In This Episode
Tommy and Roger look at how a country roughly the size of Connecticut with documented human rights violations was awarded the World Cup bid. They’re joined by Tariq Panja of the New York Times to discuss FIFA’s corrupt history, and global sports expert Simon Chadwick to explain the concept of sportswashing and why Qatar would want hosting duties in the first place.
Simon Chadwick: The way which I characterized Qatar is Qatar decided to learn to drive a car in the fast lane of a motorway. So what they decided to do is they were going to bid to stage the World Cup. They won and then all hell broke loose.
Tariq Panja: I’m going to tell you a story. It ends with the person I’m talking about being banned for life from football.
Tommy Vietor: Welcome back to World Corrupt. This is episode three from Men in Blazers and Crooked Media. A crossover so good you’d think Allen Iverson was hosting.
Roger Bennett: I love your framing cause I keep thinking about our partnership. It’s more like that episode where Kareem Abdul-Jabbar guested on The Bachelor.
Tommy Vietor: I have not seen that one, but I do accept your rose, Rog. Okay, enough of this Jesse Palmer-ing, though. You are listening to the third episode in a six part series. So if you’re hearing us for the first time, welcome. It’s good to meet you. But you might want to start at the beginning at episode one where we cover why we’re doing this thing in the first place, and then episode two, where we cover the unbelievable corruption that culminated in Zurich, Switzerland, in 2010 when Russia and Qatar were awarded the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.
Roger Bennett: The darkness of this podcast series, really the darkness above reality is that football, yes, can make fans hearts around the world soar. [sportcaster news clip] But off the field, the sports governed or really self-governed in a brazen, craven, kleptocratic fashion. With FIFA, global football’s governing body, really at the center of the heart of all that darkness, hence Qatar currently rushing to get ready to host World Cup 2022 in the style previously seen, I guess a Great Exuma Island in the hours before the Fyre Festival’s grand opening. [laughter] You just know Ja Rule loves himself a World Cup. And last episode we discussed what the optics of Qatar hosting the competition look like from a Western perspective—
Tommy Vietor: Mm hmm.
Roger Bennett: And predominantly that of FIFA world football’s organizers. Today, we will spend time looking at this whole shit show from a Qatari perspective in. In short, why would Qatar, population fewer than 3 million of whom fewer than one in seven is actually native born a peninsula smaller than the state of Connecticut? Why try and host a World Cup that’s meant to welcome 32 teams and millions of traveling fans in the first place.
Tommy Vietor: To do so Rog we’re going to have to go back in time, back to an era when the country was just a barren desert peninsula, not a single skyscraper in the sky. Say that five times fast. But until 70 years ago, Qatar barely had a settled population, let alone a town of any significant size. But what changed everything for so many countries in the Persian Gulf was the discovery of oil. Qatar began recovering oil on a commercial scale in the 1940s, though initially most of that money was siphoned off by foreign governments and foreign companies. But the money really started flowing in the sixties and soon after Qatar declared independence from Britain in 1971.
Roger Bennett: As that old saying goes, the sun will never set on all the geopolitical nightmares created by the British Empire or something like that. [laughter]
Tommy Vietor: King Charles. He’s going to fix it, right? [laughter] Get some new, some fresh blood.
Roger Bennett: [laughter] He’ll fix everything, my lord.
Tommy Vietor: Oh, my Lord. Okay, maybe not. But the legacy of British colonialism and its tragic consequences will be important to the story later. So put a pin in that one. Fast forward to today, though, Rog. So Qatar is an economic and diplomatic powerhouse because of the massive profits they have reaped from oil and gas and Qatari citizens are some of the richest in the world, but what they don’t have is freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, or really any say in what their government does. Gender inequality is built into the culture and the system, and migrant workers who make up 90% of the country’s population are treated in a manner that has been compared to modern slavery.
Roger Bennett: And when you have these kind of surreal, they’re almost oxymoronic complexities. They grapple with riches beyond the imagination shared among the 300,000 or so citizens of this tiny country, citizens who rely on a ton of expat knowhow and even more migrant labor muscle that make up the other 2.4 million non-citizens who also live there. You’re also going to have enormous uncertainty, which itself triggers both a desperate need to confidently assert yourself and the next essential insecurity. And I don’t know about you Tommy. But when I feel that cocktail of emotions myself, I like partaking in a bit of retail therapy. I find it solves everything.
