Sports, not Politics?: Contextualizing Qatar in the History of Controversial Sporting Events

The 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar has been mired in controversy from the moment the Gulf country was awarded the rights to host the tournament. Inquiries by bodies like FIFA and the FBI have found evidence of Qatar bribing FIFA officials to gain the rights to host the tournament. Human rights groups and journalists have also blamed the Qatari regime for serious human rights abuses, specifically regarding the treatment of migrant workers who helped build the infrastructure for the tournament. Media coverage also frames Qatar’s hosting of this tournament as an attempt at “sports-washing” it’s global image to cover for its less-than-ideal human rights record.[1] These critiques of Qatar and the World Cup, from both media outlets and politicians around the world, have continued into the tournament, which is now described as one of the most controversial global sporting events in history. To understand this claim, and critiques of Qatar as a poor location for an international sports event, we must place this event in the broader history of controversial sporting events, including Olympic Games and previous World Cups. One or both major critiques of Qatar—sports-washing a poor human rights record and corruption—have likewise animated the most controversial global sporting events of the 20th and 21st centuries. This article will explore these two categories of critique through the lenses of recent FIFA controversies and past international sports events that are now considered infamous. The historical sports controversies suggest that despite claims of being apolitical, international sports bodies have always held political importance, and should be held to a higher standard.

The Road to Qatar 2022

Criticism of the 2022 World Cup started in 2010. In December of that year, FIFA took the unprecedented decision to select hosts for two future World Cups in the same convention of the Executive Committee. The 22-member Executive Committee selected Russia to host the 2018 tournament, and Qatar for 2022. There were many aspects of this process that confounded observers and other countries that had bid on hosting the tournament. By all accounts, the most comprehensive bid to host the 2022 World Cup came from the United States, which had the existing infrastructure, stadia, and a pre-existing  national soccer league. [2]  Qatar being awarded the tournament without any of these capacities, alongside the grading of the Qatar bid as a “high operational risk” alerted members of FIFA and other football governing bodies to the possibility of underhanded tactics used by Qatar to gain the rights to the tournament. The investigations that followed this bidding process, initially by the FBI, and then FIFA itself, highlighted the inconsistencies in Qatar’s bidding process and the possibility of underhanded tactics, but also proved beyond a doubt that the corruption in FIFA was not isolated to Qatar alone.

In May 2015, an FBI investigation resulted in numerous FIFA individuals, including many from the powerful Executive Committee, being charged and arrested for various financial crimes, including racketeering, wire fraud, and money laundering. The shocking revelations from this investigation, in which the FBI collaborated with international authorities, became an almost existential threat for a sports organization that had nearly complete control over an international sport at the global level. The investigation also highlighted that the corruption exhibited by Qatar had not happened in a vacuum but was part of systemic corruption that has plagued the organization since the early 2000s.

The 2015 investigation revealed exchanges of funds between FIFA and government officials pertaining to multiple past World Cup tournaments. Investigators found evidence that FIFA officials benefited from payments during the host selection process for the 2010, 2014, 2018, and 2022 World Cup tournaments. Earlier reports had also highlighted that multiple members of the Executive Committee received payments in connection with Germany’s bid to host the 2006 World Cup. All these allegations led to the formation of an internal investigation committee by FIFA, which cleared Qatar of any violation even though the Chief Investigator pointed out that his report contained many “erroneous representations” and was “materially incomplete.”[3] The Qatari authorities have never admitted to any wrongdoing with regards to winning the bid (though the evidence suggests a degree of financial corruption during the bidding process, and given the findings of wrongdoing with previous World Cup bids, Qatari representatives disapprove of the singular criticism of Qatar.

It is hard to evaluate the centrality of Qatar’s role in the broader corruption of FIFA. What remains undisputed, however, is that FIFA as an organization has operated in a manner that has compromised fairness in (amongst other aspects) the host bidding process. Financial payments to Executive Committee members, to members of other football confederations, and to high-ranking FIFA officials coinciding with numerous bidding processes highlight the institutional corruption of the sport’s governing body. In other words, Qatar’s successful bid for the 2022 World Cup should be contextualized as part of the worsening corruption in FIFA.

The issue of how Qatar became a host for the 2022 tournament has, more recently taken a backseat to the much more serious allegations of human rights abuses, and specifically migrant labor abuses, by the Qatari authorities, and their efforts to use the tournament to whitewash or “sportswash” the country’s reputation, something that is explored later in this article.  Sportswashing is a relatively new term to describe the use of sports to present a cleaner, more sanitized version of countries or even corporations. Although the term itself is new, the phenomenon has existed since early in the 20th century, when global sporting events became commonplace.

