It’s the most popular sporting event in the world and this year’s will be no exception. Estimates hover at around 5 billion viewers for at least one of the 2022 World Cup games, which began Sunday in Qatar. And there will be many people who watch more than one match. But this may also prove to be as controversial a World Cup as there has been in the more than nine-decade history of the tournament.
As Grid reported Friday, that has to do with the choice of Qatar as the host nation — a choice clouded by allegations of bribery and corruption, the treatment of thousands of migrant workers who were brought in to build the stadiums and other venues needed to put on the games, and the treatment of the LGBT community in a deeply conservative society. Some of these issues have been festering for the 12 years since the bid was announced; others have risen to the fore only recently. All these questions compel a more general one: Are major global gatherings of sport destined for controversy of one kind or another? Or is there a way to avoid a collision of politics and sport on such occasions and allow fans and players alike to enjoy the competition and — in the case of soccer — the “beautiful game?”
In the latest Global Grid conversation, Global Editor Tom Nagorski put these questions to Andres Martinez, editorial director at Future Tense and global scholar of sport at Arizona State University. As Martinez said, World Cup 2022 is an example of the power of money and the appeal of “sportswashing” as a way to improve a country’s reputation.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Tom Nagorski: Andres, if we could dive right in with something you wrote just the other day in a piece for the L.A. Times in which you said that the 2022 World Cup should come with an asterisk. What did you mean by that?
Andres Martinez: There’s so many reasons to put an asterisk on this World Cup. The World Cup every four years has been the source of such joy as a soccer or football fan, so it’s just not realistic to ask a lot of us to not watch a World Cup, but we do so with certain qualms and trepidation. I think there’s an asterisk for so many reasons.
First of all, it’s the first World Cup that is not being held in the summer. It was so weird [on Sunday] to go from watching a World Cup match to then watching my Pittsburgh Steelers in a different form of football. That’s never happened before.
TN: And that’s not just a weird thing. It’s a problematic thing, right?
AM: Yes. And it’s also not something that was consciously agreed to, and I think this goes back to the very corrupt nature of that decision. If Qatar had come to the executive committee of FIFA in 2010 and said, “We really want to have this first World Cup in the Middle East and it’s going to be great, trust us. We’re going to build cities, stadiums, etc., and oh, by the way, we want you to move it away from the summer,” that bid would not have succeeded. I think people often might forget that for five years, the pretense was maintained that this World Cup was going to happen in the summer, and there was so much discussion about how this is possible given the weather.
FIFA’s technical assessment of the proposal said this doesn’t make sense. And Qatar and FIFA tried to maintain this pretense, “trust us, we’re going to figure out this sci-fi technology to air-condition entire outdoor stadiums.” And only in 2015 was there a concession that this doesn’t make sense, and so we’re going to wreak havoc on all the domestic leagues, world soccer and not to mention on athletes’ bodies, by shifting it to the winter. So that’s one asterisk.
But the main asterisk, of all the reasons why this World Cup is problematic, is that basically we were almost forced to bring the World Cup to Qatar.
TN: We could talk for hours about the corruption question, but what is known?
AM: FIFA in 2010 had 24 executive committee members who were ultimately the decision makers, and two were excluded from voting because there were questions about whether they had received various bribes. So 22 people voted, and I think roughly half of them have since encountered legal difficulties and indictments and the like, as a result of their tenure on this executive committee.
What is also known is that there were Qatari authorities who paid bribes. Ken Bensinger, the investigative reporter who wrote a book, “Red Card,” really brings out a lot of the corruption involved. A lot of it centered in our part of the world, the Concacaf region, where you had a lot of countries that were willing to take Qatari cash, these amazing scenes where Concacaf members would go to a hotel suite in a resort in the Caribbean and take paper bags filled with cash from Qataris related to elections within FIFA.
And when all these investigations were subsequently unleashed, we found that there was plenty of corruption surrounding other World Cup bids too.
Once they lifted the rock, they discovered that there were questions, questionable behavior around the 2006, 2010, 2018 World Cup awards, and it became difficult to single out the Qatari bid. And also I would say, probably the decisive actions that got Qatar over the threshold to actually defeat the American proposal — let’s remember that it was the U.S. that was the favorite to host the 2022 World Cup — might be described better as financial superpower diplomacy rather than handing over cash in an envelope.
