Summarising the World Cup in Qatar there have been great football games, there has been success and joy for some and disappointment and tears for others. But the lasting impression for many when it comes to the World Cup isn’t who won, but rather that so many of the values we believe in – inclusiveness, human rights, a game that welcomes everyone – lost. That in a sense football and the football organisations lost. No matter how happy the fans in Argentina are it can never cover the bitter taste of one of the worst sportwashing events ever.
We all know the background. FIFA awarded the World Cup to Qatar under dubious circumstances. Qatar is a country continuously violating human rights in several areas. Half the population, women, are denied basic rights, LGBT+ person’s risk harsh punishment and prison for being themselves. The dire situation for LGBT+ persons in Qatar was highlighted again recently when new reports came about severe abuse and random arrest
Add to that how migrant workers that built the facilities for the World Cup are treated in conditions that can be characterised as modern slavery. It is estimated that 15.000 migrant works have died in Qatar since the country was appointed host of the FIFA World Cup.
No serious efforts seem to have taken place to changes this. Instead of seriously using the World Cup as leverage and a tool for change, the high and mighty in the football world choose to promote the narrative that the regime in Qatar wanted to be heard. Activism for human rights was banned and stopped, except for the Palestinian activism which fitted the Qatari political agenda. When football players and national teams wanted to show support for basic rights and values such as stating that LGBT+ rights are human rights by wearing the “One Love” rainbow-coloured armbands they were prevented. In fact, instead of stepping up FIFA slammed the door in the face of human rights.
Sport is an incredibly strong force with great influence both directly and indirectly. Among other things sport creates joy, contributes to public health, and creates idols and role models for children, young people, and adults. Those involved in sports must be aware of the great influence they have. It is not only the athletes who are role models, but the values of the sports organisations and their actions set a standard for everyone who follows the sport. A responsibility that for instance FIFA doesn’t live up to.
If sport is to create joy and involvement, it should be inclusive, instead of excluding individuals or groups. It should not contribute to denying people their basic human rights. This is a responsibility we should expect international sports organisations to live up to.
International sports organisations cannot on the one hand say they welcome everyone, while their closest partners imprison citizens for being themselves, deny their human rights and/or deny their right to freely express their opinion.
If sports organisations and players turn a blind eye when their partners violate human rights, they make themselves complicit in the violations that are committed. They facilitate what is known as sportwashing.
Now this criticism should be directed at FIFA, but they are not alone. International sports organisations act this way frequently and Qatar is not the first and only country trying to use sport as an arena to cover up reality. We have seen it from the IOC, World Athletics and FINA and during the World Cup in Qatar the International Table Tennis Federation voted to award the 2025 world championship to Qatar. Talk about timing.
As far as we and many others can conclude FIFA has not made any real and credible demands on Qatar regarding the standard FIFA has for respecting basic human rights. That is both sad and unfortunate. It is a missed opportunity. The question is will it continue this way or will there be a change. Will other international sports organisations learn from the ongoing debate and will FIFA learn? Or will they go on repeating these same mistakes over and over?
The European Centre Right LGBT+ Alliance strongly believes that the attempts to use sports to improve the image of a country like we see from Qatar in cooperation with FIFA is over time dangerous for sports. Sports organisations dealing with non-democratic regimes and regimes denying their citizens basic human rights have a window to act for a better future. If they don’t, they should be held accountable for the crimes their partners commit as a part of the cooperation.
Global events and global organisations such as the international governing bodies of sport have power to demand and facilitate change. Use that power. Use your platforms for good. Not just the good of your game or your sport, but the good of all.
The European Centre-Right LGBT+ Alliance
Fredrik Saweståhl, President
Gerben Horst, Vice President
Helge Ytterøy L’Orange, Vice President