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Qatar’s FIFA World Cup was more than just a soccer tournament

As I sat down at a local bar to watch England take on Senegal for the right to move on to the Quarter Finals, I ordered a drink and looked around. Something was off, there was a noticeable lack of energy in the place. This is a sports bar, a place where people congregate to enjoy these types of events. Sure, it may only be 2 p.m., but it’s a Saturday and this is the FIFA World Cup, the crème de la crème of international sporting events. For 29 days every four years, an average of 227 million people are on the edge of their seats, watching the best soccer players in the world battle it out for global supremacy. This tournament has always been advertised as an example of international unity under FIFA’s slogan, For the Game, For the World.


But today, I was sitting in The Church Mouse, an LGBTQ+ British sports pub on Church St in Toronto and I realized that theme rings a little hollow this year. The drinks are cold, the game is on, but there are no jerseys, there are no big groups of fans cheering for their teams. Sure, there are some England flags on the walls next to the list of daily specials, but no World Cup promotional items, no attempt to create the type of game day atmosphere you would come to expect during one of the biggest matches of the years. The servers have even made a conscious decision to play their top 40 playlist instead of the live game commentary. This sense of apathy would normally come off as strange, heck even stupid, for a business that makes its money entertaining sports fans, but again, this year feels different. This year, people don’t feel like celebrating the tournament, because this year, FIFA chose to host the World Cup in Qatar.  


When FIFA awarded Qatar the World Cup in 2010, the tournament was immediately marred in controversy. Qatar is not a football nation. They didn’t even have a national team at the time they were awarded the honour to host. But putting the on-field product aside, this is a nation roughly the size of Prince Edward Island that didn’t have the infrastructure to host an event of this scale. They didn’t have stadiums, they didn’t have hotel accommodations, they didn’t even have a suitable climate to host what is traditionally a summer tournament. What they did have was money, and a lot of it. So, we know why FIFA was interested, the recent Netflix docuseries, FIFA Uncovered, showed they are more than willing to accept bribes from countries hoping to be selected as hosts. But what was Qatar’s motivation to win the bid? To answer that question, we need to look deeper into a newly coined political strategy called sportswashing.


Dr. Alan McDougall is a professor of history at the University of Guelph who has written extensively about the history of sport and its role in international relations explains,


“The term sportswashing is new, but the phenomenon is not new. When we go back to the early days of modern sport, or I would say particularly the 1930s, I think countries started to realize the soft power value of sport, in its international diplomatic appeal. The Los Angeles Olympics in 1932 was essentially a big post-depression marketing campaign for the United States. Then you have fascist Italy hosting and winning the World Cup of 1934 or even Nazi Germany in the 1936 Olympics. I think the difference now is that we have a term to describe it and I think journalists, academics and sports lovers are just more aware of the problem.”


The current influx in the use of sportswashing can be attributed to Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF). Although the fund was founded in 1971, the current Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has recently dedicated a portion of the seemingly limitless coffers to Saudi involvement in international sport. In 2021, the PIF led a consortium that purchased Premier League club Newcastle United for £305 million. Shortly after came the inception of the LIV Golf Tour. The Saudi funded association was meant to be a direct competitor of the PGA, and lured top players like Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson to the tour with their deep pockets and guaranteed paychecks.


The most blatant use of sportwashing by the Saudi regime may be their 10-year partnership with the WWE. The contract stipulates that the sports entertainment company holds an annual mega event in Riyadh called Crown Jewel. The event is essentially a Saudi propaganda tool during which the greatest wrestlers, often retired, are paid an outlandish amount of money to come back to the ring and perform. The WWE is also known to produce their own commercials during their events, which the Saudi regime utilized to promote a positive image for their country. The commercials commented on their progression into the 21st century, showing footage of Saudi women driving in an attempt to combat their international reputation of being a repressive culture. Despite this, not a single woman could be seen in the crowd around the ring. Who knows, maybe they chose not to attend, maybe they were out driving?


