For well over the last 100 years, beginning at the dawn of the last century, sport has become a key cog in building up the pride of a nation, and – at certain times, has acted as a key component in public diplomacy and even soft power.
As a social activity, sports have been used to promote an “us versus them” mentality in the battle of rival nation states – a sort of nationalistic way of touting one’s chauvinism while offering the image of a healthy lifestyle. Sports provide the perfect opportunity to wave flags and proudly sing national anthems in a relatively non-threatening setting.
Although Pierre de Coubertin’s original idea, when he founded the modern Olympic Games in 1896, was to promote internationalism and bring the world together, sport is, and has been used, to highlight the superiority of one nation over all others. Romania’s Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu did this during his murderous reign and Viktor Orban now uses the same visuals and rhetoric in Hungary.
During the darkest days of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union would turn the Olympics, and any other major international sporting event, into a proxy battlefield in the struggle between the democratic West and Communist East.
The 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, hosted at the height of power for Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich, remains unmatched in its heinous displays of Nazism and xenophobia. Despite Hitler’s best efforts to showcase his deranged vision of national superiority to the world, he was upstaged by the sporting brilliance of a young black man from the US – Jesse Owens – and his Jewish teammates.
This combination of unabashed pride originates in the original Olympics of Classical Greece. If war is the continuation of politics through other means, then the Olympic Games can be seen as the continuation of rivalries under some guiding rules.
A small nation’s big ambitions
By hosting the World Cup, Qatar wants to increase its international prestige and gain a leading place atop the hierarchical food chain in the Arab world. In short, it’s a country with a population of less than 3 million that wants to be a major player in the region and to be the first Muslim country to successfully pull off an event of such a global magnitude.
The 2022 World Cup comes after the controversy surrounding the 2018 World Cup in Russia – widely regarded as “Vladimir Putin’s World Cup”. In both cases, the two host nations are/were totalitarian regimes with nary a hint of democratic values and a long list of human rights abuses. FIFA, however, determined these were not only minor details and opted to grant both Russia and Qatar the right to host one of the largest sporting events in the world.
Almost immediately after the announcement that Doha would be given the rights to host the World Cup, allegations emerged of widespread corruption within FIFA, including rumors that the Qatari government had bribed FIFA officials. According to The Guardian, 16 of the 22 voting members of the FIFA Executive Committee that voted for Russia and Qatar to host the World Cup were or have been under investigation for allegedly taking bribes.
In 2019, there were allegations that FIFA also illegally benefited from an exclusive $400 million TV deal with Al Jazeera, Qatar’s state broadcaster, one that was offered 21 days before a public bid. That deal included an additional $100 million in the event that Qatar succeeded in obtaining the right to host the World Cup.
Unsurprisingly, FIFA denied any connection between the two events.
The French connection
Relations between France and Qatar have strengthened in recent years, especially during Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency a decade ago. Under Sarkozy, The Élysée Palace was actively involved in lobbying for Qatar’s successful bid for the World Cup. Apparently, in November 2010, Sarkozy received the now-disgraced former president of UEFA, the Union of European Football Associations, Michel Platini, and the then-Emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani. After the meeting, Platini allegedly changed his vote in favor of Qatar’s bid.
The Qatari government would later buy the Paris Saint-Germain football club, increase its stake in a French media group and buy the television rights for Ligue 1, France’s top football league. Since then, France has enjoyed more than productive trade relations with Qatar. Since these transactions took place, the amount of Qatari money flowing into Paris Saint-Germain’s coffers has grown exponentially. This allowed the club, which had previously been a middle-of-the-pack spender compared to other major European football clubs, to suddenly have the wherewithal to afford some of the world’s top players, including Lionel Messi and Neymar.
Despite these less-than-clear connections between the two governments, France’s close collaboration with Qatar will extend right through to the upcoming World Cup. According to Le Monde, on August 4, France’s National Assembly ratified an agreement between Paris and Doha establishing a security partnership for the event. 220 French police officers will travel to Qatar to support their Qatari counterparts during the World Cup. “France’s ambition is not to deploy a large number of units, but to provide high-level expertise and specialized operational support in so-called niche areas that cover the top threats,” the French Interior Ministry stated.
Murders buried in dollars and oil
After Qatar was awarded the 2022 World Cup, the government began massive projects infrastructure projects that would be needed to successfully pull off such an event. The overwhelming number of laborers that were brought in to do the bulk of the backbreaking work, generally in impossible safety and weather conditions, were from poor South Asian countries. In 2013, several European newspapers including The Guardian in the UK, Norwegian magazine Josimar and the Danish daily Ekstra Bladet consistently reported widespread abuse by Qatari authorities against construction workers, and even uncovered cases of forced labor – both of which are violations of basic human rights. The Guardian also reported, in an article from February 2021, that more than 6,500 workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have died while working as laborers on Qatar’s World Cup construction sites over the last 11 years.
All of these cases have cast a dark cloud over this year’s World Cup, and also over FIFA, which consciously chose to ignore Qatar’s human rights record and its blatant disregard for providing workers’ rights to those responsible for constructing all of the necessary projects that FIFA expects for a successful tournament.
As more accusations of workers’ abuse by Qatari officials have emerged in recent years, major companies and international have been put in an unenviable position of having to carry on their association with Qatar and continue to turn a blind eye.
According to The New York Times, several companies have already announced they are boycotting the event. ING Group, a major financial services and banking group that sponsors the national teams of the Netherlands and Belgium has decided they will not accept any of the tickets allocated for the tournament and will not be involved in any promotion related to the World Cup. GLS, a baggage service provider that sponsors the Belgium team, said that while it has supported the team since 2011 and will continue to do so, it will not use the ticket allocation for customer promotions and will not engage in any advertising campaigns in Qatar “as we believe that a commercial use of the 2022 World Cup in the context of the human rights situation would be better not to take place”.
The Danish Football Association has announced that two of its sponsors, the national lottery Danske Spil and the bank Arbejdernes Landsbank, have agreed to give up the space they paid for on the team’s training equipment so that it can be replaced with human rights messages during the World Cup.
Calls for a boycott were launched among football fans and a visual campaign has been created that criticizes the brands participating in the event.
These acts of defiance towards Qatar and FIFA are limited in their effectiveness, however, but the brands that have taken a strong stance against Doha have placed themselves on a moral high ground when it comes to the legacy of this year’s championship.
Qatar has spent about $220 billion on infrastructure and communication, but its the memory of the 6,500 lives lost due to the actions of a dictatorial regime that will be the legacy of the World Cup.