Should Sport Remain Politically Neutral in the Name of Cultural Relativism?
Ahead of last year’s FIFA men’s World Cup, nine nations (including France, England, and Wales) announced that their captains would be wearing a rainbow coloured ‘One Love’ armband during matches played in Qatar.
The gesture was intended as a protest against the Gulf nation’s treatment of migrant workers and of LGBTQ+ communities, which are a reflection of Qatar’s adherence to conservative Islamic doctrine. It garnered support amongst players, activists, and the media in several countries.
‘One Love’ was originally conceived in the Netherlands during 2020, as a campaign addressing issues of discrimination and human rights. The armband itself is based upon the rainbow flag, which has become synonymous with the pride flag adopted in support of LGBTQ+ communities.
Several officials from European nations decided to wear the armbands when attending matches at the World Cup. For instance, Interior Minister Nancy Faeser wore it when watching her German national team play. British Sports Minister Stuart Andrew – who is openly gay – wore the One Love armband when England played Wales. The female French Minister of Sports, Amelie Oudea-Castera, wore a T-shirt with rainbow colours.
During advanced stages of preparation for the World Cup, FIFA had apparently reached an agreement that rainbow symbols could be displayed inside stadiums. However, as the tournament started, football’s world governing body announced that players would be penalised should they display any such symbols during matches.
The nations whose national teams had been planning to wear the armband therefore decided not to test FIFA’s resolve. In response to the ban, Germany’s national team covered their mouths with their hands before a match to accentuate the belief that they had been silenced by both the governing body and by Qatari organisers of the tournament.
Around the same time as FIFA pulled back from permitting players to wear the ‘One Love’ armbands, it also needed to placate Qatari authorities by moving promotional materials for an alcohol brand out of sight at each stadium. Although the alcohol brand had paid millions of dollars for the right of association with the World Cup, in Qatar the public consumption of alcohol is banned.
The move was hardly a surprise, indeed concerns amongst local Qataris had been growing ever since the country secured a right to stage the World Cup. Some conservative members of society railed against the potential for football’s showcase competition to undermine their traditional Islamic values. Throughout the tournament’s preparations, it was never clear how FIFA intended to manage the thorny issue of alcohol consumption.
As the World Cup drew closer, Qatar 2022 was commonly characterised, at least in the Global North, as being the most controversial event in history. The armband and alcohol controversies were perhaps predictable, though they served to accentuate the considerable turbulence that preceded the matches.
The turbulence intensified when, following the German team’s silence protest, Qatari fans and others from across the Middle East and North Africa began wearing armbands in support of Palestine. Alongside the tournament success of teams such as Morocco, this appeared to provide a rallying point for those seeking to assert their Arab identity, which was ultimately a key feature of the Middle East’s first ever staging of the World Cup.
Amid such intensely polarised debates was FIFA, left to navigate its way through the middle of what generally seemed redolent of George W. Bush’s 2022 Axis of Evil speech: “you’re either with us or you’re against us”. Sometimes FIFA’s attempts to manage within the discord seemed chaotic (for instance, Infantino’s pre-tournament speech about historic injustice).
At other times, the Swiss-based organisation seemed unsure what to do – the case of its sponsor Budweiser and the supply of beer in Doha being a case in point. Though some observers viewed this episode as a governing body capitulating to its new paymasters. In reality, FIFA was marooned at the centre of a fractious encounter that saw it often being shot by both sides.
An historically European organisation, based in Europe, whose presidents have for the most part been European, FIFA represents a sporting hegemony that is now being increasingly and significantly challenged. Qatar is not alone among members of the Global South in exerting a growing influence on football’s global governing. Indeed, Chinese sponsors of the 2022 tournament outnumbered those from the United States by 2-to-1.
Yet such a juxtaposition allied to the challenges it creates, are not just unique to football. For instance, in motorsport its global governing body – the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile – has recently elected its first ever non-European president. Already, he has introduced rules limiting driver activism and has attracted criticism from British politicians for ignoring human rights. In Formula 1, a pivot away from the sport’s European heartland is further evident in team ownership, its sponsors, and where races are staged. Once, most F1 races were staged in Europe; now, most are not.
Multipolarism Shakes the European Foundations of Global Sport
Over the last two decades, sport has been mirroring the world’s economic and political pivot from Global North to Global South. Qatar’s staging of major football tournament’s has signalled the realities of sport in a changing 21st century world; no longer does Europe dominate in motorsport; LIV Golf, owned by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, is viewed by some as an existential threat to the sport’s North American heartland; and China’s willingness to deploy sport for strategic purposes – such as in Africa via a policy of stadium diplomacy – signifies that the likes of football are no longer solely about kicking a ball.
It is therefore apt to consider these matters in the context of what commentators describe as a multipolar world, in which more than two nation states wield comparable amounts of power. Following the end of World War 2, the United States and its allies effectively established a world order and an accompanying set of institutions which, in the view of critics, have enabled these countries to exert control over large parts of the world for almost a century.
In sport, the established world order has had rather more longevity to it, with many global governing bodies and some of the world’s currently most valuable teams and clubs tracing their roots back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many of them are still based in Europe, and often governed by Europeans. For instance, FIFA was established in France in 1904 whilst its long-term headquarters are still in Switzerland. Across its history, FIFA has elected 12 presidents of which only two have been non-European (and one of them – Issa Hayatou – served only for a short period as acting president).
