The winner of the Qatar men’s World Cup is not Argentina, who won the greatest match in finals history, or even the upstart semifinalist Morocco. It is neither the Golden Boot winner, the otherworldly Kylian Mbappé of France, nor the Golden Ball winner, the legendary Argentinian Lionel Messi. The champion is Qatar, and they didn’t have to win a match. The World Cup host country looks to have successfully—with the West’s full complicity—engaged in brazen sportswashing, earning plaudits and envy from authoritarians the world over.
Twenty twenty-two has unquestionably been the year of sportswashing. Political leaders, authoritarian and democratic alike, used sports mega-events to distract from their crimes and lies. Qatar executed its sportswash brilliantly, and despots—and those aspiring to be such tyrants—are noticing the dividends the country is reaping. The Western wannabe despots were on display as camera captured Elon Musk and seditious Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner standing unsmiling in a luxury box with Gulf-state authoritarians.
The sportswash, thanks to activists and campaigners across the globe, was not always smooth. In the lead-up to the World Cup, critics consistently raised the specter of migrant labor abuse, the repression of LGBTQ people, and the sexist male-guardianship laws in Qatar. After the Supreme Committee for the Delivery and Legacy kept lowballing the death toll, the Committee’s Hassan al-Thawadi admitted partway through the tournament that “between 400 and 500” migrant workers died constructing World Cup infrastructure. He said, “I don’t have an exact number. That’s something that’s been discussed.” His tone made it sound like it was a public relations issue and not an atrocity, especially considering that the number is more likely in the thousands.
After a migrant worker recently died while performing repairs at a FIFA training base for the Saudi Arabia squad, Supreme Committee power broker Nasser Al-Khater’s response was crass: “We’re in the middle of a World Cup, and we’re having a successful World Cup, and this is something you want to talk about right now? Death is a natural part of life, whether it is at work, whether it is in your sleep. A worker died. Our condolences to his family, but it is strange that this is something that you want to focus on as your first question.”
So why did Qatar do it? This World Cup shows that authoritarian, unchecked power can launder surplus capital—the mega-event reportedly cost some $220 billion—into reputational capital.
The World Cup helped clear a path for continued arms sales to Qatar, whether from France, Italy, or the United States. The US, a massive supplier of arms to Qatar, has seen its arms sales to Qatar skyrocket since 2010 when FIFA handed the mega-event to the Gulf country. The US actually approved a whopping $1 billion arms deal during the US Men’s National Team’s World Cup match against Iran. Qatar is home to the largest US military base in the Middle East, at Al Udeid.
The World Cup also helped Qatar solidify relations with regional rivals. In 2017, Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates broke ties with Qatar—dubbed the “Ramadan blockade.” But the tournament helped make the blockade a distant, fuzzy memory. At the tournament’s opening ceremony, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Qatar’s Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani cozied up to each other. The Saudi Crown prince even donned a Qatari supporters’ traditional maroon-and-white scarf. Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi also attended the World Cup opening ceremony, where he chatted with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. United Arab Emirates President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan popped over to Qatar during the World Cup and called the tournament a “success” for all Arab people. That’s serious reputational capital.
Meanwhile, Qatar gave next to nothing on issues of repression at home. In fact, the people in charge appeared to become more blasé about the lives of people unconnected to power and privilege. Dr. Nas Mohamed, the first queer Qatari to publicly come out, told us, “There was no tangible change for the LGBT community in Qatar based on this World Cup. In fact, the teams in countries that participated and spoke on the issue did not extend any resources to the local community. We are getting ready for local retaliation and trying to navigate resources to use.” Mohamed currently lives in exile in the United States, where he founded the Alwan Foundation to fight for LGBTQ rights in the Gulf region.
It is true that some critiques of Qatar have also come—especially in Western Europe—with a level of ethnocentrism and racism that is absurdly hypocritical. This World Cup arrived courtesy of Western commercial capital and FIFA. The blood stains their hands as well. In addition, when these countries host mega-events, they have their own violations of human rights for which to answer. The unhoused populations of Los Angeles are already suffering as result of the preparations for the 2026 men’s World Cup and 2028 Summer Olympics. Far from being a stranger to sportswashing, the West perfected it.
Qatar’s newfound reputational capital has it looking at even loftier horizons. The country has aspirations to host the 2036 Olympics, perhaps jointly with Saudi Arabia. The Saudi kingdom is also keen to host the 2030 men’s World Cup alongside Egypt and Greece. An unstated legacy of the Qatar World Cup may well be emboldened authoritarians around the world eager to sportswash their stained reputations on the biggest stages.
The Qatar 2022 men’s World Cup had some unreal individual performances. There was also Moroccan success, Palestinian solidarity, and Iranian athlete activism—but it also brought, and continues to bring, pain. Qatar’s reputational capital is built upon graveyards, and the petro-state got away with it. Even as joyful as it is to see Messi stand triumphant holding the FIFA World Cup trophy, there are other unequivocal winners: Qatar and the despots in its thrall.