Whatever the case may be, the Saudi regime has been the beneficiary of the effects of sportswashing, and have created an alternative narrative around the country’s international image. They are willing to take the good press and the bad press, as long as they are being talked about. It would stand to reason that their Qatari neighbours to the east were inspired by that progress and were looking to get in on the action. Dr. Alan McDougall seems to agree,


“I think the power of sport to help launder international reputation is greater than ever. But I also think it doesn’t really matter too much when they get bad press. Sure, if they get some bad stories about migrant workers or intolerance of minorities, they can almost live with that because the economic benefits, the fact that a small country like Qatar now has its brand on the world map outweighs any sort of criticism or moral high horse from the west. Any regimes that are investing in what we call sportswashing are prepared to take the hits in order to get the benefits.”


Dr. McDougall was correct in his observation, Qatar has definitely pushed through some bad press both leading up to and during the tournament.  It started with an article in February 2021 by the Guardian about a report from Amnesty international that 6500 migrant workers had died building stadiums in Qatar since the World Cup was awarded. Since then, Qatar has had a litany of controversies surrounding the tournament. Once the first game kicked off however, many of these faded into the background. Only one seemed to persist throughout, their cultural intolerance of the LGBTQ+ community.


The Qatari government, like many Middle Eastern nations, does not recognize same-sex marriage or civil partnerships. Not only are they not recognized, they are illegal, and so is any form of LGBTQ+ advocacy or campaign for rights. But it’s not just the government that feels this way, Qatari World Cup representatives have been vocal about their opposition to the LGBTQ+ Community. The official Qatari World Cup ambassador, Khalid Salman, told German journalist Jochen Breyer in a televised interview that he believes homosexuality is a, ‘damage of the mind’.


This interview was prompted by a report from the Human Rights Watch (HRW) that Qatar Preventative Security Department forces were arbitrarily arresting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and subjecting them to ill-treatment in detention. Between 2019 and 2022 HRW documented six cases of severe and repeated beatings and five cases of sexual harassment on members of the LGBTQ+ community while in police custody. HRW says security forces arrested these people in public places solely on their gender expression and unlawfully searched their phones for evidence of what they called their ‘affliction’. Once released, the security forces mandated that the transgender women detainees attend conversion therapy sessions at a government-sponsored ‘behavioural healthcare’ center, a practice that is illegal in most countries.


I think Rasha Younes, an LGBT rights researcher for the Human Rights Watch said it best,


“Qatari authorities need to end impunity for violence against LGBT people. The world is watching.”


The world was indeed, watching. Seven teams participating in the World Cup planned to make a statement during the group stage of the tournament. England, Wales, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany and Denmark planned to wear OneLove armbands to show that they do not stand for inclusivity and support the idea that soccer is for everyone. This plan was made public weeks before the commencement of the games, which is why it is suspicious that FIFA announced one day before the first match that any players wearing the multicoloured OneLove logo would be issued a yellow card.


The threat seemed to do the trick for FIFA and Qatari officials, as none of the seven teams were wearing the armbands in their opening matches. England decided instead to collectively take a knee before kickoff, a protest inspired by NFL Quarterback Colin Kaepernick, and the German squad took a group picture covering their mouths before their opening match with Japan, to symbolize their right to free speech and expression being taken from them.


