We must demand genuine reform from sports organizations, so they don’t continue to be instruments of ‘sportswashing.’
Everybody knows why this World Cup is taking place in Qatar — money.
It was the only reason the tournament was awarded to a tiny city-state that not only lacks a footballing tradition but also has the worst possible natural conditions to host it. And throughout the many scandals that have plagued this event — from corruption to human rights violations — the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) has staunchly stood by its 2010 decision to organize the World Cup in Qatar.
Its argument? The tournament has made — and will continue to make — things better for the country and its people. But is that truly the case?
For autocratic regimes, hosting big sports events like this has one primary aim: gaining political capital at home and abroad. While autocrats hope they’ll gain popularity at home as they continue to stifle dissent, they also hope to project their country on the international stage, drawing world leaders, celebrities and business figures. And though it’s true that the occasion may have also publicized Qatar’s human right violations, only a minority of the world’s population — albeit a growing one — will really pay attention to that.
It is for all these reasons that autocratic regimes are so eager to host big sports events and are prepared to pay fortunes to do so — in other words, it’s “sportswashing.” And ultimately, such events only further entrench the regime.
FIFA correctly argues that as a global organization, it needs to be able to deal with very different regimes, and stakeholders coming from many different cultures. Yet, at the same time, it claims to be free from any political interference, and to be democratically and consistently organized along a set of values and principles that protect human rights and prohibit any form of discrimination
One may, therefore, reasonably expect both the attribution of its events and their operation to be carried out in a way that’s consistent with those values. So, while it’s conceivable that, given football’s global nature, even nondemocratic regimes may gain the right to host football events, no state should gain the right to organize a World Cup in violation of these principles that FIFA proclaims to defend
FIFA now has a human rights policy that any host country must commit to uphold — but that simply becomes another example of window dressing when the organization shows no real commitment to implement that policy.
Once it was clear that Qatar being awarded the World Cup might have been the product of corruption, FIFA should have followed through on the investigations of public prosecutors and its own ethics committee. Instead, what it did was bury the report to avoid facing a backlash.
Then, when Qatar began constructing stadiums and other World Cup infrastructure, FIFA should have insisted that the rights of workers were protected. Instead, it denied any responsibility toward those workers.
FIFA also has an obligation toward its fans. While fans don’t enjoy the right to be treated as if they were in their home country while in Qatar, they still shouldn’t — under FIFA’s own principles — be discriminated against based on their race, gender or for any other reason. Instead, FIFA’s been asking them, most notably women and the LGBTQ+ community, to adapt to Qatari rules
Of course, FIFA can’t affect regime change in any country that hosts a World Cup, but it must be required to make sure that its event takes place — from start to finish — in accordance with its own values and principles. FIFA requires hosting nations to introduce special tax provisions for the World Cup. Why can’t it do the same for workers or fans rights?
The inconvenient truth here is that FIFA has sold its own rules and values for money. And there’s not much to be done at this point to save FIFA from itself. However, there’s still something that can be done to turn this event from sportswashing to “sportscalling.”
For one, we need to demand our heads of state and government stay away. Though they may need to maintain state relations with Qatar, they shouldn’t turn a blind eye and contribute to the sportswashing that’s currently taking place.
We should also demand football officials and athletes show that they care — for the workers that died during the preparations for the World Cup and for the women and LGBTQ+ individuals being discriminated against during it.
During EURO2020, athletes were free to express their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement by kneeling at the start of matches. Now, in Qatar, they need to show that they’re willing to take a stance when its actually harder to do so. They should kneel in support of Women’s Lives Matter or in memory of the deceased workers, and captains (and their FAs) should defy the unlawful FIFA prohibition and wear the rainbow armband.
Finally, as fans, we too should show we care — not only by demanding this from our athletes and officials, but also by taking our own initiatives and, above all, demanding genuine reform from sports organizations, so that they don’t continue to be instruments of sportswashing.
Miguel Poiares Maduro is dean of Católica Global School of Law. He is also an adjunct professor and the former director of the EUI School of Transnational Governance. Alberto Alemanno is the Jean Monnet Professor in European Union Law at HEC Paris and founder of the Good Lobby. Viola von Cramon-Taubadel is a member of the European Parliament and recently proposed a World Anti-Corruption Agency for Sports. Joseph Weiler is the Jean Monnet Chair at NYU. Jamil Chade is an investigative journalist and author from Brasil.