Sportswashing and Soft Power at the World Cup

By: Eliyahu Solomon  |  October 31, 2022

By Eliyahu Solomon

Within the international system, one prevailing theory suggests countries act in ways that would increase their own power. The most apparent and well-known method of power-building is the development and display of tangible might. This includes advanced weaponry, a large standing army and reserve force, and, in extreme cases, invading weaker countries. 

There is, however, another way for a country to build its strength. While the aforementioned is described in terms of “hard power,” there is also “soft power.” This consists of a country’s economic standing, as well as its cultural and historic influence, including its cultural exports, tourism, and economic attractions.

This ‘soft power’ can help shape a country’s international standing in terms of both global respect and diplomatic ties and is seen as generally attainable by all countries. This gives it an advantage over hard power, a traditionally more difficult route to take because it requires significantly more resources and political will. 

The downside of soft power is that it relies on societal whims. Essentially, a country can only become popular if it encourages tourism and provides its citizens with enjoyable and meaningful experiences.  

Regardless, countries throughout the world have exploited consumerist trends and developed soft power, by using sports and international competitions to distract attention away from human rights abuses, supporting terrorist causes, and many other non-democratic values.

The process of cleaning up a country’s image using sports, or “sportswashing,” is hardly new. In Berlin’s 1936 Summer Olympics, now known as the “Nazi Olympics,” Hitler successfully pushed Aryan Germans into the global spotlight by having them win sporting events.

Similarly, Russia hosted the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, one year after passing anti-gay legislation, and China, which is responsible for its enslavement of Uyghur Muslims, hosted the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. Both countries have attempted to use sporting events to advance their global standing in the face of human rights abuse.  

Quasi-governmental entities also participate in sportswashing. When state-owned businesses sponsor shirts of football teams, such as Fly Emirates which sponsors many different teams around the world from across different sporting leagues, the players and fans who wear the uniforms become walking advertisements for the foreign state. Ownership groups such as City Sports Group, who own football powerhouse Manchester City FC, are run by Abu Dhabi United Group. In addition, the recent sale of Newcastle United, of which 80% of the funds were provided by the Saudi Public Investment Fund, is further proof of repressionist governments seeing the value of owning sports franchises. In this case, the backlash was so severe that several UK Parliament members threatened to axe the deal. In turn, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman, threatened former PM Boris Johnson to revert the UK-Saudi relations should the deal fall through, emphasizing the importance these countries place on the value of sports influence.

Sportswashing is actually happening right now in Qatar and the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Back in 2009, FIFA began the process for the selection of the host site for the 2022 World Cup. Typically, countries involved in the selection process have large fanbases, or at the very least, a history of football success and ample resources. Yet most often, smaller countries wind up hosting the games. In this case, the winner of the 2009 bid was Qatar, a small but oil-wealthy Arab nation, that outlasted the United States, Australia, Japan, and South Korea. 

Almost instantly red flags were waved. Qatar easily became the smallest nation to host the World Cup, and they lacked the crucial infrastructure not only to host games but also the thousands of fans from across the globe who come to support their country. 

Qatar is also governed by Sharia, Islamic religious law, which limits alcohol consumption and avidly rejects homosexuality, creating a dangerous environment for fans who may not be so familiar with the proper rules, but might be punished for violating them nonetheless. Qatari weather is also too hot, with summer temperatures reaching well over 100 degrees, which creates a hazard for both fans and players. This was avoided by moving the tournament to the winter, despite the fact that this would cause delays to many domestic football leagues around the world. 

In addition, there are ongoing accusations that Qatar’s bid for the World Cup was rife with corruption, with a number of different articles and investigations alleging that Qatari officials paid FIFA members large sums of money in exchange for hosting the tournament. While both FIFA and Qatar insist that these allegations are untrue, investigations are still ongoing, and in 2015, a number of different FIFA officials were arrested in Switzerland and the United States under accusations of corruption and bribery. 

The biggest controversy surrounding this tournament, however, is the Qatari treatment of migrant workers. According to an Amnesty International inquiry, migrant workers — typically from India — have had their identity papers taken away and were forced into suboptimal working and living conditions. Despite all this, starting November 18th and continuing through December 20th, billions of fans around the world will be watching the World Cup, with thousands more in person in Qatar. Sponsorship deals worth billions of dollars will be spent and funneled into Qatar and its economy.

Still, there has been minimal pushback from the World Cup competitors. Qualifying teams have issued no boycotts, no active players will be sitting out, and not a single high-level sponsor pulled their sponsorship from advertising at the World Cup.  

While there will most likely be small gestures of protest on the field (in fact, Denmark released “protest uniforms”), at the end of the day most people will remember the games, and most fans and tourists will remember their experiences in Qatar, and the history books will look back at this moment as just another World Cup. The storylines will be based on the events of the tournament, not the build-up to it. 

Will the hosting of the World Cup lead to any positive changes within the Qatari regime, or will the government use its newfound fame to further its own idealistic goals? Only time will tell, but should they be successful, you can certainly expect a few more countries to follow in the footsteps of using sports and star power to strengthen their position in the global power sphere.