A political World Cup is nothing new. Politics have characterised the event since its establishment in 1930. Qatar 2022 is no exception; it seems destined to enter the record books as one of the most controversial World Cups.

It is likely to become the fourth such World Cup, joining that of Italy 1934 (‘Fascism vs Communism’), Argentina 1978 (‘Dictatorship vs Liberal Democracy) and Russia 1998 (Autocracy vs Human Rights). Despite the insistence of host governments, FIFA, sports commentators and many players, the event is not and never has been solely about sports, nor should it be.

Throughout its history, the World Cup has been used by repressive regimes worldwide to ‘sportswash’ a wide range of issues, most especially those of human rights. From the outset, in Mussolini’s Italy, FIFA indicated that it was willing to engage with (and even defend) the most horrific rights abusing states.

Once again, Qatar has proven to be no exception, from the initial corrupt decision to award the tournament, to the abusive conditions thousands of migrant workers endured while building the Cup’s infrastructure, to the much-publicised denial of LGBTIQ rights. The denial of women’s rights (including the right to full equality in sport) is yet another dimension to this World Cup.

The issues were highlighted graphically by the cynical and insulting speech of FIFA president Gianni Infantino at the event’s opening. While justifiably pointing his finger at European countries for their hypocrisy in criticising Qatar’s record and actions on human rights, he turned a blind eye to the rights abuses and instead focus on football.

His speech was a masterclass attempt at sportswashing. But it was a futile and doomed attempt.

 Sport, even in its most inspirational moments, does not exist in a vacuum. Sports without politics which impacts us all becomes just a game.

The bravery of the Iranian football team in refusing to sing their regime’s anthem despite its potential real-life consequences for them and their families mocks Infantino’s cynicism.

The debate on the OneLove armband and the stance of many footballers and some associations also ensures that rights will continue to be debated and defended throughout the tournament. FIFA’s attempt to limit players’ and fans’ freedom of expression will come back to haunt it.

If the Qatari and FIFA actions were intended to silence or marginalise human rights agendas and voices, they have been a dismal failure.

In a perverse and unintended manner they have helped highlight the issues and have provided activists with a world stage upon which to advocate.

As many millions watch, journalists, TV analysts, teams and individual players are very unlikely to be guided by FIFA’s hypocrisy. Many sponsoring companies are also likely to be unhappy to be associated with FIFA and Qatari sportswashing for fear it will boomerang on them.

FIFA granted Qatar this event in 2010 without conducting basic human rights due diligence, especially given the warnings of many international bodies on the broad range of issues now being highlighted. Money and power once again trumped decency and right.

FIFA set no effective protections for the needed migrant workers, for LGBTIQ fans, players and journalists or for equality of access and conditions for women. This was in direct contradiction to its own human rights policy adopted in 2017 which pledged not only to promote and protect human rights but to use its leverage to do so.

Qatar 2022 amounts to yet another spectacular human rights failure for FIFA but if current indicators are anything to go by, it will not amount to a failure for human rights voices and agendas. Whatever team emerges victorious, it will certainly not be FIFA or its Qatari sponsors who are looking dirtier than ever.

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