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Sport-washing and Controversy in the 2022 World Cup

By Keegan Coleman

Last Sunday, millions of soccer fans around the world watched a riveting World Cup Final match in which Argentina defeated France, the defending champions, in a penalty shoot-out thriller. The game marked the culmination of the 2022 World Cup, an event of many firsts. The first World Cup victory for one of the greatest footballers, maybe ever, Lionel Messi. The first World Cup that saw an African team, Morocco, make it to the semi-final of the tournament. The first World Cup to be hosted in a Middle-Eastern country. One of the most shocking firsts for many fans, the first World Cup in which the sale of beer was banned at stadiums.

Notably, it was also the first World Cup that resulted in the deaths of thousands of migrant workers in preparation for the event.

While FIFA officials suggested that participating nations and fans worldwide should “focus on the football” in the weeks leading up to the tournament, I couldn’t help but question how an event aimed at bringing the world together in the spirit of competition and unity could have resulted in as much controversy as it did.

Much of this can be explained by looking back at the initial bid that led to the 2022 World Cup, in 2010. Selected ahead of bids from the ​​United States, South Korea, Japan and Australia, Qatar was an unlikely choice, as a country that lacked the existing infrastructure needed to host the massive event, along with the region’s intense heat in the summer (when the tournament is traditionally held). Fast forward twelve years later, the middle-eastern country has recorded the highest infrastructure expenditure in FIFA's history, with the Qatari government spending well over $200 billion on the tournament, according to Forbes. So how did Qatar earn this bid, and why?

In the years following Qatar’s selection to host the World Cup, 16 of 22 voting members have been implicated in or investigated over some form of alleged corruption or bad practice. The governing body of FIFA is no stranger to accusations of corruption, with similar investigations into Russia’s football delegation, the host country of the 2018 World Cup. While Qatari officials deny the aforementioned corruption charges, it's a reasonable conclusion that the country’s controversial bid was derived less from a passion for the game of football, and much more aligned with the country’s foreign policy.

Neighbors with Saudi Arabia, Iran and the United Arab Emirates, Qatar had much to gain from the international recognition that comes with hosting a World Cup. A small middle-eastern country where the repression of social rights, particularly for women and LGBTQ communities, is prevalent, Qatar sought to use the tournament as a tool to highlight the common discourse that can be found through sports.Similar to the Saudi Arabian funded LIV Golf league, which has faced strong criticism in the past year, Qatar’s efforts to host the largest soccer event is a prime example of “culture-washing”, or more specifically “sports-washing”; a strategy used to distract from or improve the reputation of a country or organization that may have negative associations or controversies. This isn’t the first time that an autocratic regime has used an international sporting event as a tool to sway the general public – think Russia’s hosting of the 2014 Winter Olympics and 2018 World Cup, China’s 2008 and 2022 Olympics Games, or most notably, the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. However, the controversies that preceded the opening match of this year’s World Cup suggest that Qatar’s strategy wasn’t wholly successful.

There is no denying that the 2022 World Cup was wrought with controversy; whether it be the denial of responsibility for the thousands of deaths of migrant workers, the outright hostility and non-acceptance of members of the LGBTQ+ community, the exposed corruption of the FIFA governing body, or even an opening speech by the FIFA President that will make you physically cringe from its flagrant hypocrisy. However, in the end, Argentina’s thrilling victory in the World Cup final may have saved Qatar. Despite the justified and numerous criticisms to the host nation, this year’s World Cup will likely be remembered by Messi’s crowning achievement, Morocco’s unexpected and remarkable semi-final run, or the chaos that was the group stage matches. Regardless of how this World Cup will be remembered, it’s important to know that Qatar isn’t the first, nor will it be the last country to use sports as a tool for justifying social repression.


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