World Cup preview from TRUE FAITH’s very own Yousef Hatem – @Yousef_1892
All eyes (OK, perhaps that’s an exaggeration – some of us are just looking forward to Bournemouth at home in the next round of the Carabao Cup) are on the World Cup for the next few weeks. Again, and rightly, the spotlight will fall on the wisdom or otherwise of having awarded hosting rights to Qatar.
TF’s very own Dai Rees (@colemans_dream) will be there following Wales, and I’m really looking forward to reading about his experiences. Those of us not going, who have our preconceptions and misgivings about this version of the world’s flagship international sporting tournament (I certainly have mine – as written about for TF previously: article here), can look forward to Dai’s writing, and the contributions of others who will be there.
Perhaps we may even do so without lazily and unproductively accusing journalists (who are there to do their jobs) or fans (who are there to support their national teams) of hypocrisy or collusion – or smugly yelp: we told you so! – if they choose to highlight controversies or bemoan anything which does not go to plan. The insights of those in Doha will be interesting.
Sports-washing depends on normalisation: on men and women doing conventional and respectable things associated with the sporting occasion (arriving at airports, staying in hotels, playing football, working, attending conferences, eating and drinking, socialising, and spending money) in countries which invite and welcome those conventional and respectable activities as a perceived means of growing their own political capital, deflecting attention from the more unsavoury aspects of that country or the activities of its agents.
The Qatar World Cup is, perhaps, the zenith of this phenomenon, and the world is watching. Those who are there – while they are, on one analysis, pawns in the sports-washing exercise (whether they are there to play football, to cheer their national teams, or to write for newspapers) are also there to bear witness on behalf of those of us who are not. They are our men and women on the inside. They are not Qatari collaborators, any more than those who attended the last World Cup may be perceived as Putin’s henchmen.
I was at that World Cup. You may call me a Putin apologist if you like, but the two Ukrainian refugees who have been living in our home for the past six months might disagree. Good luck to Dai, and of course to our six lads on their respective planes: Wilson, Pope, Trippier, Bruno, Schar and Kuol. Any criticism of any of them for being in Qatar – or indeed of anyone going there for a purpose connected with the World Cup – would be as ridiculous as this exchange from Four Lions:
“Has your Dad ever bought a Jaffa orange?”
“Once or twice.”
“Right. He’s buying nukes for Israel, bro. He’s a Jew.”
Of course, just because it is right that players, supporters and journalists should go to Qatar without feeling any guilt for doing so, does not mean that Qatar is an ideal candidate for hosting such an event: a closeted city-state with an indigent population less than that of County Durham is demonstrably not a conventional tournament host, even before one considers the stench of corruption which pervaded the bidding process.
And then there’s the moral question – about whether a country which allowed 6,500 migrant construction workers to die when building its stadiums, and which continues to brutalise and demean women and LGBTQIA+ people – is truly to be regarded as worthy of hosting such a prestigious event. It will be distasteful, not least to those in Nepal and India who have lost family members, to watch the Qatari royals enjoying the limelight afforded them by this World Cup. It should grate with all of us. It should make us feel uncomfortable.
And yet, although we may justifiably say that we would rather Qatar was not hosting this World Cup, and we would rather it was not being used by its rulers as a sports-washing opportunity – what do we actually mean?
Do we think it is fundamentally a good thing to have a World Cup hosted in a major global region which has not previously hosted one? The Middle East, depending on how you define it, has a population of approximately 500 million people, and is obsessed by football. Sadly, it is also a haven for dictators and despots of the worst kind, and its countries – almost without exception – are engaged in human rights abuses on an industrial scale. Would it be more acceptable if the Middle Eastern country of my own ancestry, Egypt, were to be awarded the World Cup?
We have a female genital mutilation rate of 87%, and we routinely torture political prisoners at the same time as detaining them on the most spurious of charges (the British-Egyptian software developer, Alaa Abd-el-Fattah, is currently on hunger strike in a Cairo jail, and is held for the crime of “spreading fake news”). We also happen, of course, to be a cradle of Western civilisation, and the Arab world’s most populous nation.
Like all countries, we are not one thing, but many – some not so good. What about Saudi Arabia? Turkey? Iran? Is Qatar “better”? Is Qatar “worse”? Glass half full? Glass half empty? Where does this pseudo-intellectual debate – this desperate game of reverse Top Trumps – even end up, if not in ever-decreasing circles of futility and depression? At the moment, we may be focusing on the World Cup, but the same kinds of issues arise any time an actor with dubious intentions (especially where we are talking about a state, a sovereign wealth fund or state-owned enterprise) wants to host a sporting event, buy a club or franchise, or enter into a sponsorship deal.