There was a very famous lunch at the French presidential palace a month before that vote that was hosted by [French President Nicolas Sarkozy]. He had the Prime Minister of Qatar and invited Michel Platini, who was the head of the European soccer federation. And as a result of that lunch, the French member of the executive committee and three other European banks sort of shifted from the U.S. to Qatar, and Qatar, in the subsequent two years, acquired a lot of French aircraft, both Airbus on the commercial side and some fighter jets, and interestingly also acquired Sarkozy’s favorite and then financially troubled soccer club, Paris Saint-Germain.
So sometimes you don’t need an explicit quid pro quo. You could have a conversation about how great it would be to bring the World Cup to Qatar, and by the way, my beloved Paris team is struggling. And that’s a wonderful airline you have, let me put you in contact with somebody in Airbus who can sell you some jets.
Once it elevates to a certain level, it’s a fine line between an affinity of interest and outright corruption.
TN: We’ve reported on the corruption and the migrant workers who were by many accounts treated very poorly in the building of so many of the structures and venues and stadiums in Qatar, where the games are being played. But if you can address something that’s happened just in the last 24 hours, and that has to do with the armbands. There are all kinds of concerns about Qatar’s treatment of the LGBTQ community. And [England’s captain] Harry Kane and some other great players, captains of their teams, wanted to wear armbands that said “One Love.” Tell us what happened.
AM: There are a group of European football federation’s whose captains for months now have been planning to wear “One Love” captain armbands to express displeasure with Qatar and solidarity with the LGBT community, and had requested from FIFA that this was allowable.
One of the things that’s been interesting since 2020 is FIFA and the regional confederations had been a lot more tolerant of player speech and activism around the game. A lot of the rules against that had been relaxed. The players kneeling, players wearing T-shirts during warm up that said “human rights,” and so forth. That was an expression of their feelings about the Qatari World Cup, but a little bit vague. FIFA looked the other way. And so I was surprised that FIFA reacted to the armband gesture the way it did.
TN: FIFA basically said they can’t wear it, right?
AM: In a sort of Orwellian way. FIFA said, “You don’t need to do that because we have some social justice messaging, and all we’re going to have all the teams be able to select armbands.” One says, “share the meal,” one says something like “sport unites us all.” So it was a way to deflect. They said, “You cannot wear your ‘One Love’ armband, but here, take some of ours.”
I really think FIFA probably would have been OK arbitrating between Qatar’s displeasure at this and needing to cater to European audiences. But I think we’ve seen a stiffening of Qatari resentment at what they see as outside conditions and mores being imposed on their World Cup, and I think is a backlash given all the criticism that they have been rightly subjected to.
It raises the worrisome question of what else are they going to renege on? Are we going to see people arrested for holding hands in public or wearing rainbow wardrobes just among fans and such? Gianni Infantino, the head of FIFA, now lives in Qatar. So you could say he’s fully captive. But I think the Qatari regime is just striking back. Maybe they face a lot of criticism internally. A lot of Qatari people I spoke to say, “You have to understand that there are elites within Qatar who resent the fact that any time they leave the country and travel abroad, all they hear about are all these things that are wrong with their country,” which everyone is now aware of because of the World Cup. And so there was blowback to the regime.
I think now they feel like they need to show that they’re standing up to these Westerners because they feel like they can’t win.
TN: Right. What should be a public relations bonanza for any country is anything but for Qatar.
But Andres, you’re a student and scholar of the more broad issue of sports and politics connecting. Nine months ago, when the Olympics were held in Beijing, there were those who tagged them as the “genocidal Olympics.” There were human rights questions and so forth. I wonder, are these just a couple of very extreme cases, in your view? Or are global gatherings of sport in this day and age somehow destined to have these kinds of troubles?
AM: I think they’re more destined to have these debates and troubles than in the past, only because we’re more aware of a lot of the issues in these countries, in an age where messaging isn’t the one-way street that it was. When I was a kid, the first World Cup I can remember enjoying was in Argentina, in the middle of the so-called “Dirty War” in that country. It was held by a military junta that was torturing and disappearing people blocks away from the stadiums. I was oblivious to that. I was a kid. But I think a lot of the world was oblivious to that because we weren’t on Twitter hearing from groups representing the victims. The messaging was all coming from FIFA and Argentina. Sure, there were groups in Europe trying to organize a boycott, but the mass audience watching the World Cup was only getting a message that was coming down from the center. In this very different age of communications, we’re all more aware of this.
