This is not simply an article about sport. It is about how sport is used to legitimise evil regimes. It is also about asking ourselves: What am I going to do about it?
By the time you read these words, the 2022 World Cup will be in full swing in Qatar, with the final being played on December 20. Weird right? Even if you only had the smallest grasp on football, everyone knows the football world cup is a summer sport when all the worlds’ leagues are finished and the players are free to flaunt their skills, to thrill, to enthral and to infuriate in equal measures. Its place on the sporting calendar is sacred. Not this time! The 2022 World Cup is taking place right now, mid-season, so the worlds’ leagues have been forced into a month’s compulsory hibernation. It is also happening in a country that has scorching heat, where standing at a bus stop would be impossible, let alone running for ninety minutes. To counter this, these brand-new stadia will create an additional huge carbon footprint in order to keep all the stadia cool enough for people to watch and play in comfort. Many of the delegates fighting for new climate controls, who were at the environmental gathering at COP27, will probably unwittingly watch these games across November and December.
So why did Qatar get the World Cup? It’s the same reason why these oil rich countries get whatever they want – money. But it helps that world soccer is run by a corrupt organisation called FIFA. There were half a dozen men associated with ‘winning’ enough votes from the delegates to ensure Qatar got to host the 2022 version of the World Cup. Two of them were formerly the biggest leaders in global football, Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini. Both have since been banned from any football-related activities or involvement. So too has Mohammed bin Hammam, president of the Asian Football Confederation, who just happens to be from Qatar. The other major force behind persuading people to vote for Qatar was – guess who – Vladimir Putin. Fine bunch of blokes.
So why did Qatar want it so badly anyway? The very same reason Mussolini wanted the world cup in Italy in 1934 and Adolf Hitler wanted the Olympics in 1936. It’s to create the same façade that the military Junta used when they hosted the 1978 World Cup in Argentina or that Putin’s autocratic and despotic government needed when they hosted the 2018 version – legitimacy for their regimes. The term used today is ‘sportswashing’. This essentially means governments and regimes, whose reputations have been tarnished by how they conduct their affairs, seek to find a way, through sport, to improve their reputation and be accepted by the international community. Qatar’s human rights record has been lambasted long before there was any mention of the event taking place there. Their ultra-strict Islamic laws have meant that their female citizens are subjected to conditions that infringe their human rights – ones we take for granted in the West. What happened to Mahsa Amini in Iran, when she was arrested for not wearing her hijab correctly and who allegedly ‘died of a heart attack’ [aged only 22] in police custody, sparked a revolt in Iran against police brutality and the repressive treatment of women. You won’t hear of a similar revolt in Qatar, because it would never get off the ground, such is their iron grip on society. There also has been as much attention drawn to the issue of their draconian laws against the LQBT community. The counter argument is to say, well that’s their beliefs, get on with it…Why should we tell other countries what they can or cannot do? Unfortunately, these ‘beliefs’ go against the charter of human rights and that cannot be accepted simply because they happen behind some other country’s borders. The international community has a history of ‘interfering’ in other countries when the people in those countries have been oppressed. Why not Qatar? Currently citizens can be given a life sentence or indeed be stoned for engaging in homosexual activity. It’s a seven year sentence for a foreigner who breaches the rules. James Cleverly, the current Conservative Foreign Minister, was criticised hugely when, instead of using this global stage to defend the LQBT British citizens who may travel there, told them instead to ‘respect’ the ‘tradition’ of the country. Gary Lineker, host of BBC’s match of the Day, queried did the British Foreign Secretary mean that, ‘Whatever you do, don’t do anything gay?’
Ongoing investigations and research shows that an inconceivable amount of human beings – a massive 6,500 foreign workers – have died building World Cup stadia and infrastructure. [Some human rights organisations put the figure as high as 15,000]. Qatar authorities claim the figure is only 39 and claim the other deaths cannot be associated with the World Cup infrastructure projects. Imagine 39 deaths in Ireland on any building project. It would be scandalous. It would be a national shame. Now imagine it to be 6,500 or even half that! For the record, the figures were not plucked from the sky, but based on figures provided by embassies from India, Bangladesh, and Nepal, to name a few.
As I said, sportswashing is nothing new. We allowed Putin’s 2018 World Cup go ahead, in spite of Russia’s invasion and illegal occupation of the Crimea in 2014. An unfancied Russian team even made it to the quarter final having the ‘fitness’ to outrun any opposition in their attempts to nullify more skilful opponents. Since then, Russian athletes have been banned when state-sponsored doping programmes were uncovered. It was one thing for Italy to host the World Cup in 1934; the fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini wanting to show the world that Italians were the greatest under his guidance. He summoned the head of the Italian FA, Giorgio Vaccaro and told him, “Italy must win the World Cup”. Even the cities that had been chosen to host this event were carefully selected for optimal effect to promote the Italian ideal of fascism. In qualifying, Italy got a walkover when the Greek team pulled out. It emerged in the intervening years that the Italian FA paid for a new headquarters for the Greek FA. Long before we had the scrutiny and cameras of today, Italy’s victory has been tarnished by allegations of referee interference. None of that mattered. Italy won. Fascism won. Sportswashing won.
If you travel to Argentina today, you will see groups of people gathered sombrely in squares, holding a candlelit vigilance to the ‘disappeared’. An estimated 30,000 people vanished during the brutal regime of that junta who took power by force in 1976. Once in power, they brutally and systematically arrested and, in many cases, killed opponents of their regime. Yet despite the overt assault on democracy and barely covert extermination of their own citizens, FIFA rolled out their now infamous soundbite, “We don’t get involved in politics”. Sure, there was the usual dubious refereeing decisions in favour of the host nation, who of course won. But what is chilling are the stories that emerged years later, of prisoners listening to the roar of the crowd, as they lay beaten and broken, behind iron bars. One of the main stadia, the ‘Jose Maria Minella’ stadium was a mere twenty blocks from the biggest detention centre for political prisoners.
For me, one of the darkest images of sportswashing came from an English team. In 1935, Germany was scheduled to play England in White Hart Lane in London. The Nazis were beginning their ascent and their Aryan politics was international news. The Nuremberg laws had already banned intermarriage between Jews and Germans. A mere two years later, they were herding their Jewish citizens into concentration camps. As the dark shadows of October fell over the ground, the English players raised their hands in a Nazi salute by order of the English FA. The players were not too keen to comply and indeed there had been letters and calls from some of the public to boycott or stop the game. Those with the power, did what they do best – ignored the common man and women and sport washed Hitler’s Germany in an act that most go down as one of their darkest in sport.
As you read this, Qatar 2022 will have commenced. You can ignore the politics, shrug your shoulders and mumble, well what can I do? I’m only one person. It’s the same response we tend to use for climate change, or a litany of other abuses we perceive outside our control. We are often moved by injustices but sadly don’t follow through on our disgruntlement. I’ll leave the last words with Irish philosopher Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing”.