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Kathy Sheridan: To watch or not to watch Qatar World Cup?

England’s first game is against Iran, a regime shooting and battering teenage girls while keeping Putin supplied with drones to murder and maim Ukrainian children

Where will you be at 3pm come Sunday’s World Cup opening ceremony in Qatar? Planted in front of a television with some authentic Middle Eastern snacks and a beer? Or will you be the annoying one asserting loudly that everyone in the room is complicit in this festival of homophobia, misogyny, betrayal and corruption?

The fact that Ireland has no skin in the game hasn’t dented RTÉ’s enthusiasm for the near month-long extravaganza – but it’s a tricky one. Live screenings of the 64 games over hundreds of hours with the enormous commitment of staff and funding must be weighed against the insistent thrum of something whiffy in the background. It will also be keeping its eyes peeled for the grubby social and political underpinnings apparently. Good luck with that, given Qatar’s notion of media freedom.

The trouble is that we already know too much. We know that according to Guardian estimates, more than 6,500 migrant workers died in the construction of those same magnificent stadiums on which global football fans will be feasting their eyes. We know that as long ago as 2013, Amnesty International was reporting systemic abuse and gross exploitation of migrants. We know the Qatar World Cup ambassador’s view of homosexuality – “damage in the mind” – and about last month’s Human Rights Watch report detailing arbitrary arrests, detention, verbal and physical abuse of LGBT+ people over the past three years.

We know that Qatar suppresses women’s rights, freedom of speech and right of assembly. And we have our suspicions about how Qatar, a single city state with a few hundred thousand citizens and sweltering summers, managed to land this prestigious event.


But protests and boycotts are “12 years too late” according to eager fans. Whose fault is that?

No one can plead ignorance about this one. Within months of Qatar’s and Russia’s successful bids in 2010, allegations of bribery were being widely circulated against members of the Fifa executive committee.

The topic has erupted regularly in every media outlet. Late comers can still inform themselves by checking out the Fifa Uncovered series on Netflix.

Politics vs sport

Unable to plead ignorance, apologists resort to the oldest defence: football is the one truly global sport and therefore the World Cup must transcend ugly, confusing politics. Alternatively, they’ll assert that political abuse of the World Cup is almost as old as the competition itself so why fuss about it now. And they have a point.

The term sportswashing is only 10 years old but the profoundly political activity of diverting attention from human rights abuses by financially supporting big sporting events – whether it’s a World Cup or Saudi Arabia’s $100-million-dollar-a-man Liv golf series – has long been seen as a solid investment. Mussolini’s blackshirts used the winning Italian team to promote fascism at the Italy World Cup in 1934. Argentina’s murderous military junta tried it in 1978. It probably reached its zenith in 2018 when global football fans thronged the streets of central Moscow, discovering the “real” Russia and turning the World Cup into a stunning PR coup for Vladimir Putin, sportscrubbing the 2014 invasion of Crimea, the downing of a passenger plane and the numerous poisonings and assassinations of journalists and politicians.

The whole sportswashing effort was summed up by Liv golf cheerleader Greg Norman when asked about the Saudis’ role in the butchery of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

“Look, we’ve all made mistakes and you just want to learn from those mistakes and how you can correct them going forward,” he said straight-faced.

So why, given the rich array of barbarians, pick on tiny Qatar?

It’s the timing angels.

World stage

It’s the pandemic and the reckoning with racism and systemic injustice evoked by the Black Lives Matter campaign that empowered and emboldened the players – the indispensable, articulate stars turned activists, with their millions of global social media followers. Eight national team captains in Qatar including England’s Harry Kane will wear rainbow armbands. They risk ridicule or career damage, or worse in the case of Iran’s star striker Sardar Azmoun who attacked the mullahs on Instagram: “Shame on you for so easily killing our people and long live the women of Iran.” The team will show up in Doha because the consequences for not doing so would be fearsome. But they are testing out the world stage in unimaginable ways.

It’s not just about the insanity of a Qatar World Cup in a climate crisis or as an affront to human rights. It’s about the heartbreaking abuse of football, the sole truly global sport, as a burnisher of autocrats. It’s the fact that England’s first game is against Iran, a regime that is shooting and battering teenage girls right now while keeping Putin supplied with “kamikaze” drones to murder and maim Ukrainian children. On Tuesday, the Saudi Arabian team will line out as though representing just another football-mad country.

Sportswashing can backfire of course, as Qatar should have known. Members of the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, a now famous organisation of mothers of Argentina’s disappeared, gratefully acknowledge the media scrutiny around the 1978 World Cup as the catalyst that beamed their plight to their world.

Yet it took five years for Qatar to realise that similar scrutiny was doing it more harm than good and pushed it into labour reforms that have attracted both praise and scepticism. NGOs and unions hold out hope that the regime will fully implement the reforms and safeguard them when the world leaves.

This is where the lines get fudgy and this World Cup could get interesting.

To watch or not to watch? Yes. With caution.