I think the other reason why we’re seeing more of this is that regimes that are in need of refurbishing or changing the narrative around their reputation, their brand, if we want to call it that, are the ones that are going to be most eager to invest heavily in sport. They are going to be the highest bidders. In 2010, the United States government made some efforts to try to win Olympic and World Cup bids, but there wasn’t the same level of desperation to bring these events and host the world at any cost. Their ROI on how they think of these things are very different.
[Sunday] was amazing — you had a World Cup kicking off in Qatar and on the same day, you had a Grand Prix of Formula One next door in Abu Dhabi [in the United Arab Emirates]. That should tell you something about the geoeconomics and geopolitics of sport these days.
Russia is an interesting example. I don’t think anybody has invested so heavily in branding himself as a leader and his country through sport more than [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and Russia, when you think about the Sochi Olympics in 2016, the World Cup in 2018, massive investments in European football with Gazprom as a big sponsor. And interestingly, all that got unplugged as a result of the invasion of Ukraine.
TN: And the inverse of what you’re saying — I’m a New Yorker and I can remember when this city made its bid for the Olympic Games, and not only was there not an all-hands-on-deck effort to get the bid, there was a local fight about whether we should do it.
AM: Yes. Qatar spent more than $200 billion on the infrastructure that went into the World Cup. Now, some of that is stuff that would have happened anyway, but they clearly want to use this World Cup to drive a lot of national development. And not just to improve their reputation — unlike, say, the way it is with Russia or China.
TN: You and others have used the term “sportswashing.” Can you explain what that means?
AM: Sportswashing is sort of a term that came into vogue in the last couple of years to describe some of this process of laundering your reputation through sport. This idea that you want to associate your image with big events. In a way, what regimes are doing through sport, washing their reputation, is what commercial brands have been doing for decades. The same reasons why Budweiser wants to be associated with sports and the passion that they generate. It’s not that dissimilar as to why, Putin or China’s leadership or in this case Qatar, want to do so.
One of the things that’s really shifted recently is that it used to be that your opportunities to do this, if you were a regime around the world, was to try to attract a World Cup or an Olympic Games. But now we start to see sportswashing encroaching into our year-round, domestic games. Look at what the Saudis are doing with golf, and how the Saudis are buying Newcastle United in the English Premier League. This is wanting to be associated with sport in a regular way, not just on the one-off that you get the World Cup or the Olympic Games.
TN: Maybe this is a personal question for individual fans, but to what extent can these issues get forgotten now that the games have begun? Are the headlines still going to be filled with all this stuff in a few days, or is it going to be about [Lionel] Messi and Harry Kane and all the other great players on the field?
AM: Well, I think that this goes back to my wish that this World Cup carry an asterisk, and it’s a tough juggling act to appreciate and enjoy the game at the same time. Hopefully journalists who are there, and hopefully all of us who are watching and commenting on the game, don’t suddenly stop caring about the plight of migrant workers in Qatar or the oppression of the LGBT community there and all these other factors.
Can we enjoy Wales versus United States, while still continuing to state and understand that this World Cup should not have been awarded to Qatar? That’s a tough thing to manage, but I think we can do it. I think we are doing it. It’s less tidy and satisfying maybe than if all of us had just said, “We’re just gonna boycott this entirely.” They’re getting away with it, in the sense that the World Cup is being played in Qatar, but it’s up to us to continue to insist that asterisk be there.
TN: Well, let’s get to the seminal question here. As the games go on, Andres Martinez, tell us please, who do you want to win? And who’s actually going to win?
AM: (Laughs). Well, as both a Mexican and American, my rooting interest and my intellectual feeling or sense of who’s going to win are often two different answers. I would bet on Brazil this World Cup, but I think it’s fairly open. I think there’s six or eight teams that have a realistic shot, but I would say Brazil is the favorite. I think it would have been Brazil and France, but France has too many crippling injuries going into this.
I always root for the U.S. and Mexico in particular. I grew up in Mexico. Fans are perennially frustrated that we can’t seem to get beyond the round of 16. I’m not a big Argentina fan, but there would be something nice about seeing Messi, who’s the greatest talent that ever played the game, something sweet about seeing him win a World Cup. So many interesting narratives to keep track of, but I think Brazil will win it.
Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.