We (which, in this context, perhaps means little more than “those of us who have views which exist at the intersection between politics and top-level sport”) have no easy choices. If we are to adopt the view that developing nations (Qatar – while it may be fabulously rich – is still “developing” in the literal sense that it has neither a long history nor an established political tradition) are welcome to invest in sporting institutions and host sporting events, this does – whether we like it or not – entail taking those countries as we find them, recognising that they may often have disgraceful human rights records and will see sporting prestige as an opportunity to fast-track their way (deservedly or otherwise) to respectability.
We have to decide: is it worth it? We cannot have it both ways: we either regard the right to host a World Cup, or to invest in a sporting institution, as a privilege which should only be granted to those with exemplary intentions (so all sporting tournaments are hosted by progressive Scandinavian democracies, or possibly New Zealand) or we accept that the creation of sports-washing opportunities is, regrettably, the price which we pay if we want to make global sport truly global.
For my part, I think it is a good thing that the World Cup is happening in the Middle East. Yes, it’s frustrating that it is happening in November. Yes, it would have been better to have had it jointly hosted by a number of states, rather than somewhere so small and manifestly ill-suited to the logistical considerations. And yes, I’d also rather that Qatar did not brutalise people on account of being migrants, or women, or members of the LGBTQIA+ community. We should say, loudly and confidently, that the rights of migrants, of women, and of LGBTQIA+ people, are human rights, that they are universal and innate, and that we do not accept morally bankrupt, lazy relativist arguments that seek to qualify or dilute human rights by reference to “culture” or “tradition”. But, equally, we should be careful not to expect countries (or their governments), especially those in troubled or rapidly developing parts of the world, to have unblemished records.
The view expressed in this article – which is that sports-washing, though a bad thing, is a byproduct of an essentially good and logical thing, namely allowing investment in top-level sport to come from new money and not just old – does not mean that there will not, sometimes, be circumstances in which the negatives outweigh the positives. It is a question of degree and of judgment, and this article is not intended as a defence of Qatar.
For my part, no World Cup is worth the death of 6,500 human beings. The state-sanctioned destruction of human life – on an unfathomable scale – is, quite literally, built into the fabric of this tournament. The fact that the deaths were caused by the existence of this World Cup disfigures the competition itself, and perhaps it is only after the dust has settled that the extent of the disfigurement will be known.
There is, it should be said, an argument that excluding states from the international sporting arena – denying them the platform and the prestige which accompanies their presence – can bring about positive change in those places. The sporting boycott of apartheid South Africa is the obvious example here. It became a pariah state, and – arguably – this contributed towards the dismantling of apartheid and the emergence of the “rainbow nation” in the 1990s. Yet, while this is true, the sporting boycott of South Africa only worked because it was combined with trade, cultural and academic boycotts, and the white supremacist state being given the cold shoulder by other Commonwealth leaders, notably the late Queen.
Boycotts can bring about meaningful change. That one did. During the 1980s, it became socially unacceptable for average British consumers to purchase goods which they knew to be South African. But the semi-skimmed, hand-wringing, plague-on-all-their-houses, moralizing opposition to the Qatari World Cup (or, for that matter, the Saudi investment in Newcastle United or LIV Golf), is impotent. It is too late. Qatar owns stakes in the Ritz, Claridge’s, the Savoy and the Berkeley – not to mention Harrods.
Saudi Arabia owns a Premier League football club (our beloved Mags) and continues to purchase our weaponry. There can be no meaningful sporting boycott of these nations, however much we may dislike their puritanical approaches on social issues. Respect to those Newcastle United fans who demonstrate against sports-washing, and respect to those who refuse to engage with this World Cup, but those protests are about the individuals involved making peace with themselves and their own consciences, nothing more.
In a world with porous borders, where globalization (despite the protectionist impulses of the last few years across the world) has done its work, where we are all digital natives, and where global capital (much of it derived from sitting on scarce natural resources) has triumphed, the notion that “undesirables” should – or even can – be prevented from acquiring a degree of respectability through hosting sporting events or purchasing sports clubs, appears almost quaint.
I wish it were different. I wish that Newcastle United was owned by its supporters (and I made my contributions to the 1892 Pledge) and that English football adopted the Bundesliga approach to club ownership. I wish that it were possible for the World Cup to be awarded to a developing country with an unimpeachable human rights record, paid paternity leave and respect for trans rights.
I wish that a lot of things were not as they are, I really do. But, as Immanuel Kant rightly said: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made”.
We would do well to remember that.
Enjoy the World Cup.
YOUSEF HATEM – @yousef_1892