In the years leading up to the Qatar 2022 World Cup, much of the football world was numb to sportswashing. The men’s World Cup was held outside of May to July for the first time, which caught fans by surprise because of its schedule and proximity to domestic league and cup fixtures.
At this World Cup, there were more pressing issues than the season it was held in, from human rights concerns in the host nation to FIFA corruption in the tournament’s awarding. Due of this, there was a greater sense of disappointment surrounding the World Cup and an overall greater disinterest in football. Some media has boycotted the tournament, and some fans have completely disregarded it.
But amid this elaborate and expensive football extravaganza, International football has reminded us of why it is so popular, particularly with those who appear to be looking to engage in “sportswashing”—attempts to use sports to clean up their reputation on the international stage and a soft power exercise. And just as they had planned, FIFA and Qatar can now say that this World Cup was a success.
At least in a sporting sense, it has been. With its relative lack of player movement between teams and more unexpected knockout formats, international football generally continues to be a slightly less tarnished form of the game. The political landscape and the nature of international football refute the idea that politics and sport don’t mix.
It invariably draws attention to a variety of international political topics, which are then covered by the media or individuals on social media, albeit in a selective way. Particularly during this tournament, political topics and causes have received attention.
Iranian athletes refused to sing their national anthem during their match versus England in support of those protesting their harsh regime at home. Especially in light of Mahsa Amini’s passing following her detention by the religious morality police, the team appeared to support for the “women’s revolution” in Iran.
Ismaila Sarr highlighted the ignorance of the Democratic Republic of the Congo conflict in Europe and the West after scoring for Senegal by covering his eyes with his hand and pointing a finger in the shape of a gun at his head. This conflict is one of the bloodiest in history. The fact that English-language or European media didn’t cover this (or possibly purposefully chose not to) supports the argument Sarr was making.
A reminder of the tensions between Serbia, Kosovo, and Albania was also brought up during the match between Serbia and Switzerland, a team that features players of Kosovan heritage. There have also been a lot of instances where teams and spectators have demonstrated their support for Palestine.
Additionally, it has used to emphasize the host nation’s attitudes about employees, particularly migrant labor. Qatar continues to rank among the worst nations in terms of workers’ rights, working conditions, and human rights while appearing to have made minor improvements in comparison to other nations in the area. The building of new stadiums and infrastructure necessary to host the World Cup should act as a wake-up call to the condition of workers around the world, which recently has not been restricted to Qatar.
The fact that these problems came to light during the competition may serve as proof that sportswashing is not having the desired effect. But it is effective in other ways. A few media outlets and fans have stated that “really it is not so horrible” as they take in the hospitality, ceremony, cityscapes, and lodging that were all constructed by those migrant laborers. It is intended to operate in such a way that it will be a simple trap for those privileged attendees to fall into once they are there. This is why the concept of sportswashing is being viewed as a more effective soft power technique.
It is important to keep in mind that the reason for this is the sport itself, the players, the supporters, the diversity, the people of the host country, and the distinctive nature of international football. This is especially true as fans and the media recognize that World Cups are fantastic spectacles, even if this one caught us off guard. This is why sportswashing will prevail in the end because passion for the game always comes first.
Rox and Ken discuss if the sportswashing in Qatar has worked and what it means for the future.