Tommy Vietor: [laughter] You’re not alone, right? You jump on Amazon, just buy some stuff late at night. But apparently few people love retail therapy more than Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, the man who officially became the Emir of Qatar in 2013 after his father abdicated the throne. So the Emir is 42, which is my age, which is annoying because he’s very powerful and I’m not and he is not afraid to spend money. Rog, this guy makes the Kardashians look cheap. About a decade ago, empowered by that gigantic fossil fuel windfall, the Emir went on a spending spree, snapping up iconic London landmarks and brands like Harrods and even a French soccer club called Paris Saint-Germain. Why would they do that Rog?
Roger Bennett: Back in 2008, Qatar had had to watch gulf neighbor slash rival Abu Dhabi, snap up Premier League team, Manchester City, for about $360 million.
Tommy Vietor: Good deal.
Roger Bennett: Great deal. Because one of the incredible parts of the acquisition, around the same time, the Abu Dhabi Sovereign Wealth Fund, they snapped up AMD which was one of the world’s biggest microchip suppliers for what British journalist David Conn reports in his book Richer Than God was a deal worth $4 billion. And then they were shocked by how little press that mega-deal got. Despite it, sized remained pretty much just the trade story. However, the purchase of Manchester City, a tiny one by Abu Dhabi standards, that one proceeded to make from page noise around the globe and continue to define Abu Dhabi’s brand in the eyes of the world. The city, won trophy, after trophy after trophy.
[news clip]: Manchester City are the champions of the Premier League once again. [cheering] It’s another final day that he’s now part of this club’s growing legend.
Tommy Vietor: So this French club, PSG, [laughter] which is much easier to say, are those guys any good at soccer?
Roger Bennett: They weren’t before Qatar got involved anyway. PSG were the rare football club in a dazzling European capital city that was still underperforming. The team wasn’t exactly a backwater, but they were most well known for playing their games. Wait for this with two warring sets of their own fans.
Tommy Vietor: Oh no.
Roger Bennett: Proudly white and racist, the other ethnically and racially mixed fighting each other before, during and after the game.
Tommy Vietor: [laugh] Jesus.
Roger Bennett: And that changed when a subsidiary of the Qatar Investment Authority bought a controlling stake in PSG and has since splurged over $2 billion total to transform the team into both a luxury brand and a European juggernaut. They built an all star roster featuring Lionel Messi. You might have heard of him Tommy.
Tommy Vietor: The goat, right?
Roger Bennett: The one true goat, the Brazilian neck tattoo enthusiast and football icon Neymar French wonderkid, Kylian Mbappé. They used all of them essentially to build a giant global advertising billboard for Qatar, for Qatar Airways, for the Qatari tourist board. You get the drift?
Tommy Vietor: Mm hmm. Now, look, we would be the first ones to admit that there’s lots of reasons why rich people, rich guys usually buy sports teams. I would look, [laugh] I would love to own any of these teams we’re talking about right now, but some of it is just vanity, right? I mean, it’s competition. It’s no different than Jeff Bezos building the next mega-yacht or popping all that HGH. Have you seen his biceps lately Rog? That man is swole.
Roger Bennett: Yeah, I look at them and I think that man clearly been guzzling all those athletic greens.
Tommy Vietor: [laugh] Oh, beautiful. Well done. Others have pointed out that Qatar was already investing a lot of money in Paris. And look, why wouldn’t you want to own real estate in Paris? And maybe they thought hmm, it could be a good idea to do a favor for Nicolas Sarkozy, the then French president and PSG superfan. And we’re going to get into all of this a little later in this episode, Rog. But regardless of the motivation, building these economic and diplomatic ties with countries like the U.S. in France can provide Qatar with protection.
Roger Bennett: Woah, woah, woah. What do you mean by protection? Is that like the Night’s Watch? Who exactly does Qatar need protection from? And don’t they get all the protection they need from, you know, having a U.S. military base on their territory?
Tommy Vietor: It would be very difficult to build a giant ice wall in Qatar, Rog.