The History of Controversial Sporting Events in the 20th and 21st Centuries

The 1936 Berlin Olympics are a classic example of global sport being used to sanitize and promote a repressive regime on a global scale. When it awarded the 1936 games to Germany in 1931, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) claimed, and showed, that it was concerned merely with the sporting side of the Olympic Games and did not pay much heed to the political climates of host countries. The major concern for the IOC in selecting Germany as a host was whether the regime’s racist policies would bar Jewish athletes and athletes of color (from outside Germany) from participating. Hitler himself assured the IOC that he would “honor any obligation, be a good host and would not care which foreign country would send athletes.”[4] The IOC went as far as claiming that it did not make decisions based on political policies within host countries, pointing to the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis that were held in a United States still marred by racial segregation.[5] The IOC also reiterated that changing the host country (as of 1933) would not be logistically possible and would put the staging of the games in jeopardy. This did not stop political opposition to the games, especially in the United States, which demanded equal treatment of Jewish Germans. Germany was given an opportunity by the IOC to unequivocally declare the non-exclusion of Jewish Germans as a requirement to host the games. Eager to highlight both German strength to the world, and to bolster his own support at home by hosting the games, the Hitler regime complied with this request, ensuring that the games did go on as planned, with Berlin remaining the host.

German intentions were on full display during the games in 1936, including the exclusion of Jewish Germans and pro-Nazi propaganda. The Germans had no Jewish players on their Olympic team and put on a massive show of propaganda, including highlighting the “superiority” of German Aryan athletes over those of other races. These messages were delivered to the highest number of reporters at a single event in history to that point. While Germany was preparing for war, and actively persecuting Jewish Germans, the IOC also awarded Germany the Winter Olympics of 1940, and leading IOC figures such as President Henri de Baillet-Latour apparently believed that Germany hosting the games would help the country achieve political stability. While today the 1936 Berlin Olympics are widely, and rightly, considered infamous, casual observers may downplay the prevalence of both international anti-Semitism and the widespread popularity of appeasement in the 1930s. Yet, the Berlin Olympics are less of an anomaly than we might hope. Much later, in 1980, the Soviet Union was allowed to host the Olympics while occupying and waging war on Afghanistan; and more recently, China was permitted to host the 2008 games despite the occupation of Tibet and reports of human rights violations inside the country. These examples highlight how little internal politics (or even war-making) are considered in choosing host countries for global sporting events.

The 1936 Olympics in Berlin are popularly remembered as the earliest example of a regime using a sporting event to propagandize its own ideology on a global scale. But it was the second FIFA World Cup two years before the Berlin Olympics that was perhaps the first chance for a fascist regime to popularize itself to a global audience. Mussolini recognized football’s popularity and was quick to harness it to further his own fascist goals in Italy. The selection by FIFA of Italy, even in 1934, was mired in controversy over not only Italy’s politics but also accusations of intimidation and illegal payments to attain the hosting rights. Although FIFA was still a relatively young governing body (having been founded in 1904, with the first World Cup only in 1930), and the World Cup was not at the scale it is today in terms of global participation or media coverage, the governing body was scrutinized for its lax ideals and governance. The Italians’ major ideological focus in this case, however, was internal—proving Italian dominance to a national audience, with an Italian victory in the tournament the encapsulation of this goal. Observers and opposing teams also made allegations of corruption within the game, with decisions favoring Italy on many occasions (with Mussolini personally selecting referees that would officiate Italian matches), claims that were fervently denied by both FIFA and the Italian players themselves.[6] It is important to state that historicizing this corruption in global sports events, this article does not imply that these events excuse or minimize the allegations against Qatar. Rather, they serve as important reminders of the extent of non-sporting damage such events can and have caused.

Argentina’s hosting of the 1978 World Cup is perhaps a better comparative case to Qatar, since by the 1970s, FIFA was a more organized body and its president at the time, Joao Havelange. was the immediate predecessor to the now infamous Sepp Blatter. Argentina had won the hosting rights to the 1978 World Cup more than a decade before, in 1966. Ten years later, in 1976, the political situation in Argentina could not have been more volatile. Violence and economic downturn left the government under Isabel Perón hopelessly exposed.[7] The military, led by Jorge Videla, launched a coup, then formed the “National Reorganization Process” to eliminate the influence of what the new regime labelled “Peronism.” This military junta initiated what is now known as the “Dirty War,” which included mass disappearances, torture, and even the killing of thousands of Argentinians whom the military labelled as enemies. The regime came under global scrutiny for its human rights abuses and, with calls for a boycott from multiple countries, realized that hosting the 1978 World Cup could backfire on the government. The military junta saw the World Cup as an opportunity to present a sanitized version of its policies to the world and took steps to counter its public-image problem. But the problem of doing so was compounded by Argentina’s economic situation, which was worsening rapidly. The tournament, however, remained a priority for the regime, and they spent an exorbitant amount of money preparing for it, even when the economy was in freefall. [8] Videla recruited US public relations firm Burson-Marsteller to manage the World Cup’s publicity and Argentina’s public image, showing the regime’s investment in improving its global image amid international criticism. In the end, the tournament went on with none of the 16 participants boycotting it, and with Argentina emerging triumphant, winning the 1978 World Cup. The regime used the tournament as a whole, and Argentina’s win, to distract the Argentinian public from the mass disappearances and atrocities inside the country that were still ongoing, with minor respite during the tournament itself. Many members of this regime were later tried and imprisoned for crimes against humanity, and even genocide, highlighting just how egregious its human rights record was, and how little FIFA or any of its member countries did to oppose it.

