are more aware of Qatar’s cruel practices toward migrant workers, then the Gulf state’s attempts at sportswashing would have missed the mark. More importantly, it may provide some political will to FIFA, the International Olympic Committee, and other international sports organizations to stop allowing repressive regimes to host international sporting events. Perhaps the absurd decision for Saudi Arabia to host the Asian Winter Games will be reconsidered. Moving forward, public reaction to teams being purchased and countries paying exorbitant costs to host sports events should be suspicion and discussion about activities from which countries may be trying to distract.
Sport has the power to spread uplifting messages — women’s empowerment, disability advocacy, and LGBTQ rights — and build cross-cultural understanding. Allowing teams and tournaments to be weaponized by oppressive governments to cover up inhumane behavior undermines the positive role sports can play globally. Therefore, turning sportswashing endeavors against themselves is necessary to support human rights.
Raimy Khalife-Hamdan is a Scoville Peace Fellow at Win Without War Education Fund.
Evan Cooper is a research associate in the Stimson Center’s Reimagining US Grand Strategy program.