To say that the 2022 FIFA World Cup has been overshadowed by non-sporting issues would be a monumental understatement. Since that controversial day in 2010 when Qatar was announced as the host for the 22nd installation of the beautiful games and most prestigious competition, there has been less talk about football and more talk about FIFA corruption, migrant worker exploitation and the emirate’s deplorable attitude towards the LGTBQIA+ community.
Ahead of the tournament that kicks off next week, Brewdog has launched its ‘anti-sponsorship’ campaign which looks to find a safe balance between enjoying the spectacle of the World Cup while remaining vigilant to some of the issues that will be eclipsed by the sporting occasion. While the brewery will continue to sell its product in Qatar and screen the tournament in Brewdog pubs across the UK, all profits from Lost Lager sold during the tournament will be donated to human rights charities. The communications may be somewhat undermined by Brewdog’s external image as they have faced recent controversy over the treatment of their staff; but to have a major brand call out the World Cup host over alleged bribery and human rights abuse feels surreal and surprisingly isolated.
Many had subscribed to the seemingly inevitable outcome that the tournament would be moved and held in a more suitable location for the same reasons that Brewdog are citing in their campaign. The bidding process that secured Russia and Qatar as hosts of the respective 2018 and 2022 World Cups has been widely scrutinised and even then-FIFA President Sepp Blatter (who was indicted on fraud charges shortly thereafter) believes that Qatar 2022 is a mistake. The sheer amount of construction needed to safely provide seven brand-new stadiums in addition to the disruption that a Winter tournament would have on domestic league scheduling has posed logistical nightmares. There is, of course the humanitarian concern as same-sex relations in Qatar is punishable by up to seven years imprisonment and the officials have asked supporters not to bring rainbow flags into stadiums for fear that it may cause violence. Furthermore, over 6,000 migrant workers have died in the emirate since it was awarded hosting duties in 2010, with another 5 million reportedly being placed on unpaid leave so that they will not be visible during the tournament. Regardless of what nation you will be tuning in to support, these concerns mustn’t be swept under the rug and whitewashed by the great distraction of sports.
The overused term ‘sportswashing’ only focuses on the reputational improvements that sporting engagements can deliver. The truth is that the complexity of this issue is evolving every day, and sporting mega-events such as the World Cup will gain the most attention due to the collective involvement of the participating nations. When Russia hosted the last World Cup in 2018, Vladimir Putin used the opening night of the tournament to announce the wildly unpopular decision to raise the state retirement age – luckily for him, Russia had just beaten Saudi Arabia 5-0 and mass gatherings were banned during the tournament which unsurprisingly stifled protests and opposition. There are many ways that Qatar can manipulate the spotlight that the World Cup will bring, and the first step in de-weaponising sports is not to be blissfully unaware of this fact. There is a very real risk of developing historical amnesia that will set a dangerous precedent of questionably-located sporting events that will endanger many more marginalised citizens.
As the sporting community is about to set aside domestic rivalries and lump their hopes into their national teams, they should do so while calling out all forms of discrimination and abuse as wilful ignorance is the biggest enabler of this soft power vehicle of manipulation.