Playing on the team is just one way we are brought together by football, a sport that has the power to unify people, globally, like nothing else. From Birmingham to Bamako, Beirut to Brasilia, it is football you see children playing on the streets. It is football shirts that are most recognizable and it is football players who can spark a sense of commonality among people around the world. But the world of international football also contains hierarchies and divisions.
Our team has spoken at length about the upcoming 2022 World Cup in Qatar. It is the first World Cup tournament hosted by an Arab country and has been described by the British newspaper, The Times, as the “the most controversial World Cup of all time.” This controversy stems, in part, from the charges of bribery levelled at Qatar and FIFA when it gained the bid to host the tournament, and even more so, from Qatar’s human rights record and dependence upon the kafala system of labor migration that enables forced labor, human trafficking and indefinite detention.
Along with the controversy, we have noticed the regular appearance of the term “sportswashing”—the use of sporting events to cleanse the reputations of states or corporations tarnished by human rights violations, violence and repression. In the world of contemporary sporting events, this term only seems to be used when describing the actions of countries based outside of Europe and North America.
Rather than deny sportswashing as a phenomenon or the importance of highlighting human rights abuses in Qatar, in this essay, we call for a more nuanced and critical analysis of the sportswashing discourse, one that leaves space for a clearer picture of how power operates in international sporting events. In its current uneven application, the framing of sportswashing, particularly in the media, reproduces Orientalist binaries between the West and the rest and ignores the complicity of states in the West—often the hosts of international tournaments—in perpetuating violence and repression in their home countries or abroad.
The reality of Qatar’s dependence on labor exploitation to execute the tournament and the media scrutiny it has drawn point to a more complex story behind the tournament than simplistic sportswashing critiques leave room for. Instead of cleansing its image, at least in the short term, by hosting the tournament Qatar has risked its moral image in a strategic calculation to project competence and gain global influence. This trade-off seems to be at the heart of Qatar’s World Cup bid.
Sportswashing in the “West versus the Rest”
The term sportswashing did not appear in wide use before the 2010s, though the label has been retroactively applied to international sporting competitions like the 1936 Olympic Games in Nazi Germany. Despite concerns over Nazi Germany’s targeting of Jews and Romas, other states conferred legitimacy upon Germany in the international arena by agreeing to its hosting of the event and their participation in it. In the same era, Mussolini hosted the 1934 World Cup, another example of a fascist state using an international sporting event to gain legitimacy.
In more contemporary sporting events, countries accused of sportswashing are almost exclusively non-Western. Recent examples that have been widely covered in the British media include Saudi Arabia’s takeover of Newcastle United Football Club and China’s hosting of the 2022 Winter Olympics. At the time of writing, the English-language Wikipedia page details more than one hundred instances of sportswashing by host nations. Of these, less than ten are states in western Europe or North America—the most recent example being the 1975 Formula One Grand Prix held during General Francisco Franco’s rule in Spain.
When it comes to Israel, activists have campaigned to label its hosting of tournaments, like the first stage of the 2018 Giro d’Italia cycling competition, as sportswashing. Yet, unlike Qatar, China or Saudi Arabia, this label did not seem to gain widespread traction or media coverage despite Israel’s settler-colonial policies and prolonged occupation of the Palestinian territories.
Indeed, a critical approach to sportswashing should ask what this label does and does not succeed in doing. While a simple usage of the label does reproduce power relations that place the West above the rest, it does not typically lead to actions being taken by states against the accused country. During the 2018 World Cup in Russia, for example, claims of sportswashing—while not as prevalent as they are with the upcoming Qatar World Cup—were still levelled against the host country, particularly due to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Countries and athletes were called on to boycott, but none did. Similarly, with the Qatar World Cup, no national football team has expressed an intention to boycott the tournament (although some municipalities in Europe have enacted their own versions of boycotting the World Cup, for example, by refusing to screen matches in public spaces).
In part, the relative inaction when it comes to boycotting the tournament might stem from the fact that states across the world and their governing sports bodies have a say in voting on host nations, making the responsibility more entangled than nationalist deployments of the sportswashing label leave room for. FIFA, too, is an international body that bears responsibility over the tournament and its locale. Just a few weeks before the tournament was set to begin, FIFA President Gianni Infantino wrote a letter urging the 32 participating teams to focus on the sport and “not allow football to be dragged into every ideological or political battle that exists.” This inaction also hints at the limitations of sportswashing as a discourse in the absence of wider, sustained on-the-ground movements, like the ANC boycott in South Africa, which demanded a widespread rejection of any sporting engagements with the apartheid state.
Trading Moral Capital for Regional Influence
In the lead up to the tournament, hosting the World Cup seems be serving the opposite function to sportswashing: placing Qatar’s migration system, human rights violations and electoral system under a harsh global spotlight. It remains to be seen whether Qatar’s global moral image will be dealt a lasting blow from holding the tournament, but, so far, it has increased the visibility and scrutiny of issues that a focus on sports is supposed to hide.
