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How the World Cup in Qatar refined sportswashing into a fine art

The Fifa World Cup 2022 will be remembered for the way that Qatar successfully completed a sportswashing project a decade in the making

Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé both play for Paris Saint-Germain, a football club owned by Qatar.
Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé both play for Paris Saint-Germain, a football club owned by Qatar. (Reuters)

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Since it was declared the host in 2010, Qatar has spent $220 billion to stage the Fifa World Cup. In 2012, it bought the French club Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) for Euro 100 million through Qatari sports Investment (QSI), a closed shareholding organization which is a subsidiary of the Qatari Investment Authority (QIA), the country’s sovereign wealth fund. In 2017, the club bought Brazillian star Neymar for a world record fee of $263 million. That same year, it splurged €180 million on French prodigy Kylian Mbappé. In 2021, it signed the greatest footballer of all time, Lionel Messi, for a free transfer from Barcelona. Currently, Neymar is paid a salary of about €4 million, Messi €3.375 million and Mbappé €6 million a month.

Football is a glorious game. It genuinely moves millions around the world in a way that’s akin to religious ecstasy. Footballers like Messi and Neymar inspire devotion in a way that belies logic. But, as Qatar has proved, this mass adoration is exactly the kind of thing that can also be ruthlessly monetised. When Messi was draped with the traditional beshti robe by his employer, the Emir of Qatar, before hoisting the World Cup trophy, it was the biggest soft power win that Qatar could have hoped for. 

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This is exactly why the country has spent a fortune over the past decade. This is why they hedged all bets and ensured that the three global superstars most likely to win the World Cup all play for PSG. The script was meticulously prepared, and ultimately, the glorious game of football ensured that the true winner of the World Cup was Qatar. Messi won the one trophy that has deluded him, and Mbappé scored a hattrick in the final, and yet lost. This game will go down in history as the greatest World Cup final ever. And Qatar will always be there, in the background, the orchestrators of this grand psychodrama where the biggest winner is the country.

Even as the dust settles, the fact remains that Qatar is a terrible place to work for migrant workers. In this, Qatar isn’t the only nation to be guilty. It’s just that they have taken the opportunities presented by late capitalism, cheap impoverished labour and fossil fuel wealth and have turned it into a ruthlessly efficient operation. An equal amount of the critical glare should fall on the western European nations and international institutions that have enabled this. Before the world Cup began, the France president Emmanuel Macron said football isn’t about politics. He conveniently forgot that the French state’s role in Qatar buying PSG was a profound act of international geo-politics. Nor would Macron or the British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak care to criticize Qatar’s human rights record or labour laws when they are desperately lining up for the country’s natural gas. 

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And the less said about Fifa and its president Gianni Infantino, the better. He has embarrassed himself enough during the World Cup, but I doubt he will care, considering Fifa has registered an estimated revenue of $7 billion from the tournament. The only people protesting are international rights organisations, and families of workers who died in Qatar. And no one is listening to them.

We live in an era of sportswashing, when repressive regimes coasting on oil and gas wealth launder their reputations by buying champion athletes and sporting entities. Qatar and Abu Dhabi have both done it. The most repressive regime of the lot, Saudi Arabia, have also begun, by buying the English football club Newcastle United last year. In this, they were reportedly aided by the UK government. Saudi Arabia has also ventured into golf this year, with the breakaway LIV Golf Tour. Do you know who Saudi Arabia’s tourism ambassador is? Lionel Messi. The World Cup was just sportswashing refined into a fine art. 

Also Read FIFA's cynical Qatar experiment is a blot on football 

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