Things have not gone all Qatar’s way in the World Cup
Qatar has spent huge sums of money on building stadia and in attempts to promote its image around the world. It was perhaps the most expensive example of sports washing there has been. How successful is it?
Not going to plan
What is obvious is that it has not gone according to plan. Previous nation’s attempts to sanitise their image using sport have, from their point of view, been reasonably successful, one thinks of China. This has been because the sporting community: the sports people themselves, the managers and promoters, the media and many of the supporters – have cared little for the human rights of the countries where competition has taken place. So tennis, golf, boxing, cycling, horse racing, motor sport and other competitions have happily taken place in countries where torture is still practised, opposition is repressed, women have few rights and the death penalty is still a fact of life. Why let a stoning or public amputation spoil a game of tennis? No matter, the money is good and the sports pages of our media do not sully their pages with the sordid goings on outside the field of play. Sport has existed in a kind of bubble making it supremely suitable to be used by autocratic regimes to launder their image.
Qatar has been different. People have noticed and suddenly, some of the sports pages have moved away from sports reporting and are talking about arm bands, protests and footballers not singing the national anthem. The wearing of arm bands has become politically charged. There are pictures of people holding up posters particularly about women’s rights (or should we say, the absence of them). Yesterday, it was the German team covering their mouths. David Beckham who, up till now, has been able to promote himself as the honest Essex boy done good, is now seen in as a somewhat dubious light having accepted a reported £120m fee to be an ambassador for the Qataris. It is said he will not now get his knighthood. When reporters approach him for interview, he is silent. Not yet hero to zero but certainly a damaged brand.
FIFA want us to focus just on the football. Never mind the 6,500 worker deaths, the near absence of women’s rights, the silencing of opposition people and the anti LGBQI+ actions and laws. Where once football was to be the means by which nations came together and mutual understanding increased, now we are enjoined not to look outside the stadium itself. FIFA’s Infantino tells us that he understands prejudice because he has freckles and red hair which was a problem for him at school.
Sports washing may not be the same again
One positive thing may emerge from this World Cup and that is the days of sports washing may not be numbered but it will make countries and despots think twice in future. Instead of hundreds of thousands of supporters and spectators arriving to marvel at the spectacle no questions asked, some of them are asking questions. Some might even be a little uncomfortable at being there at all. The sports pages now mention the uncomfortable truths about the regime where the event is held and do not simply report on the sport as though wearing blinkers. Sport has been a willing captive, happy to take the millions and all too ready to claim ignorance of what happens outside the stadium or arena. The media has also followed the money. Perhaps those days are over and future events will bring a greater readiness to question and take account of the human rights situation in the host country.