As the dust settles on Qatar’s World Cup, it is worth returning to consider some of the questions that were raised in the run-up to the tournament. Amid a public conversation about sportswashing – the use of sport to distract attention from human rights violations – many Western media organisations focussed on the issues associated with hosting the event to an unprecedented degree. Under the weight of negative press coverage, you could be forgiven for thinking that if Qatar wanted to draw attention away from their human rights record, they would be better off not hosting the World Cup. As Paul Michael Brannagan and Richard Giulianotti put it, while Qatar has bid for the event hoping to enhance their soft power, they may actually end up disempowered, by losing attractiveness through hosting the event.
Sport mega-event media coverage follows a fairly standardised pattern. In the weeks and months leading up to the event, journalists cover the preparations and ask whether the money spent on the event was worthwhile. Once the event starts, their focus (although arguably not their audiences) shifts towards the sporting achievements. After the event, there is a celebration of the event’s success, possibly with a hint of discussion of whether the event was worthwhile, before focus inevitably shifts towards the next event. In the case of Qatar, several news organisations and official broadcasters took steps to retain focus on some of the problems associated with the event. As sports journalist Sydney Bauer pointed out, this strategy worked to an extent – while the critical lens did fall away in the latter stages of the tournament, it did so much more slowly than at similar events. Indeed, this likely means most fans were exposed to a critical perspective on the event, even if that was not a dominant theme of coverage of the event by the end.Caption: sports journalist Sydney Bauer reflects on the media narratives surrounding the World Cup
As football fans debated whether the 2022 final was the greatest of all time, Qatari officials surely celebrated. The quality of the game, as well as Lionel Messi finally winning the only trophy missing from his glittering collection, dominated headlines around the world. A drab 1-0 win for either side would likely have left more column inches for reflection on whether Qatar should have hosted the tournament, but instead photos of Messi draped in the Qatari Emir’s bisht circulated around the world. As Jonathan Grix and Paul Michael Brannagan have noted, culture is an important resource for soft power strategies. In this sense, the inclusion of the bisht in the trophy ceremony and the subsequent avalanche of articles explaining the garment and it’s significance to audiences not familiar with it can be seen as an effective outcome of Qatar’s aim to foster dialogue between East and West.
Caption: Google trends data shows a spike in searches for bisht around the World Cup final
Are the World Cup organisers happy with how the event played out in the Western media, given the years-long focus on human rights issues in the country? Probably, yes. Audiences will have learned more about Qatar through the hosting of the event and many of those who travelled to the event will report positive experiences (especially Argentinians). The image of one the games greatest players lifting the World Cup will forever include an element of Qatari culture. This is how sportswashing works. However, it remains to be seen whether this will make up for over a decade of headlines focussing on some of the problems associated with the country, particularly its labour laws. Very few countries have been on the receiving end of such sustained criticism as their first introduction to a wide audience. The phrase often used to summarise the soft power benefits of mega-events is that they put a city or country on the map. That may ultimately be a significant element of Qatar’s success – that many more people know the country exists. Whether it was worth it will be a test of the old adage that “there’s no such thing as bad press”.