However, with the onset of globalisation, allied to digitalisation, the established orders both generally across the world and in sport are now facing profound changes. At one level, national interest has been resurgent over the last two decades, whilst trade and technology mean that international interactions are less geographically constrained, with economic activity often distributed across multiple territories. US private equity investment in European football clubs is one example of this, something that potentially enhances American economic performance and political influence albeit it in a way that is creating divisions between such clubs and their traditional, local fans.
It is important not to overstate the significance or power of globalisation, as recent events – Donald Trump’s term in office, the pandemic, Brexit, and war in Ukraine – have resulted in profound challenges to the global order. Globalisation based upon multilateral principles brought the world to this point, now bilateralism, at worst unilateralism and self-interest, is dictating patterns of trade and investment. This is something that raises important questions about, for example, the consequences for a domestic sports team when an overseas investor buys it. Such investments are not a matter of largesse, altruism or cooperation, clear self-interest is typically at the heart of such deals.
Digitalisation continues to be a powerful driver of our new, multipolar world; indeed, given widespread global engagement with sport, it has often been a driver of production and consumption. US broadcasters, as well as the country’s speculative investors, have changed the landscape of sport by innovating new broadcasting technologies, creating different business models, and establishing ever more lucrative commercial rights. For instance, the success of Netflix’s F1 series ‘Drive to Survive’ has prompted changes in fan engagement and consumption, thereby helping to popularise the sport in North America. Yet at the same time, Gulf nations have learnt that digital technology can be a powerful political tool, especially when seeking to project soft power. Qatar’s BeIN Sport is an example of this.
The role played by the Gulf nations in prompting multipolarism is significant. Each of them is hugely dependent upon oil and gas revenues, which typically contribute upwards of 60% towards annual government revenues. These countries have always been vulnerable to the vagaries of energy markets, though as the world turns against fossil fuels, the likes of Qatar and Saudi Arabia are particularly exposed to risk. For anyone pondering why Qatar Sports Investments acquired Paris Saint Germain or why Bahrain invested in the McLaren F1 team, fundamentally the answer can be found in the post-oil diversification strategies of these countries, as well as in their pursuit of legitimacy through the projection of soft power. Similarly, China’s gifting of sports stadiums to African nations has been motivated by its quest to sustain economic growth, which faces a challenge of resource security. In return for such gifts, which sometimes come in the form of soft loans (loans made at interest rates that are significantly below market rates), China has often negotiated preferential access to key natural resources.
As a result, the European foundations of global sport, the origins of which can be traced back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, are increasingly being challenged. These foundations were already under threat during the second half of the 20th century, by North American business principles and the hyper-commercial benchmarks that were being set by properties such as the National Basketball Association. But in the first quarter of the 21st century, there has been a further pivot away from European hegemony in sport. Gazprom’s sponsorship of football, the reluctace of nations including Norway and Germany to host some mega-events, and the possibility of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Greece hosting the 2030 FIFA men’s World Cup, provide ample evidence of the changes and challenges that sport is facing.
Further evidence of this can be found, for instance, in the growing influence that Qatar has across European football. The country and its State actors own several clubs, though it is Qatar Sports Investments that is most prominent amongst them. Doha-based QSI owns French club Paris Saint Germain, which in turn has enabled its chairman – Nasser Al-Khelaifi – to achieve the position of chair at the European Clubs Association (a body representing the interests of clubs across Europe). By holding this position, it has enabled Al-Khelaifi to secure a place on UEFA’s Executive Committee, which is empowered to adopt regulations and make decisions about European football.
How Should Europe Respond to Keep Its Position in Global Sport?
This implies that the most appropriate framing of multipolarism is in terms of its impact upon the governance of sport. Historically, Europeans have dominated global sport institutions in this regard, which often explains the not-for-profit, apolitical bureaucratic approach to governing which they have commonly adopted. Yet the influence of North American business and now the growing impact of those from the Global South with strong geopolitical orientations, have added new dimensions to the challenges of governing global sports. This necessitates changes on the part of organisations such as UEFA, FIFA, and the International Olympic Committee. Without such changes, one can imagine the fragmentation of existing systems and structures of governance, indeed we can already see in boxing and in esports that this is happening. A policy response is therefore needed, especially on the part of European governments which find themselves increasingly challenged by more interventionist approaches that are being adopted by countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and even South Korea.
There are some key questions ahead, namely: what constitutes good governance in sport and who should it be for? Who decides this, in which location(s), and on what basis? What does it mean both strategically and operationally for sports and for domestic and international governments (including the European Union)? And what are the intended outcomes of governing sports in this way?
Last year, FIFA announced that it was exploring the feasibility of moving its commercial operations out of Switzerland and locating them in New York. Given the financial status of the city and the maturity of America’s sport business, it is easy to see the logic of this move. But it does suggest that FIFA is receptive to moving other parts of its operations, to who knows where – Beijing, Mumbai, perhaps Riyadh? Popular narratives may frame 21st century sport as being a case of ‘us and them’, but the reality is rather more complex and nuanced. And if Europe isn’t to lose out on its historically established position in global sport, then it needs to respond in policy and strategy terms sooner rather than later.