Perhaps, then, rather than an attempt at sportswashing, Qatar’s aim in hosting the tournament is an attempt to build other kinds of capital that matter more in the current world order than a clean human rights record, such as projecting an image of competence. In 2006, when Qatar hosted the Asian Games—an inter-Asian multi-sport tournament—the current Emir, Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani, described the games as a chance to demonstrate the “skill” and “ambitions,” of the small state. Mahfoud Amara has written that the 2006 games were an attempt to “break free from the old ‘Orientalist’ stereotypes about the Arab people described in the Western imagination as irrational, lazy and lacking a sense of responsibility and punctuality.”
Viewed in this light, the Gulf state looks to have decided to host the World Cup to generate soft power by enhancing its competence image at the expense of losing soft power through its moral one. Put differently, Qatar has left its human rights record vulnerable to scrutiny in favor of bettering perceptions of its capability of executing grand events despite the odds.
Trading off moral image for competence is a tactical choice and part of a broader strategy aimed at securing Qatar’s regional and global importance through the accumulation of soft power. Other forms of Qatari soft power are generated through the state’s global investments, particularly from its sovereign wealth fund—the ninth largest in the world and worth $450 billion. Notable investments from the fund include Harrods in London and Paris Saint-Germain Football Club in France. The state also owns the renowned and impactful Al Jazeera media network.
Regionally, Qatar enjoys deep strategic and investment relations with Turkey. The state has also provided overt and covert economic and political support for Muslim Brotherhood factions across the Middle East and played a key role in the negotiations between the United States and the Taliban preceding the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. In the wake of the Taliban’s resurgence to power, Doha has continued to serve as a mediator between the United States and the Taliban government.
Such sources of soft power accumulation assist Qatar in generating an image of a competent state with noteworthy regional and global influence, helping to safeguard the militarily vulnerable Gulf state by encouraging vested interests in its stability among beneficiaries of its foreign policy. During the 2017 Saudi-led blockade of Qatar, the benefits of this soft power accumulation played out in real time when states such as Turkey, France, Britain and eventually the United States spoke out for the blockade to end. Today, both Turkey and the United States retain military bases in Qatar.
Looking to 2026
Rather than cleansing Qatar’s moral image, the World Cup has shined a light on the ongoing labor abuses built into the country’s migration system. Where Qatar has gained is in its significance as a regional and global actor. This trade-off between negative publicity and increased geopolitical status began with Qatar’s initial bid to host the tournament, which embroiled FIFA in controversy and jeopardized the whole organization’s reputation. In spite of this controversy, in winning the bid, Qatar secured a notable victory over the larger and more established contenders of Australia, Japan, the United States and South Korea. It also proved itself powerful enough to break the 92-year global tradition of summer World Cups, which historically prevented states in hot climates from hosting—a move that will impact the scheduling of prominent footballing tournaments worldwide, including the South American leagues, the European Champions League and the English Premier League.
In 2026, the World Cup will be held collectively by Canada, the United States and Mexico. Unlike Qatar, the national football federations responsible for executing the 2026 World Cup are not state-owned. Nonetheless, this tournament can still serve as an instrument of soft power by its host nations, a point underscored by some of the early media coverage and policy papers on the joint tournament and its importance to struggling US-Mexico relations.
We are left pondering whether the North American states will be scrutinized with the language of sportswashing in the same way as Qatar and non-Western states are. So far, this has not been the case. While human rights groups and media have condemned the treatment of migrants at the US-Mexico border as inhumane due to lengthy detentions, family separation and mass deportation, we have not seen this linked to the impending World Cup tournament. This may change as the tournament nears. So far, however, the lack of attention to the US migration system and its human rights violations in coverage of the 2026 World Cup highlights a double standard. In order for sporstwashing to be effective as a critique, it has to be applied critically and carefully in ways that do not reinforce global hierarchies, acknowledging the parallel, and often overlapping, forms of violence that states enact.
[Jamal Abu Eisheh is a doctoral student at the University of Exeter’s Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies. Ali Alsayegh is a doctoral student at the University of Exeter’s Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies. Samuel Munayer is currently pursuing a master’s degree at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies. Rami Rmeileh is a doctoral student at the University of Exeter’s Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies. Zachariah Zahid is a Strategy Analyst based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He received his B.A. from the University of Exeter’s Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies.]
 John Alridge, “Qatar 2022: inside the most controversial World Cup ever,” The Times, January 4, 2022.
 Rob Harris, “Qatar World Cup: FIFA writes to teams and says ‘focus on the football… not ideological or political battle that exists,’” Sky News, November 4, 2022.
 Mahfoud Amara, “2006 Qatar Asian Games: A ‘Modernization’ Project from Above?” Sport in Society 8/3 (2005), p. 506.
 Paul Michael Brannagan and Richard Giulianotti, “Soft power and soft disempowerment: Qatar, global sport and football’s 2022 World Cup finals,” Leisure Studies 34/6 (2015), p. 705.
 Ibid., p. 709.
 Hazar Kilani, “Qatar plans to boost its ‘$450bn sovereign wealth fund,” Doha News, April 27, 2022