Roger Bennett: I would put money on the fact that at one time or another the Qatari’s have explored that very idea.
Tommy Vietor: Yeah, it was probably in their in their power point somewhere. [laugh] But look, you’re right, the US has a huge base in Qatar. There’s something like 11,000 US military personnel who live there. And look, that base has been a key staging ground for U.S. military operations, airstrikes against ISIS targets in places like Iraq and Syria. But the broader truth is that Qatar is a tiny country in a tough neighborhood. They share a border with Saudi Arabia. They’re down the road from Iraq. They’re just across the Persian Gulf from Iran. Plus, Qatar has been more than happy to stir the regional pot and create a little trouble.
Roger Bennett: When you say the words, stir the pot and create trouble the way you talk about it, it makes all of this just sound like some giant, terrible episode of like The Real Housewives of the Gulf. How exactly does a petrodollar nation state stir the pot?
Tommy Vietor: [laugh] First, you throw your wine in Egypt’s face than you DM his ex on Instagram. [both talking] No, here’s one example, Al-Jazeera, heard of it?
Roger Bennett: Are you talking about the state owned TV and radio network based in Doha, the capital of Qatar. I actually do remember Al-Jazeera launching in the mid 1990s with huge noise, soon becoming the focus of some totally bonkers conspiracy theories in the United States. In 2003, I believe CIA analysts were so convinced that terrorists were sending hidden messages to Al-Jazeera programing that the US government literally grounded 30 flights. In response to some analysis, there was just pure fiction. It was just daytime television.
Tommy Vietor: The early 2000 were were not a banner period for the U.S. intelligence community. [laughter] But that’s another story. The CIA wasn’t the only one given Al-Jazeera the side eye though. I mean, Hosni Mubarak, then the president of Egypt, visited Al-Jazeera’s offices in 1999 and reportedly said all that noise coming out of this matchbox. Now, we should point out that much of what Mubarak considered noise was in reality just more open, honest discussions of topics that were forbidden on state TV areas like foreign policy, governance and religion.
Roger Bennett: The kinds of discussions that your average autocratic leader just lives to suppress.
Tommy Vietor: That’s exactly right. And they blamed Qatar for allowing these conversations to happen. And frankly, it got worse from there are many Gulf leaders hated Al-Jazeera’s coverage of the Arab Spring.
[news clip]: They returned to Tahrir Square. Thousands of Egyptians to chant the same chant of the revolution. People want the downfall…
Roger Bennett: Those who may not remember the Arab Spring back in 2010, that wave of massive anti-government protests that kicked off one after another spiraling across the Arab world and threatening the rule of over a dozen leaders.
Tommy Vietor: In Egypt, Rog, the protesters actually forced President Hosni Mubarak to resign. I mean, actually was still in the White House at that time. And I can remember it being this shocking, momentous event. At one point, you know, standing outside of President Obama’s office, the Oval Office, he had President Mubarak on speaker phone. And I could hear both of them shouting at each other through the door. But this was so shocking because for decades, Mubarak had projected this image as a nearly invincible strongman. And so his ouster terrified autocratic leaders across the Arab world, many of whom blamed Al-Jazeera for the protests. And they later blamed Al-Jazeera when the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood party took power.
Roger Bennett: You learn something new every single day. I had no idea that the Muslim Brotherhood had their own Fox News.
Tommy Vietor: Tucker Carlson used to work there. It was great. [laughter] But look, it wasn’t just Al-Jazeera. That was the problem. Qatar also made enemies by meddling in political disputes in countries like Libya, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and have been accused of supporting Islamist radical groups in the region.
Roger Bennett: Even I, in my own dim, slow on the uptake fashion, can see how all of this might not go over well. And the more you talk, the more you realize just how much of a regional outlier Qatar is and just how much it needs Paris Saint-Germain.
Tommy Vietor: The team, and maybe even the liqueur. Right. But, you know, look back to this brewing conflict. [both speaking] It’s very good. It all came to a head in 2017 when a coalition of countries in the Gulf, led by Saudi Arabia, cut off diplomatic ties with Qatar. They launched an economic boycott. They blocked planes and ships from coming out of the country. It was a real problem.
