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​​The Beautiful Game? The Rise of ‘Sportswashing’ in Football

On 18 December 2022 Argentina beat France 4-2 on penalties at the Lusail Stadium in Qatar to become the champions of the 2022 Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) World Cup. The event was the culmination of years of effort which predated the announcement of Qatar as the host nation on 2 December 2010. The announcement itself caused a stir in football, amongst concerns that the climate of Qatar was too hot to play such high intensity sport. These concerns were heightened by the fact that the Qatar had been chosen over the U.S., which seemed a more suitable choice, in terms of climate, infrastructure and footballing pedigree.

These concerns were only the beginning of a long line of controversies in the lead up to the tournament, which saw accusations of bribery aimed toward senior members of FIFA regarding the 2022 World Cup bidding process. In addition to this, there was controversy over the treatment of migrant workers in Qatar who were used to build the vast amount of infrastructure necessary for hosting a World Cup. So why did Qatar embark on such a controversial endeavour?

The answer can be seen in the overwhelming success of the tournament, and despite the pre-tournament concerns, the image of Qatar presented during the tournament was that of a forward thinking and modern nation. This image was bolstered by the myriad of promotional material released prior to the World Cup. Famous footballers, such as Gary Neville and David Beckham, visited the nation, acting as ambassadors to portray this sanitised public image as part of this promotional campaign. Perhaps the greatest example of how the World Cup affected people’s views on Qatar is that of Jordan Henderson, who, before the tournament, was very vocal in his views about human rights in Qatar, but was recently quoted in an interview saying:

“We had a meeting with the FA (Football Association) about human rights, about the issues around the stadiums. I think it might have been amnesty who had sent the images and stuff. And then, half an hour later, I go into a press conference, or some media and I’ve commented on that situation. I was like, ‘Well, it was quite shocking and horrendous’, and that was quite hard for us to see. But then when I went to Qatar and we had the experience we had at the World Cup, you get to meet the workers there and it was totally different.”

This phenomenon is known as ‘sportswashing’, and whilst the Qatar World Cup is the most prominent example in football, it is the continuation of a trend which is gaining momentum.

Sportswashing as a form of reputation laundering for a state or private individual is not a new concept, and one could point to the 1936 Berlin Olympics as an early example, nor is it a phenomenon new to football, however, over the past two decades, there has been an increased frequency in the use of football as a form of reputation laundering.

Examples of sportswashing can be found throughout European football, but one of the most explicit examples in recent times is Roman Abramovich’s ownership of Chelsea (2003-2022). Some even suggest that Abramovich acquired the club at the behest of Vladimir Putin, in an attempt to divert attention from human rights issues. Similarly, in 2008 the purchase of Manchester City by the City Football Group which the Abu Dhabi United group owns 81% of. This company is owned, in turn, by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, a member of the ruling family of Abu Dhabi. Both these clubs have seen a rise in success during the tenure of their respective owners due to a large amount of investment. As a result attention has been diverted away from the poor human rights records of both countries, with Russia ranking 126th on the Human Freedom Index and the United Arab Emirates 131st.

It cannot be denied that both cases were successful in their original aims, which is illustrated by further foreign investment in the Premier League. In 2021 the Saudi Public Investment (PIF) fund, headed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country's de facto ruler, purchased an 80% stake in Newcastle United, in what was a blatant example of sportswashing, in a move which has already seen the club achieve relative success. On top of this there is currently an ongoing bid for Manchester United headed by Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad al-Thani, a member of the Qatari Royal Family, in what would be an escalation in Qatari investment in football post World Cup.

In the past decade the use of football as a vehicle for reputation laundering has exploded, and it does not seem to be slowing down. If the recent investment by the Saudi PIF in its own football league is anything to go by then we should expect the trend to continue. As a result of this investment many high-profile players such as Cristiano Ronaldo enticed to Saudi Arabia by extremely lucrative wages, which has led to an explosion in the popularity of the league.

The increased amount of investment into the Premier League has not gone unnoticed and the U.K. government has confirmed the imminent arrival of an independent football regulator. This would assess potential new owners in many categories, including an ‘ethic and integrity’ component, which may go some way to prevent state ownership. However, after the Premier League claimed that it received ‘legally binding guarantees that Newcastle United would not be controlled by the state of Saudi Arabia in the event of any takeover,’ it is perhaps natural to be sceptical of the initiative.

The point of sportswashing in sport is to subconsciously associate the success of any team or competition with its owner, and therefore distract you from whatever scandals, injustices, or human rights abuses that they may have overseen. Therefore, as a fan of football or any sport that has fallen victim to sportswashing, one must consciously make an effort to remove the success of a team from the regime with which they are associated.


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