Qatar 2022 Proves That ‘Sportswashing’ Works

People are hypocrites. That was already pretty clear. The World Cup has proven it yet again. All that anguish, all those tears, for over a decade. Many people said they’d boycott the tournament once it was given to Qatar. All those promises from commentators and fans not to watch a single match. How many of those have been kept? Very, very few, I’d be happy to bet.  

This is not to castigate football fans who find themselves unable to live up to their promises. They’re mostly victims of human nature. Because the Qatar World Cup also proves something else, something more significant than private hypocrisy. It proves that what we must inelegantly call “sportswashing” works. It works fantastically well. 

As the tournament came closer there was a lot of talk of outrage. Qatar was, people said, a uniquely bad choice of host. Everything was wrong. It was a corruption of international football. The conditions of the migrant workers were appalling. The reordering of the footballing calendar so that the tournament could be held in winter was a threat to domestic leagues. And late in the day the persecution of LGBT people in Qatar became a major bone of contention. 

All of these criticisms are justified and right. And yet, has it mattered? Not at all. Despite widespread condemnation in the weeks preceding the tournament, the viewing figures that have been released for matches are very healthy. Discussion of the football rather than Qatari state policy dominates the daily newspapers. Even the most moral of them, after all, are publishing World Cup supplements. 

And many fans – who were expected to hate being beer-free and at risk of anti-gay persecution – seem to be having a good time. They broadcast their enjoyment on social media to collective followings of billions.   

Again, they’re not any more hypocritical than average. They’re making the most of what they’ve got. All of this proves that all the bribes Qatar allegedly paid were worth it and that “sportswashing” unquestionably works. Why else would Qatar – a country with a sophisticated propaganda and media strategy (see the Qatari-owned Al Jazeera’s vast multilingual offerings if you doubt that) – have paid for it all? They clearly calculated and expected a return. 

Anecdotally, many football fans of a moral sort who declared themselves disgusted by the spectacle are now thoroughly enjoying the matches. And why not? An exciting game of football does not become less so because a small voice tells you workers died to build the stadium. 

It’s always been true, and was true of world cups and Olympics past. (The winter games have recently been hosted by Russia, which was in the process of annexing Crimea and invading eastern Ukraine via proxies; and the summer games have been hosted by China, which is as close to totalitarian as any country.) Sport is glamorous and exciting. That’s why people watch it and why countries pay immense sums to associate themselves with the spectacle. 

Unless the sports themselves are staged with great incompetence, once the games begin, the political noise falls away. All the fans see is the sport itself. 

As Saudi Arabia uses its eventually dwindling oil money to purchase sport across the world – boxing, Formula 1, golf – the Qatar World Cup is not a cautionary tale: it is the exemplar. Purchase sports people like and you can purchase their affection. It really is that simple. 

Sporting heroes and sporting moments are easy to buy, and they are the things fans remember, not any moral questions about who is putting up the money. 

This piece was originally published in the New Statesman.

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