Roger Bennett: Where are we on a scale between another Real Housewives of Qatar kind of fight and something which is geopolitically pretty intense?
Tommy Vietor: Good question. Look, I would describe this as a genuine diplomatic crisis. The Saudis, the Egyptians, the Emiratis and several other countries accused the Qataris of supporting terrorist organizations, and they threatened to continue the boycott until Qatar met this list of public demands that they made that included shutting down Al Jazeera, limiting their diplomatic ties with Iran and ending all support for terrorist organizations, which I should note, you know, Qatar denies that final allegation.
Roger Bennett: So listen to you. I’m just like and I’m sure all our listeners will join me in this, though. Just thank God we had a president with the deft diplomatic touch of Donald Trump in charge to manage this mess. I’m sure somebody resolves things immediately, right? Oh.
Tommy Vietor: Yeah. Trump, of course, made things worse in this mess, frankly, wasn’t resolved fully until years later. But I do think this story and this diplomatic crisis helps explain why the Qataris go on these spending sprees.
Roger Bennett: They want friends all over the world who can help them when they’re in a pinch. Those that want the megaphone, the PR benefit that comes from being associated with with a team as good as PSG or that times a million, which is what you get from hosting the World Cup. There is no better way to burnish the message that Qatar is a world class state over the future. The border where the West meets the Islamic world.
Tommy Vietor: Exactly. But look, enough of this foreign policy stuff. I have to ask this because it’s been bugging me. Is Qatar any good at football? Do they have any history, any bona fides that would suggest they want to host this thing?
Roger Bennett: God, no. That is a great question. And I don’t know how you say chutzpah in Arabic, but it has been quite a leap. The bid for the World Cup. Around that time, the Qatari national team, I think we’re about 113th in the world by then.
Tommy Vietor: Is that good? 113?
Roger Bennett: It’s not great Bob, Qatar had never, ever qualified for the World Cup before, but back in 1995, Qatar did host the under 20 men’s World Cup. It’s a minor crumb that FIFA had thrown their way. That is the event that was perceived by many to be the seed of the idea for 2022.
Tommy Vietor: But again, I mean, normally if you host the World Cup, you kind of want to win the thing, right? Or at least compete and how is that going to be possible if you’re 113th in the world, don’t you risk humiliation?
Roger Bennett: Yes. And Qatar suddenly had to get good at football so that team would not crap its pants with the entire world watching. And Qatar did this and perhaps the most Qatari way possible by spending billions on a youth development academy named Aspire. And they had the goal of developing a Qatari Messi. I just love that Qatari Messi. By investing in—
Tommy Vietor: That’s tough.
Roger Bennett: We all want a Messi of our very own, bite your arm off to have a Connecticut Messi by investing in, according to their website biochemistry, altitude, physiology, biomechanics and anthropometry, I’ll be honest then if you could tell. [laugh] By the way I pronounce that, I have absolutely no bloody idea what anthropometry is. But the Academy also included an arm that scouted kids in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia. The span it as a humanitarian effort, but is pretty clear to everyone in the football world. It was really an effort to peddle influence in other FIFA nations as well as to identify talented young prospects, move them to Qatar and make them eligible to play for the Qatari national team.
Tommy Vietor: Ah, there it is.
Roger Bennett: I think it’s every child’s dream across Southeast Asia and Latin America to one day grow up and play for the Qatari national team. [laugh] It’s a strategy known as talent harvesting and one of their recent games, seven of the 11 Qatari starters were born outside of Qatar and through life hacks like that, you too can take a state with fewer than seven and a half thousand registered footballers, turn them into the current champions of Asia, a squad that is now ranked 48th in the world and all for the low, low price of a couple of billion dollars.
Tommy Vietor: [laugh] Beautiful. Qatar’s got talent harvesting. What a what an inspiring story.
Tommy Vietor: So Rog, again, stepping back, so far we’ve established that Qatar is not a democracy and until recently they were toiling in, you know, football irrelevancy. But we also know that the country is ruled by a leader with an iron fist who calls all the shots and loves to spread money around. That sounds a lot like FIFA. No? I mean, it’s not hard to see how these guys would get along.
