Doha Skyline. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Is “Depoliticization” of Sports a Myth? The Case of FIFA 2022

Can sports be non-political? Why was Russia, of all countries, not criticized to the same extent in 2018?

Nov 27, 2022

No World Cup has amassed as many calls for boycott as this year’s, held in Doha, Qatar from Nov. 20 to Dec. 18. Denmark has unveiled “toned down” jerseys to minimize support for Qatar, London and many French cities have refused to organize fan zones for public viewing, and even some German bars are refusing to screen matches. The Middle East’s first World Cup, which cost Qatar over 200 billion USD in total infrastructure development, has gotten off to a contentious start. In response to policies in the state, several teams agreed to wear “One Love” armbands to matches only to be told by FIFA themselves that this would not be tolerated. What FIFA has written to individual teams says to “focus on the football” rather than “ideological or political battles” that are allegedly polluting the discourse. French President Emmanuel Macron said that “sport should not be politicized” to defend his decision to visit Qatar if his team advances to semifinals.
To debate the question of whether sport and politics can be separated, we must ask ourselves if they ever have fully been. Can football exist in a vacuum? Athletes are charged chiefly with delivering a solid performance on the field, but their role as representatives of their nation is fundamentally political. The World Cup, as implied in the name, is a place for the “world” to come together despite political boundaries between countries. Gianni Infantino, the FIFA leader, now harshly slamming the tournament’s critics once invoked Nelson Mandela to argue that football can change the world.
Sport operates in a broader cultural context because it garners mass participation and viewership. In a symbolic moment, for example, African-American Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics hosted by Nazi Germany, embarrassing Hitler’s claims of Aryan superiority.
FIFA has previously organized the World Cup in places engaged in questionable human rights practices. Before it became a complete global pariah after fully invading Ukraine, Russia was host to the very last World Cup in 2018. Presenters from mainstream media were far less scrutinous towards the country’s human rights record. The country already had autocratic leadership, anti-LGBTQ laws, disappearance of dissidents and had already invaded Crimea in 2014 and Georgia in 2008. Whataboutism is not a productive practice in any sense, and perhaps outlets learned from their actions in 2018. Nonetheless, the seeming double standard is fueling claims that the media is covering Qatar’s record in a way that is Islamophobic and sanctimonious.
Some of the numbers presented as a slam-dunk against Qatar are simply in bad faith and factually incorrect. How often have you seen it cited that 6,500 South Asian migrant workers have died in Qatar? The narrative surrounding this figure seems to imply all these deaths occurred on construction sites, but this is actually the figure for deaths from all migrant workers from these countries over a ten-year period — a construction worker, an accountant dying in a car crash, and a retiree dying of natural causes alike. The data is opaque at best, but only 40 of these can be linked to World Cup construction sites, though more deaths could be linked to poor working conditions.
It is ultimately easier to spearhead genuine progress in humanitarian situations when misleading figures are not accepted as wisdom. Qatar has made progress legally by undertaking “comprehensive policy reforms”, though it is unclear if these have legitimately trickled down to improve current conditions or compensate those wronged in the past. While rights violations can and should be addressed, criticisms of these realities are easy to paint with the same Orientalist brush as misleadingly-presented statistics or minor issues like not being able to buy a beer at the stadium, or the World Cup being held in winter.
As the World Cup moves forward and FIFA continues to allegedly follow the money to decide on hosts, ignoring the role of politics is unconscionable. The international community must take a stand against injustice as it is actively occurring, not letting pretenses of globalism distract from addressing abuses. However, the “stand” in question must apply equally to all countries, reflecting realities rather than preconceived notions, which will ultimately make it far more effective.
Ethan Fulton is Senior Opinion Editor and Satire Columnist. Email him at
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