The ultimate victor is ‘sportswashing’ 

The 2022 men’s Football World Cup has finally drawn to a close, after several weeks of inane and underwhelming sport, where the greatest moments of excitement and controversy came off the pitch.  

Yes, Argentina won the tournament, but it would be difficult to crown any true champion other than the phenomenon of ‘sportswashing’. Spoken of frequently around the recent Beijing Winter Olympics, it refers to a nation or body utilising the cleansing power of sport to improve their reputation. Qatar, a state notorious for its appalling human rights record, hoped to bathe in the adoring glow of hosting one of the most popular sporting events in the world.  

Ever since Qatar was awarded a successful bid, most spectators were at least confused by the decision, if not openly interrogative. The general rumblings escalated into a derisive clamour that would crescendo immediately prior to the opening match. Questions varied in severity but swirled relentlessly. How could Qatar justify the alleged 6,500 migrant worker deaths and the conditions akin to modern slavery? What reception could LGTBQ+ fans anticipate? And how dare they schedule this traditionally summer-orientated tournament in the winter? 

Who didn’t watch? 

Many of England’s Lionesses were adamant prior to kick-off that, despite supporting their equivalent men’s team, they would not watch, considering such an act in contravention with their morals. 

Whether that idealistic stance was maintained or conceded is perhaps irrelevant. It’s considerably more telling such conversations have been largely substituted for an exclusive focus on the football, as was FIFA’s instruction. Personally, I watched England’s opener against Iran, half of the deathly dull contest with the USA, before the predominantly lifeless final. I should say I don’t find the game remotely entertaining. During the final, an especially dreary two hours was sustained only by fleeting, isolated moments of action responsible for energising players idly passing the ball without urgency. The tempo would, of course, greatly benefit from eradicating the almost-minutely stoppages for ‘injuries’, but writhing in imagined agony after minimal contact is apparently integral to the sport.  

Stadiums were presumably also devoid of those fans unable to afford the heinously expensive prices, or those whose interests would only last the duration of their pints.  

Off-pitch controversy 

FIFA is drenched in corruption well past the saturation point, such that it blatantly seeps through the over-exposed cracks. It’s so beyond obvious Qatar should never played host even Sepp Blatter has expressed his regret. Their own team performed embarrassingly. Initial reports revealed construction projects squandered uncompleted, infrastructure remained unfinished, and the fan village lay empty save for swathes of actors paid to represent different nationalities. Initially, it was amusing to watch the Fyre Festival-esque debacle unfurl. But there are serious issues. 

Over the course of the tournament, I heard Morocco referenced as ‘winning people’s hearts and minds’. A country responsible for its own abuses against migrants, including abusive raids and forced displacements, followed by the imprisonment of the journalists who reported on them. Numerous laws restrict personal freedoms, discriminating against women and LGTBQ+ individuals. The state justice system often acts with impunity towards critics. In essence, Morocco’s problems are eerily similar to Qatar’s, and yet have been entirely overlooked in exchange for football success. It’s impossible to know how a scrappy, underdog Qatar team would have been perceived had they achieved a deep run. 

Both FIFA and other event organisers have lashed out against condemnation of their tournament, Infantino in his bizarre and infamous speech, whilst Qatar officials have frequently bemoaned the focus on migrant deaths instead of football. Wenger ruffled a few feathers when, during a technical briefing, he noted that previously favourited teams that had demonstrated in some facet – Germany, Belgium, and Denmark – had not progressed through the group stages, praising England and France for focussing on the game. For all their talk, Kane never wore his ‘One Love’ armband. The closest England came to a position was James Cleverly’s suggestion LGBTQ+ fans should be “respectful of the host nation” and “compromise”. 

Beyond sport 

In the latest scandal besetting the UK, Guardian reporting has revealed PPE Medpro received fast-tracked contracts during the pandemic at the behest of Conservative peer Michelle Mone, securing lucrative profits for her adult children and herself. Additionally, billionaire numbers have risen 20% since the pandemic, despite the cost of living crisis crippling many families. We’re facing nursing, transport, Royal Mail, and teaching strikes, all overseen by a government apparently unwilling to take ownership of past failures or present responsibility. The key ingredient?  

We just don’t care. Expectations are abysmally low. Much as people still like to mythologise the United Kingdom, the situation is far from ideal. But what has emerged as the last vestige of English hope is their football team. Again, it wasn’t to be, and England whimpered home.  

The event has overshadowed other major issues like COP15 which, on the back of a largely unsuccessful Cop27, continues to demonstrate our collective lack of global interest in resolving the great threats to our planet. So, with the World Cup concluded we’re forced to again watch our nation crumble and the planet burn. 

In fitting form, we were at least granted one final moment of controversy to indulgently fume over, gnashing toothless jaws at the audacity of Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani for draping a black bisht over Messi. 

Sportswashing remains undefeated.  


Thanks for reading! Let me know your thoughts on the World Cup below. Feature image is thanks to Unsplash.

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