Roger Bennett: And it’s not hard to understand how a nation like Qatar, with a desperate hunger for power and infinite resources just outpay all other nations, could win the rights to host. Because, as we discussed in episode two, FIFA delegated that hosting decision to its executive committee, a group of just twenty two members who reveled in the fact that there was practically no oversight at all. All of which made it the perfect target for Qatar to wine and dine and shower with expensive Mulberry bags and watches, spending what The Guardian newspaper reported was $200 million on their bid campaign and hiring some of the biggest names in football to act as mercenary advocates for their bona fides. Like Zinedine Zidane?
Tommy Vietor: No, not the French guy who headbutted the other guy in the World Cup final. Don’t tell me they got him too.
Roger Bennett: The very same ball king. Manchester City managerial genius. Pep Guardiola too, essentially Catalan Bill Belichick.
Tommy Vietor: If you make a deflate gate joke, I will. I will cry. Sorry. Desinflar-gate.
Roger Bennett: [laugh] When given back trucks full of cash. Well, those two gents will sing your footballing praises. Remember that this time, Europe was starting to come out of a recession while Qatar and Gulf money was flowing. But England and Australia, they were found to be doing dodgy stuff too. Everyone was bribing or attempting to be bribed. Think of it like Carl Douglas’s kung fu fighting, but for payoffs and kickbacks.
Tommy Vietor: So. Okay. But if all these countries were doing shady stuff too. Are we being unfair to single Qatar out?
Roger Bennett: You could attempt to make that argument. But Qatar won the bid to host the World Cup because it was the only one that could burn money in an absolutely infinite, unlimited way. And it was actually, I think this paper, The Mail on Sunday that published a special report in full by a Qatari whistleblower on the eve of the World Cup hosting decision, and they revealed their crooked methodologies and predicted, quote, little known Middle Eastern state Qatar was about to shock the world to win the right to host the 2022 World Cup. And you remember Tariq Panja of The New York Times right Tommy?
Tommy Vietor: The bloke who helped us in episode two, he helped us understand FIFA’s corruption.
Roger Bennett: He returns now to explain the origins of Qatar’s desire to host the World Cup and the roots of its collaboration with FIFA to bring the great game to the desert.
Tariq Panja: I’m going to tell you a story. It ends with the person I’m talking about being banned for life from football. The guy I’m talking about is a Qatari billionaire.
Roger Bennett: Okay. So Tariq is talking here about Mohammed bin Hammam, a Qatari football administrator, a fine, upstanding member of FIFA’s executive committee. And the gent who played a crucial role in Qatar’s World Cup bid.
Tariq Panja: He realized very quickly that the world of football, the planet FIFA, is extremely biddable. By that, means you can buy off most people and you can get your way.
Roger Bennett: He reportedly paid out a cool 5 million to get the support for that country’s World Cup campaign.
Tommy Vietor: 5 million. Okay. So a World Cup costs about 1/5,000,000 of a Bezos, is that right?
Roger Bennett: [laugh] And that was back in 2014. Think how much 1/5,000,000 of a Bezos was worth then. [laugh] The British paper The Sunday Times then said it had obtained millions of emails and other documents that showed bin Hammam made payments of up to $200,000 each into accounts controlled by the presidents of 30 African football associations.
Tommy Vietor: That seems a little suspicious.
Roger Bennett: You’re not crapping Tommy. The Times went on to add. Oh yeah. And B.H., he also paid 1.6 million into bank accounts of then FIFA ExCo member Jack Warner, gent from Trinidad and Tobago.
Tommy Vietor: That is certainly an efficient, though not particularly subtle way to buy influence. And so the prosecutors, they saw this happen. They had all the facts in the newspaper and they nailed bin Hammam for these offenses. And he’s serving a prison sentence somewhere, right? [laugh] It has to be.
Roger Bennett: Not quite, football doesn’t work like that Thomas. After greasing palms to get the World Cup, pretty much like Henry Hill entering the Copa in Goodfellas. Bin Hammam decided, God that worked, I’m going to run for FIFA president!
Tommy Vietor: Oh no.
Roger Bennett: And now he decided to take on Sepp Blatter in 2011. And as Tariq will tell us, that’s ultimately what did him in.