Like Qatar in 2022, Argentina in 1978 was also a country with an increasing human rights violations record, and, like Qatar today, Argentina too enjoyed the support and approval of other countries and the United States in particular. Both dictatorships, past and present, have been propped up and backed by different US administrations, which is why Argentina’s case holds important parallels to Qatar’s. But more than any other tournament before it, Qatar 2022 is perhaps most directly leading to human rights abuses. Much, and almost all, of the labor that has built the infrastructure for the tournament in Qatar, is done by migrant laborers. Many of these laborers come from countries in South Asia, and are hostages to the kafala system, whereby employers are given complete control over the workers’ employability, and even their right to leave the country. Furthermore, these workers are forced to live in constant anxiety, due to unpaid wages and appalling living conditions. Due to the opacity of this system, and because the Qatar government has repeatedly denied such accusations, it is hard to measure the exact human toll from the construction of World Cup infrastructure. Official Qatari figures state that 40 workers have died while constructing stadiums, but only three of these deaths are labelled as “work-related.” Some outlets have claimed that more than 6,500 migrant workers have perished since the World Cup was awarded to Qatar in 2010. Though Qatar became, in 2020, the first country in the region to amend the kafala system, allowing workers to change employers and raising the minimum wage, migrants and their families feel this is scarcely enough, and that reforms have not gone far enough.

Corruption and sportswashing have become even more commonplace in the 21st century. Regimes like Putin’s in Russia have been allowed to host tournaments, such as the Olympics (2014) and the FIFA World Cup (2018)—both in the last decade—despite blighted human rights records. Other authoritarian regimes have used sports to brandish their own reputations, as is the case of Gulf states investing in football clubs throughout Europe and the rest of the world. All of this is not to diminish any responsibility on the part of Qatar, with its abysmal human rights record, authoritarian tendencies, and corruption. But analyzing Qatar as if it is an anomalous case ignores both the historical context of past sporting events, and the longstanding, well-documented institutional problems with global sports. Critiques of the Qatari regime’s human rights abuses, corruption, and sportswashing are valuable, but they must not be made in ignorance of similar cases, and moreover must not be limited to the sporting arena. The culpability of sports governing bodies, and countries, especially in North America and Europe, that have long supported and propped up these authoritarian regimes, must also be highlighted, whether it was appeasement in the 1930s or outright support for Argentina in 1978. The issues that plague the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar are not isolated to either Qatar or the duration of this tournament. While the tournament has rightly put Qatar’s human rights abuses under the microscope, these criticisms must come from political leaders, not just athletes, fans, and commentators—and must not, as they have so often, cease when the tournament ends. Finally, sporting bodies, especially the IOC and FIFA, which have long claimed to be apolitical, must be challenged, contextualized, and corrected when the make this claim. The amount of political influence wielded by such sports governing bodies makes them key members of global politics and they must be held to standards similar to other supranational bodies.

Featured image: Uruguay vs. South Korea, Group H match lineups. “2022 FIFA World Cup Korea Uruguay 02” by Republic of Korea is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

[1] For more on Qatar and its human rights record see “Qatar World Cup: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” YouTube, 2022,

[2] This article uses football to refer to football/soccer outside of the US, and soccer to refer to the sport within the US.

[3] “FIFA Report ‘Erroneous’, Says Lawyer Who Investigated Corruption Claims,” BBC Sport (BBC), accessed December 1, 2022,

[4] John Bale and Christensen Christensen, Post-Olympism? Questioning Sport in the Twenty-First Century (Oxford, Eng.: Berg, 2004), 38.

[5] Bale and Christensen, Post-Olympism?, 36.

[6] See Fascism and Football, BBC, 2013,

[7] Jonathan Wilson, Angels with Dirty Faces: The Footballing History of Argentina (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2017), 280

[8] Some sources quote this figure being as high as $700 million, significantly more than the budgets of previous and subsequent tournaments; Wilson, Angels.

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