Controversies hounding the World Cup in Qatar

5 Mins read

The 2022 FIFA World Cup in Doha, Qatar, kicked off last Sunday. It started 12 years after the FIFA — Federation Internationale de Football Association — awarded the hosting rights to a tiny but rich Middle East country that has, in the words of football experts, “no soccer pedigree.” It however has the financial muscle to host a massive undertaking featuring the world’s top 32 soccer powers playing 64 matches over the next 30 days. More than a million visitors are expected to flock to Qatar, which has a population of about three million.

The controversy behind Qatar 2022 started the moment the hosting rights were awarded to the Gulf nation by football’s governing body. Other issues shared the spotlight, including the treatment of migrant workers in the country. These and Qatar’s policy on the transgender were all brought to light. No doubt these issues collided with the core of the country’s conservative culture, religious beliefs and practices. For years and up to a few weeks before the first match between Ecuador and Qatar was played, human rights groups and media continued to devote time and space to the issues with various nuances and what the FIFA was or was not doing about these topics.

In the meantime, some sponsors felt they had to speak out since it would affect the image of the brands that support the World Cup. Sponsors and broadcast rights holders and fans help ensure the viability of an event such as the FIFA World Cup.

In an article dated June 9, 2014, writer Seb Joseph reported that sponsors had “broken their silence over the Qatar World cup row.” Joseph claimed that sponsors have heaped pressure on FIFA to tackle corruption charges swirling around the 2022 Qatar World Cup bid. Exerting pressure on FIFA is due to the importance brands give to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and management and avoidance of repetitional risks.

Despite the sponsors’ efforts to get FIFA to deal with the controversies emanating from the hosting by Qatar of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, at the end of the day, these same corporate sponsors generally avoid controversy. As pointed out by Arthur Sullivan in Business Qatar, when Tiger Woods, then the world’s biggest sports star, was engulfed in a sex scandal in 2009, Gillette, Gatorade, AT&T, Tag Heuer, and Accenture were among the brands which dropped the golfer. Most recently, Kanye “Ye” West — the rapper, record producer, and songwriter — lost a multimillion, multiyear endorsement contract with rubber shoe giant adidas for his anti-Semitic comments. Adidas, through owner Adolf Dassler, lost no time in canceling the deal with West. Dassler is from Bavaria, Germany which, during the brutal dictatorship of Dassler’s namesake, Adolf Hitler, attempted mass genocide of Jews.

The year following the Tiger Woods controversy, Qatar was awarded, in 2010, what Sullivan calls the world’s most lucrative sponsorship bonanzas, the FIFA World Cup. Sullivan adds that in the 12 years that (had) passed since that decision and the beginning of the tournament itself, Qatar 2022 has been the definition of controversy. Thousands of migrant workers have reportedly died in Qatar since 2010. Male homosexuality is outlawed while LGBT people on the whole face severe discrimination and various legal obstacles. Sullivan adds that all these matters don’t even get into the controversial manner in which Qatar was awarded the World Cup. It has been reported that since the infamous 2010 award, more than half of the 22 members of the FIFA Executive Committee which voted for Qatar had earlier been implicated in or investigated for alleged corruption or other bad practices.

Yet, when the tournament kicked off on Nov. 20, big brands like adidas, Coca-Cola, and even Budweiser Beer — the sale of which have been banned inside any of the eight stadiums in a big U-turn by Qatar from earlier agreements — and other globally prominent brands still decided to associate themselves with the Qatar soccer festival. It seems that Sony and Emirates are the only brands that decided to cut their ties with the 2022 FIFA World Cup. The only other brand that opted out is Gazprom, the Russian gas company which was in the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia but which has been heavily sanctioned because of the war in Ukraine.

Alongside adidas, Coca-Cola, Anheuser-Busch (Budweiser), other companies which decided to continue their relationship with Qatar 2020 are Hyundai-Kia and Qatar Airways. Other brands which are continuing their sponsorship probably have a pragmatic view of publicity, whether good or bad — VISA and the Wanda Group of China which prides itself with the following advocacies: “targeted poverty alleviation, charitable donation, environmental sustainability, caring staff, entrepreneurship.” The list of brands that continued their sponsorship includes McDonald’s and other global brands which were in Russia 2018. Both Emirates and Sony opted not to renew their commercial deals once they expired at the end of 2014.

Sullivan also points out that new sponsors have been added to the list of official sponsors. Among them are software company Globant and Indian tech education company Byju’s, among others. The main reason for the renewal of commitments by global brands despite the controversial Qatar 2022 is, as Kieran Maguire, sports finance expert at the University of Liverpool says, many companies are locked into long-term deals with FIFA and prefer to focus on that relationship rather than dwell on issues with the host nation.

“They signed a deal with FIFA, not with the Qatari government,” says Maguire.

The situation brings to mind the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 which did not become a high-profile issue tied to Russia 2018.

Brand exposure is just too tempting for sponsors to ignore. FIFA President Gianni Infantino from Italy says that about five billion people are expected to watch the month-long extravaganza, exceeding the four billion who watched FIFA Russia 2018. Five billion pairs of eyes to which one’s product is exposed, is nothing to sneeze at.

It is not surprising therefore that despite some of the alleged serious ethical and moral issues involved, very few companies have terminated their relationship with Qatar 2022, for the main reason that these companies are dealing with FIFA and not the host country. In fact, FIFA points out that very few of its 200 members “have issues of what’s taking place in Qatar.”

Other companies have, however, taken a slightly different position: ING, the giant Dutch multinational banking and financial services corporation, will downscale or water down its promotions of the Netherlands team.

Qatar 2022 brings to mind the LIV golf dispute which brings to front and center human rights and other issues against the main financial backer of LIV, the sovereign wealth fund of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Hereabouts, we have practically the same ethical issues with respect to support for sports and so-called sportsmen or athletes. Athletes or groups engulfed in integrity, moral and accountability issues are protected by business interests which have invested in these so-called winners and are willing to change and revise the narrative to bail out these same characters. Walls are built by politicians and PR groups, even to the point of changing the narrative or content in community-built, free, open, online encyclopedias.

Philip Ella Juico’s areas of interest include the protection and promotion of democracy, free markets, sustainable development, social responsibility and sports as a tool for social development. He obtained his doctorate in business at De La Salle University. Dr. Juico served as secretary of Agrarian Reform during the Corazon C. Aquino administration.