Tariq Panja: You know, those Acme cartoons, if you were to design a corruption plot that you’re going to get caught up in and get banned. This is the one. Jack Warner always had his hands out, said to Mohammed bin Hammam, why don’t you come to the Caribbean and pitch to my members? So yeah, I’ll come over private jet. And then in the jet he has some some gifts. There is a meeting which someone recorded, Jack Warner speaking about on the telephone, and he said, Mohammed here and he’s got gifts for all of you. If some of you are too pious to accept them, that’s up to you. So there was a hotel suite set up, a list of names. And you go up to the hotel room, knock on the door. One by one, they went in and they were given envelopes with stacks of hundred dollar bills to the total of 40,000 per person. And they could do with it what you will. If you want to work in football for football development, that’s down to you. So literally old school brown envelopes full to the brim with $100 bills were handed out.
Roger Bennett: And that was the end of bin Hammam. As Tariq mentioned, it got him a lifetime ban from football.
Tommy Vietor: Oof.
Roger Bennett: Again, that specific incident may not be related to the 5 million he reportedly shelled out to help Qatar get the World Cup. But we just painted a picture of the upstanding moral fiber of those who were involved in the Qatari bid. This is how business was done. Were essentially talking MyPillow levels of integrity.
Tommy Vietor: I was just thinking that Trump could make a great FIFA president. Maybe that’s our exit strategy as a as a nation here.
Roger Bennett: You know what? He’s got everything that they look for a FIFA for a future president on his resumé. But now we do want to get to a story that details how Qatar pulled this off. And it wasn’t just envelopes stuffed with cash that did it. It was what’s considered diplomacy, saying, forget you, fellow FIFA execs, let me speak to your manager, a.k.a. the heads of state. And this, this this is the story you hinted at earlier, Thomas. And like Chekhov. We never hang a rifle in the first act, if it wasn’t gonna go off in the third. And this is a very specific example, not just envelopes of cash and how they make football work, but global commerce being used as a lever for bringing the tournament to guitar. Take it away, Tariq.
Tariq Panja: There was a dinner, famous dinner at the Elysee Palace, the home of the French president at the time, Nicolas Sarkozy. The other dinner was the then crown prince and current Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim. Michel Platini, another French great footballer, the head of European football, Nicolas Sarkozy. And I believe the French sports minister was there. That dinner had huge implications for the world of football and for the 2022 World Cup. Here is why. Afterwards, Qatar places an order for French jets worth billions of dollars and Platini has his head turned. Nicolas Sarkozy says for France, the World Cup, your vote should go to Qatar. And Michel Platini, to his credit, is one of these few voters who at least tells everyone publicly who he voted for in that secret vote. He says he voted for Qatar, though he says he would have done it anyway. Hmm. I’m not so sure about that.
Tommy Vietor: So Rog, let me just make sure I got this straight and a quick review of the stories we’ve heard on this podcast. We got a DOJ official calling the awarding of this World Cup the most corrupt thing he’s ever witnessed. We know that one of the key members of the Qatari bid had a penchant for handing out literal envelopes stuffed with cash.
Roger Bennett: He didn’t do it for bribery. He did it, it was just a tick. The way you just go, it’s just a tick. It’s just a habit.
Tommy Vietor: [laugh] And we know that the Qatari’s just so happened to buy a fleet of French produced aircraft and that France’s representative in FIFA voted for Qatar. And yet there has been surprisingly little accountability. Here’s Tariq again.
Tariq Panja: What you see are investigations in France, investigations in Switzerland, into this process of the attribution of the World Cup. Some of these the French one you hear is still going on. The Swiss have shown themselves to be relatively useless of prosecuting FIFA in sports corruption. There is a reason why Switzerland is the home of the IOC-FIFA and the plethora of world sports organizations. Switzerland is seen as an enabling country, soft touch jurisdiction. So there have been bunch of investigations, journalistic projects, books, etc. But no one has been jailed for taking a bribe for gifting the World Cup to Russia and Qatar.
Roger Bennett: I wanna make it clear though, once that World Cup was awarded. No one thought it would actually happen. We were all like a World Cup, in that heat, in cities that don’t exist, that we know was awarded corruptly. It’s never going to happen. And yet here we are Tommy, on the eve of the thing.