Josie Nixon is the Head of Sports Partnerships with the You Can Play Project, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to safety and inclusion of LGBTQ+ athletes, coaches and fans. She claims to have mixed feelings about the armband saga,


“My lens as a privileged person needs to be taken into account. First, its unprecedented that FIFA would make such a ruling in respect to the armbands and we all know why they did it, it’s because Qatar was getting upset and they didn’t want to piss off the host nation. We need to understand that there are power dynamics in play between FIFA, Qatar and the organizations that are involved in the tournament. We’ve seen that they will only participate in inclusivity activism when it is advantageous for their headlines or highlights.” She continued,


“Secondly, I don’t want the conversation to dissolve into the idea that we have any expectation for these players to lead our social justice movement. Most of these players are young and if I was a 22-year-old that prepared my entire life to play in the World Cup, I don’t think I would have the proper understanding of the human rights issues in Qatar, the social justice movement or the nuances present in both of those conversations. What stands out for me is that these organizations stood up and said the OneLove armband is important to us and that LGBTQ inclusion is important to us. So, while I am let down by the developments, I have a clear understanding of where the blame should lie and this is a FIFA and Qatar issue.”


Canada Soccer is one of those organizations that has stepped up over the last few weeks. Although not involved with ArmbandGate, as its now being called, they did announce a 4-year partnership with the You Can Play Project. The partnership will be an important step towards breaking down the barriers to LGBTQ+ inclusion in both youth and professional sports. Josie was an essential part of making this partnership happen.


“Ultimately it fits within our mission.” Josie said, “We want to use the influence of the leadership within Canada Soccer to spread a message of inclusion within their ranks and for them to understand that they are at the pinnacle of an entire nation of sporting environments. We hope to use the partnership to create change within their structures but also to highlight that this is something every team should lean into and support by making sure every player, coach referee and parent knows that their team stands for inclusion and that they are welcome. There is more to sports than just kicking a ball around and I think this partnership will be fantastic for the four years of our agreement.”


While watching the England Senegal match at the Church Mouse, I was interested to hear the opinions of some of the patrons who were also there to watch the game. I met Brian, an English soccer fan and member of the LGBTQ+ community. We sat at the bar and talked openly about the human rights violations and controversies that went along with this year’s tournament. He also gave his perspective on FIFA’s armband ruling,


“I was happy to see that England was one of the teams promoting the OneLove message. They didn’t have to; their job is to play football. I love the World Cup because it brings all types of different people together for the sole love of football, but overall, this year feels different to me. Although I have been watching the games, it feels weird supporting something that doesn’t support me.”


This sentiment has been expressed in many ways throughout Toronto’s LGBTQ+ community. As I walked down Church Street, a lone protester stood on the street corner. His sign bore the FIFA logo with a large red X through it and ‘Boycott the World Cup’ was written underneath. He didn’t say anything, no chant or rallying cry, he just stood there in silent defiance. I thought about him as I walked, wondering how long he had been there and if any of the cars driving by were reading his message.


I was on my way to Pegasus on Church, a local bar touted in the LGBTQ+ community as a go-to venue for sporting events. I had heard that the owner, Christopher Hudspeth had taken a principled stance by boycotting the World Cup and refusing to show the games in his bar.


“We believe in human rights, so we felt that it wasn’t necessary for us to make money off the backs of people being persecuted or to support an event where the persecutors are making money. We felt that by not showing the games we are doing what little we can to stand up for those beliefs.” Christopher explained.


I asked him how his boycott was being received by his staff and customers. He said there have been mixed reviews.


“We’ve had a few negative reactions about it, and by a few I mean literally three. The rest of our guests are all happy that we’ve taken the stance, they understand and many have chosen to take the stance to boycott the games outside of our bar as well because they know what it means to the community.”


The final game between France and Argentina will be remembered as one of the best games in the history of the tournament. Headlines have been focused on the storylines within that game. Lionel Messi winning his first World Cup at the age of 35, Kylien Mbappe matching Messi goal for goal and cementing himself as the next great one. Qatar hopes these narratives carry the conversation, a memorable end to a memorable World Cup. But we need to make sure people also remember the 6500 migrant workers who died making this tournament a reality. We need to make sure people remember the unjust imprisonment and abuse of LGBTQ+ Qatari citizens. We cannot allow the Qatari sportswashing strategy to succeed. If all we remember is who won the tournament, we will be doing just that.


Image Credit: Bloomberg.com

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