Qatar 2022 was a different World Cup: the tournament was ensnared in a web of geopolitical scandals that almost strangled the competition before it began. The aftermath will be just as scandalous, at least according to football fans, over 90% of whom believe future World Cups and Olympics will be international political events. They are convinced the kind of controversy and polemic generated by Qatar will become the norm. Yet, there is a paradox: almost three-quarters believe this is a lamentable development. “Qatar is just the start and a blueprint for future events to be targeted for political and financial gain,” one research participant predicted.
Why are so many convinced the character of the World Cup and, by implication, the Olympics has changed, and why do so many believe this is bad? Basically, fans balance the benefits and intrinsic rewards offered by global tournaments against the hijacking of such events for partisan purposes. At Qatar, the host’s abundant human rights issues and its questionable labor practices were roundly criticized. There were clichéd complaints of “sportswashing,” though, as one fan concluded: “Sportswashing is not really possible anymore. Attempts to pull the wool are cut off immediately by the billions of people on social media.”
Nowhere in the world is likely to be morally flawless in the mind of sports fans. They see sport as bringing climate change, human rights, bigotry and practically any other of the world’s bedeviling social problems into focus. Sports is, as one participant put it, “fair game,” meaning, if there is a problem that needs fixing, the methods are of secondary importance: only the result matters and sports is becoming an effective instrument. Nearly 73% are convinced sport in the 21st century is politically weaponized and will be an effective force in changing society. Sports have a “galvanizing effect,” according to one fan: “Movements for change can use the associated momentum to kick off beneficial activity.”
Qatar has “lit a fire” under sport. “Any future host nations will come under more scrutiny,” suggested a fan, making a point shared by most. And another: “It is a myth that sports and politics are not intertwined. Sport can create positive change in society, and an open stance should be encouraged to drive this change.”
“Athletes like all of us have a right to free speech,” declared one fan, confirming that the role of the World Cup, like it or not, will be to spotlight inequities, injustices and discrimination.
Politics and the World Cup in Future — What fans think
88.6% Think World Cups and Olympics of the future will be controversial political events
72.3% Think sport has the potential to produce social and political change
73.4% Think political World Cups are a negative development
62.1% Don’t think athletes should get involved in nonsporting affairs, like wearing emblems or making gestures
51.8% Don’t think being involved in political activism is detrimental to competitive performance
34.1 % Think future World Cups should follow Qatar’s example and ban alcohol.
Sample: 1,200. Conducted: Dec. 19, 2022-Jan 19 2023. Teesside University, UK
Who Is In Charge of the Message?
But, while there is near-consensus on the moral destiny of the World Cup — and, according to most fans, the Olympics too — there is division over the desirability of sports becoming political in character. Nearly 74% don’t feel that politicization shouldn’t be encouraged. It is, they say, not sports’ responsibility to be a catalyst of change. Why then do so many think the politicization of sport is an unfavorable prospect?
The answers for this are not straightforward. Some fans believe the remonstrations witnessed over Qatar will soon be forgotten and will have achieved nothing. Sports only appear to be effective, but in the longer term are simply not. Some fans reflected on how sport was often lauded in the fight against apartheid in South Africa. There was a widespread boycott and SA was alienated from world sport for much of the 1970s and 1980s.Yet there is little evidence that the boycott actually served more than a symbolic role.
“Who is in charge of the message?” asked one fan, raising another objection. Is it legitimate for one culture to criticize another because its customs and practices differ? One of the present authors has argued that much of the attack on Qatar bordered on Islamophobia and several participants in the research were concerned that moral absolutism (the belief in absolute principles in ethical, political or theological matters) could prevail. As most fans recognize, there are few places in the world that are perfect enough to avoid some sort of reproval. (The next World Cup is to be held in Canada, USA and Mexico, which would seem to offer plenty of raw material for political protest.)
One participant extended this argument: “People like to pass judgment on other cultures without acknowledging the problems in their own country.” He continued: “Don’t forget homosexuality was illegal in the country that hosted the World Cup last time England won it.” It’s a slyly intelligent response: Britain’s Sexual Offences Act, which decriminalized private consensual homosexual acts between men aged over 21 was not passed until 1967, a year after England’s only World Cup win. There was no gay liberation movement; this started in 1969. While Betty Frieden’s The Feminine Mystique had been published in 1963, women’s liberation didn’t pick up momentum till the late 1960s/early 1970s. There was no protest in 1966.
Sports Should Be Pure
Host nations have, in the past, largely escaped the kind of audit that would expose unwholesome legislation, customs and cultural practices. Football’s World Cup has, over the decades, been held in countries mired in conflict, where dubious pursuits and, often abhorrent operations have been practiced. The 1934 tournament was played in Italy, then under the leadership of Benito Mussolini, the founder of the Italian fascist party, who annexed Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) in the same year and, in 1940, entered World War II on the same side as Germany. “Il Duce,” as he was known, used the World Cup to promote fascism.
In June 1978, General Jorge Rafael Videla, the military dictator of Argentina, presided over the World Cup opening ceremony, and presented the trophy after the final. Three years earlier, he had explained his philosophy of government: “As many people as necessary must die in Argentina so that the country will again be secure.” About 30,000 political opponents of the Videla junta “disappeared,” many feared killed, burned and their remains scattered on some of the pitches used during the tournament. The World Cup itself was a huge success, the Argentinian national team prevailing — though only after suspicions of match fixing. It’s sometimes been speculated that Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands in 1982 was in large part an attempt to regenerate the feelings of nationalism and solidarity sparked off by the World Cup.
“Politics don’t belong in sports,” proclaimed one fan bluntly. The point is shared by nearly three-quarters of fans: They have largely accepted the prescription of Avery Brundage, who was president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) from 1952-72: He strongly condemned political interference in sport, which, he maintained, should be “pure.” Only in recent years have sports fans departed from this and taken notice of athletes like Colin Kaepernick and Naomi Osaka, who explicitly used their sports as political platforms.
Social Media’s Exposé
Sports fans have politicized over the past few years. Global movements, in particular Black Lives Matter and MeToo have demonstrated the electrifying power of social media in solidifying opinion and motivating people into action. Even if the majority don’t encourage the politicization of sport, they have become perhaps unwitting participants in the process. Back in 2002, when Qatar was awarded the hosting rights by Fifa, football’s world governing organization, fans were not concerned with the territory’s culture and politics, nor its moral desirability as a site for one of the world’s two most prestigious global tournaments.
By the time of the Qatar tournament last December, everyone was familiar with the customs and practices of the Sheikdom in the Persian Gulf. Some fans attribute this to a growing awareness, in itself hastened by changes in communications: “Social Media allows [a nation’s suitability as host] to be challenged far more than it ever was and exposes stories that the public would previously be unaware of,” said one fan, underscoring the role of online exchanges. Another participant agreed: “Forthcoming events will be exposed in the same way.”
Tangential to the main inquiry, but an indicator of fans’ expectations of World Cups was the alcohol ban: Qatar, a Muslim territory of course, implemented a ban on the sale of alcohol in stadiums. This appeared to be an unpopular decision that fans would resent and oppose. In the event, they didn’t. Over a third (34%) of fans would now support a similar ban at future World Cup tournaments. A minority, but a significant minority nonetheless.
If their visions are to be accepted, future international sports tournaments will take on a very different and much more political complexion that we’re used to and, while most fans regret this development, the vast majority are expecting the kind of turbulence of the Qatar World Cup to be repeated time and again. As one fan summed up: “We live in a time where politics and sport are inextricably linked.”