Tommy Vietor: So Rog, this really does get you into the question of why? Why would Qatar want to spend all this money, build all this infrastructure just to get criticism from schmucks like us [laugh] across the planet who know nothing about the country before this event? But now we’re criticizing their human rights record. We’re criticizing their record on labor rights. We’re talking about their spending decisions. How does this work?
Roger Bennett: It’s almost as if they intentionally did it to get criticism from schmucks like us, and that could have really been their original intention.
Tommy Vietor: So going into this project, we assumed they wanted to use the World Cup to distract all of their critics and give them something else to talk about what’s known as sports watching. And there is still certainly some truth to that. But the full picture, it’s a little more complicated.
Roger Bennett: But let’s start with that term you just used, sports washing, trying to define it and giving you a sense of how actually works.
Simon Chadwick: I am Simon Chadwick. I am Professor of Sport and Geopolitical Economy at SKEMA Business School in Paris. In simple terms, sport washing is a term that was created, by course organizations to characterize situations in which countries deploy sports to divert attention away from the crimes and misdemeanors in which that country is involved, or cleanse the image of countries that have been abusing human rights or perhaps denying certain groups in society their right to equality.
Roger Bennett: Can you give us some examples outside of the World Cup in Qatar?
Simon Chadwick: The best example, I think, is one that has really ripened and come into full view this year, and that is Gazprom, the Russian Gas Corporation. It first signed a shirt sponsorship deal with the Bundesliga Schalke back in 2006, signed a sponsorship deal with UEFA Champions League. And for a long time we talked about nearly two decades. People just looked and said, hey, there’s Gazprom. They sponsor the Champions League. And nobody really questioned or asked about or criticized. You know, Gazprom were giving lots of money to Europe’s biggest football competition. Happy days. Yet in reality, I think what Gazprom was doing was to cleanse its image and legitimize its position.
Tommy Vietor: There is the question here of why sports, why sports washing? Because a lot of bad people launder their reputations through charitable giving. I’m thinking about the Sackler family who hooked everyone in the US on opioids and then slap their name on hospitals. I think about people like Jeffrey Epstein who gave tons of money to Harvard and burnished his reputation that way. Why did sports become the go to here for all these autocrats?
Simon Chadwick: It’s global. It’s something with which people are readily engaged, it’s easily consumed. And so sport, I think, is it’s seductive, it’s engaging, but it also helps to communicate and image your set of values. Imagine that Manchester United was bought by, let’s say, the Saudi Arabian government. The going rate for Manchester United would be six, probably $6 billion, according to research at Manchester United has 1.1 billion funds. Essentially what you’re doing is you’re talking about $6 a fund to buy funds, influence on social media. So if you were a government seeking to sport wash or to mislead or to distract attention, I’m not saying it’s a bargain, but your $6 for each fan to get them to say nice things for you and to serve as social media influences on your behalf, I would say is it’s pretty good value for money.
Roger Bennett: Bite your arm off for $6 a fan.
Tommy Vietor: Yeah, man, if you got 6 billion sitting around [laugh] that is a bargain. But we also asked Simon about Qatar specifically and what he thinks their end game is in hosting this competition.
Simon Chadwick: What we’ve seen really is we’ve seen Qatar using the World Cup as as nation building. So you go out ten years ago, there was no metro system. Now there is a metro system. You go back ten years, there was no motorway network. Now there’s a motorway network. And so the World Cup is being used for nation building purposes. But I also think it’s being used for nation branding purposes. Because one of the things that I think that both Qatar and Saudi Arabia want to do is they want to be Dubai. Because Dubai has become a holiday hotspot, a world global transit hub. And a lot of this has been built on the back of sport sponsorship. You think Emirates and Arsenal and Real Madrid and A.C., Milan and Hamburg and you know in reality what the likes of Qatar and Saudi Arabia want, is they want people to be flying Qatar Airways. They want people to be going on beach holidays by the Red Sea. It’s not just about changing people’s attitudes. It’s also about getting them to change their behaviors.
Tommy Vietor: I think you’re making a more persuasive case that this is really more akin to kind of Qatar’s coming out party to the world.
Simon Chadwick: I like your use of this description of this is Qatar’s coming out party just as the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing was modern China’s coming out party.
