Qatar’s decision to jump into hosting the 2022 World Cup was a headache 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 sport’s biggest event?
Skeptics say the country wanted to use the prestige of the World Cup, which starts on Sunday, to remake its image as an oil producer with few international connections and a shaky human rights record.
They viewed the move, which will cost the country some $220 billion, as a classic case of “sports laundering”: using sports as a forum to present a country or company as something different from what many people perceive.
It’s not a new concept, and Middle Eastern oil money has long been a major player. Where many see wealthy nations spending money to join the global elite, others see nefarious attempts to hide unwanted reputations.
“The World Cup in Qatar started the debate on sportswear laundering and human rights in football and it has been a very steep learning curve for all of us,” Norwegian football federation president Lise Klaveness said. at a recent Council of Europe event.
Germany’s interior minister also expressed concern about bringing 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 those states,” Minister Nancy Faeser said last month in a move that sparked diplomatic tensions.
Qatar’s leader, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, defended himself, saying the country “has been the subject of an unprecedented campaign that no host country has faced.”
The World Cup is just one way Qatar is using its enormous wealth to project influence. By buying sports teams, hosting high-profile events and investing billions in European capital, such as the purchase of London’s The Shard skyscraper, Qatar has been integrating itself into an international finance and support network.
Paris-Saint Germain (PSG) of Ligue 1 is owned by the emir of Qatar. Its 2011 purchase came a year after Qatar won the right to host the World Cup. To many, it felt like it was written to show the country has good faith in soccer. Some of PSG’s players are among the most famous in the world (Neymar, Kylian Mbappé and Lionel Messi) and they will all be in the World Cup.
American Christian Pulisic is in the Premier League team Chelsea, which was owned by a Russian oligarch, Roman Abramovich.
Abramovich was widely hailed as that team’s savior 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 financed by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, which also owns another Premier League team, Newcastle, while English champion Manchester City is owned by Abu Dhabi.
Some of the best players from those teams, including Kevin de Bruyne, Kieran Trippier and Bruno Guimarães, will play for Belgium, England and Brazil in the World Cup.
None of these players, or owners, received the same kind of public condemnation as those in golf who left the PGA Tour to play on LIV. Just as it was when the soccer teams were bought, there has never been any mystery about who bankrolled LIV, which has been unabashedly hailed as a disruptive force in golf that will change the sport for the better.
According to the CIA, journalist Jamal Khashoggi was assassinated on the orders of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman in 2018. The Saudi Public Investment Fund’s involvement became a lightning rod when Phil Mickelson said out loud what he many already felt.
“It’s scary (expletive),” the six-time Grand Slam champion said in a much-quoted interview with golf writer Alan Shipnuck of the FirePit Collective.
Families of 9/11 victims became vocal critics of LIV golf, pointing to Saudi Arabia’s shaky human rights record and the country’s connection to the attacks.
“Even though (he) is candid, it’s not good for Mickelson’s image,” said Jamal Blades, manager of a soccer-loving London tech company who occasionally blogs about sports and recently completed his master’s in innovation. and sports businesses. “But sportswashing takes place all over the world in some form, where there are people, governments or companies joining events big and small everywhere.”
A high-profile advertiser, the US Department of Defense, was seeking positive publicity and a tie-in to America’s favorite sport, but the deal inadvertently triggered a public relations issue when Colin Kaepernick took a knee during “The starry flag”.
“When (a company) wants to be the official sponsor of a team or a league, what they are trying to do is create an affinity to enhance the reputation of (the company) and get sports fans to think of (that company) in some other way than as a commodified producer of” what that company sells, said Stephen Ross, executive director of the Center for the Study of Sport at the Penn State Society.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping used the occasion of the Winter Olympics in Beijing to hold a summit and show solidarity this year. Later at those games, IOC President Thomas Bach performed with Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai. to see Eileen Gu, an American-born freestyle skier competing 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 high-ranking Chinese official of sexual assault.
Heads turned when the Asian Winter Games announced they would hold the 2029 version of their event in Saudi Arabia, a desert country that is spending some $500 billion to build a winter resort it says will be environmentally sustainable. The Saudis have long hosted golf, tennis and F1 events in their country despite having little tradition in those sports.
“The case of Saudi Arabia is almost like the quintessential success story for sports washing,” Ross said of the country that led the world in exporting $95.7 billion worth of crude oil. in 2020.
Qatar, which ranks 19th in oil exports and also shares the world’s largest offshore natural gas field. with Iran, he also wanted to get into action.
It hosted world titles in gymnastics and track and field, both of which were preludes to the World Cup, which is costing the country an estimated $220 billion. The country could rely on the reality that regardless of the troubles that plague a host in the lead up, most global sporting events are ultimately judged on 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.
With the World Cup approaching, allegations of human rights and corruption have emerged as major issues, and it looks set to continue until the championship trophy is handed over on December 18.
Whether that’s fair depends on who you ask.
Greg Norman, the leader of LIV Golf, said this summer on The Tucker Carlson Show on Fox News that Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s state oil company, sponsors events on the Ladies’ European Tour, but that tour receives very little criticism.
“Not a single word has been said about them, right?” Norman said. “But why, why is it in the boys? Why are we the ogres? What have we done wrong?”
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