This World Cup, FIFA’s long history of ‘sportswashing’ continues

OPINION: The PR boost from hosting the tournament is allowing Qatar to gloss over its anti-LGBTQ+ human rights abuses. When the games come to the U.S. in 2026, it will be no different

The 2022 World Cup officially kicked off last week with a 2-0 Ecuador victory over host nation Qatar, and the tournament has already featured plenty of dramatic moments and stunning upsets. But alongside the action on the field has been a string of crackdowns meant to quell protests against Qatar’s treatment of LGBTQ+ people.

This has made watching the world’s celebration of my lifelong favourite sport a miserable experience as a trans woman.

Last week, a group of six European teams were forced by FIFA to abandon rainbow-adorned armbands meant to protest the host country’s anti-queer and trans policies. This follows suppression by both Qatari officials and FIFA, soccer’s world government body, which have targetted protests and even the actions of gay fans attending the event.

In 2010, when Qatar was announced as the host of this year’s tournament, a reporter asked FIFA’s then president Sepp Blatter about the safety of gay tourists who may want to attend. Blatter suggested that gay fans simply refrain from having sex while attending the World Cup. This attitude was echoed more recently by U.K. foreign secretary James Cleverly who said queer and trans fans should be “respectful” a few weeks ago.

Earlier this month, former Qatari national team player and World Cup ambassador Khalid Salman called homosexuality a “damage in the mind” in an interview with German Public broadcaster ZDF.

Last Monday, American reporter Grant Wahl was briefly detained entering the stadium to cover the game between the U.S. Men’s National Team and Wales after wearing a rainbow-themed soccer shirt, kicking off a brief social media firestorm.

The atmosphere has cast a pall over the tournament, which is typically a worldwide celebration of the sport of soccer. There was already a downcast feeling about the event among many fans because of the Qatari treatment of migrant labourers who built the stadiums for this month’s World Cup. An estimated 6,500 workers died during the various construction phases.

As a fan of the sport myself, consuming this World Cup has not been easy. Every commercial break on Fox, the official FIFA broadcaster of the World Cup in the U.S., has featured a glossy, slickly produced PR ad promoting the host country as an important hub of economic development and innovation, all paid for with Qatari money. I’ve been a U.S. soccer fan since I was 12, when the U.S. first hosted the cup, and I have fond memories of watching the team’s middling runs over the years. But this year feels gross.


It’s easy for me to sit back and condemn Qatar—and FIFA for awarding this cup to the oil-rich gulf state—but the truth is this is just the latest chapter in FIFA’s harmful past. This year American and European fans and players alike have protested Qatar’s treatment of queer and trans people—but Russia hosted the cup four years ago and where were the player protests then?

Outside of a smattering of activist protests in 2018, the world mostly ignored Russia’s viciously homophobic regime, which had essentially banned public discussion of LGBTQ+ issues four years before the country hosted the games.

“In 2026 the World Cup will be played in Florida and Texas—two of the most anti-LGBTQ2S+ locations in the U.S.”

Why is there so much more media and player attention on Qatar than there was on Russia? For that matter, the U.S. is one of the hosts of the next World Cup, and in 2026 the games will be played in Florida and Texas—two of the most anti-LGBTQ2S+ locations in the country. There’s little difference between Russia’s gay propaganda law and Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law. We are being hypocrites if we’re protesting Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup and not the future games in two states where LGBTQ2S+ rights and lives are threatened.

This is not to say that we should tolerate homophobia in Qatar or Russia. But let’s not forget that we have our own issues closer to home. Just last weekend, five people were killed and 18 were injured in a shooting at a Colorado LGBTQ2S+ bar, and the right-wing media in the U.S. has mostly reacted with barely contained glee.

The practice of “sportswashing,” where hideous governments use high-profile international sporting events to legitimize their regimes and give their policies a nice PR cleanse is as old as the concept of organized sport itself. Hitler’s Nazi Germany famously hosted the Olympics in 1936, engaging in similar PR tactics that we’re seeing from the Qataris in 2022. Mussolini’s fascist Italy hosted the second-ever World Cup in 1934.

As long as countries have a modicum of money, influence and power, the act of sportswashing will continue. There are really not many ways to fight back against it without systemic anti-corruption measures at FIFA and the continued protest of the actions of horrible host countries. The U.S. co-hosting of the next World Cup will be no different.

We have many problems ourselves—we just won’t notice because we want to believe that we are superior on the LGBTQ2S+ human rights front.

Katelyn Burns is a freelance journalist and columnist for Xtra and MSNBC. She was the first openly trans Capitol Hill reporter in U.S. history.

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