Roger Bennett: Simon, is there a chance that this 2022 World Cup may be the most profound example at the Streisand effect, in which trying to stop people from talking about one thing only is drawing attention to it and makes the world talk about it all the more?
Simon Chadwick: The way in which I characterized Qatar, is Qatar decided to learn to drive a car in the fast lane of a motorway. So what they decided to do is they were going to bid to stage the World Cup. They won and then all hell broke loose. You have kind of the young progressives, and they do want things to be different. They do want men and women to be equal. They do want to be more open and transparent. But as with most countries, including my own, there is a significant conservative caucus. I went to an event in Doha and I spoke just before the pandemic started. At the end of the event, a senior came to me. He must have been about 75, 76 years old. And he said to me, I don’t want the World Cup in my country. And I thought, why? And he said, I don’t want to change.
Roger Bennett: Oh, Simon Chadwick had me in the palm of his hand there. It seemed like he was opening up to finish off and just stick the landing like Kerri Strug by delivering us a sweet old man’s story, but it turned out to be—
Tommy Vietor: Bigoted old man.
Roger Bennett: Bigoted old man stories are the worst sweet old man stories.
Tommy Vietor: And they don’t want to change. And look, you know who else doesn’t want to change? The FIFA executives who have used their positions to get filthy rich. And in the next episode, we’re going to explore the realities that that greed has wrought. What it meant to bring the World Cup, the teams, the players, the fans to a country where they all have to confront and navigate this generally horrific human rights record.
Roger Bennett: When you use the word generally horrific, it’s essentially using generally in the same way as I tell people, I’m generally bald.
Tommy Vietor: Well, we’ll also look, we’re going to bring in some experts on your hairline and these issues. We’re going to talk about Qatar’s, migrant labor practices. We’re going to talk about its record on LGBT issues and what it all means heading into this World Cup.
Unidentified Speaker: We have something like 1.2 million fans expected to visit Qatar. What happens for LGBT people who are visiting? Are they going to be safe?
Roger Bennett: We’re also going to hear from a host of footballers, including one of my favorites, two time World Cup champion, Presidential Medal of Freedom winner Megan Rapinoe, who talks about the courage that it does take to speak out in a business built on conformity. And the message she has for those heading to this World Cup.
Megan Rapinoe: The regret of not saying anything is what is going to kill you and what’s going to eat you alive.
Roger Bennett: In a podcast that too often seemed dark and full of terrors. Trust me, you’ll want to hear the message making delivers in the next episode because it’s so bloody important.
Tommy Vietor: And look, not for nothing, but this is from someone who actually chooses to hear us both yap away on our little shows before we launch this series.
Roger Bennett: [laugh] A human being who is essentially flawless except for her taste in podcasts.
Tommy Vietor: World Corrupt is an original podcast collaboration from Men in Blazers and Crooked Media’s Pod Save The World. Alongside Roger Bennett, I’m your host, Tommy Vietor.
Roger Bennett: The executive producers and writers of World Corrupt are me, Roger Bennett, my great friend Tommy Vietor, and Men in Blazers, Jonathan Williamson, who incredibly edited and sound designed the episodes. A bit like Phil Collins drumming and singing at the very same time.
Tommy Vietor: [laugh] A talented man. From the crooked media side. Our executive producers are Michael Martinez, Sandy Girard and Giancarlo Bizzarro, are producers are Ryan Wallerson and Haley Muse, and our associate producer is Saul Rubin.
Roger Bennett: For Men in Blazers our producer is Miranda Davis and Martin S.
Tommy Vietor: This episode was fact checked by Nikki Shaner-Bradford. Music by Vasilis Fotopoulos.
Roger Bennett: With editing assistance from Nick Firchau.
Tommy Vietor: Additional production support from Crooked Media, Zuri Irvin, Kyle Seglin and Ari Schwartz.
Roger Bennett: And Men in Blazer’s Mix Diskerud.
Tommy Vietor: Special thanks to Crooked Media, Julia Beach, Amelia Montooth and Matt DeGroot.
Roger Bennett: As well as Men in Blazers, Scott Debson, Michael Milberger and Alex Sale for their promotional social support and love.