The 2022 FIFA World Cup: a sports-washing masterclass

Sports writer Ryan Shumaker speaks on the good and the bad of the World Cup.

The 2022 FIFA World Cup saw the might of football’s powerhouse nations clash with a resilient rising tide of smaller nations to produce unforgettable moments of magic and drama. Unfortunately, there is a dark side of this World Cup’s story which its hosts and governing body would rather not be told. While the football aspect brought fantastic flair, the world’s most beloved carnival was staged at the expense of the rights and lives of thousands. Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup was the centerpiece of their broader sports-washing mission and an unnerving reflection of how humanity’s greatest game is being used to brighten the perception of totalitarian governments around the globe.

For every criticism levied and scandal uncovered, this World Cup produced an inspiring moment of beauty on the field to drag eyes away from the cruel reality of it. In February of 2021, it was revealed in an article from the Guardian that 6,750 South Asian migrant workers brought to Qatar to construct the tournament’s necessary infrastructure died between 2011 and 2020, one of which was a Filipino worker who died while working to repair lights at a team’s training facility just 10 days before the World Cup final. When asked about the death, Qatar’s World Cup chief executive Nasser Al-Khater demonstrated the state’s unambiguous indifference towards the lives of migrant workers when he stated, “Death is a natural part of life – whether it’s at work, whether it’s in your sleep.” Furthermore, a report published by Amnesty International in 2021 indicates that roughly 70 percent of the migrant worker deaths are either vaguely attributed to “cardiac arrest” and “natural causes” or are a result of “unclassified” incidents.

The Qatari state’s apathy towards the mass death of migrant workers paired with their continued abuse of the workers who survived led many people to conclude that Qatar hosting the World Cup was a humanitarian negative for that region of the world. In response to this consensus, officials from FIFA and Qatar advised such critics to remember how the Arab World united in celebration when Saudi Arabia defeated Argentina and when Morocco became the first African team to reach a World Cup semifinal. Additionally, they point to the abundance of Palestine flags that were waved by fans in support of the long oppressed Arab nation. However, these wonderful moments of unity were solely down to the enduring magic of football, rather than the actions of FIFA or the Qatari state. While underdog nations flourished on the field, it is unlikely that their accomplishments recompensed Indian workers who were treated like slaves or provided any solace to the Nepalese families who lost loved ones as they built the stage for Qatar’s ultimate show.

Another method of deflection employed by Qatar was accusing critics from Western nations of hypocrisy, racism and cultural intolerance. Unfortunately, this tactic seems effective in swaying many Western liberals who fail to understand that one can fight injustice at home and still condemn atrocities abroad. The United States is far from being the world’s standard bearer for workers’ rights and is still deeply infected with homophobia and systemic racism. However, citing these issues to call Americans who criticize Qatar hypocrites is no different than insisting Americans should remain silent about Russia invading Ukraine because we once wrongfully invaded Iraq. To find an example of real hypocrisy, look no further than FIFA running anti-discrimination and LGBTQ+ pride campaigns in the summer, then threatening teams at the World Cup with sporting sanctions if their captain wore a OneLove armband in support of the LGBTQ+ community.

Qatar’s sports-washing ventures extend far beyond the World Cup. Paris Saint Germain FC is owned by the Qatari state, and it just so happens that the Parisian club’s two biggest stars were shining brighter than ever in Doha as they lit up the World Cup final. Argentines and those pious to Messi everywhere finally witnessed their idol immortalized while the French and a young generation of fans will forever remember their hero Mbappe scoring a hat-trick in the final. Finally, as Messi was presented with the trophy, the Emir of Qatar placed a black Middle Eastern garment known as a Bisht on his shoulders, largely covering the Argentina jersey, ensuring the Qatari state’s attachment to the historic moment and applying the finishing touch on a 12-year project to obscure the world’s view of the humanitarian horror show taking place in Qatar.

Post Author: Ryan Shumaker