My wife Peggy, who is wonderfully indulgent of my fondness for European soccer, did not know the face on the TV screen. It was a face instantly recognizable to as many as two billion people all over the world.
There are even several million Americans who could pick Pep Guardiola out of a crowd, but there are many more millions who’d mistake him for a distinguished professor, or maybe a hedge fund guru.
Head coach of Manchester City, the best soccer team money can buy, Guardiola is a brilliant and charismatic figure, widely regarded as the best mind in the game. He is also, through no fault of his own, a pawn in the much larger game that Amnesty International calls ‘sportswashing.’
Sportswashing can be defined as the cynical use of sport to prettify the image of otherwise odious regimes.
It’s practiced by dictatorships the world over — by Russia and China, to be sure, but also by the petro-kingdoms of the Middle East — all of whom have much to prettify.
They make massive investments in prominent teams. They support those teams with global marketing machines. They watch as those teams ride roughshod over their respective leagues. And along the way, they ingratiate themselves with the cities and countries they compete in, where they’re welcome anywhere money talks.
Guardiola’s team is effectively owned by billionaire Sheikh Mansour, a high official in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The sheikh and his cronies bought the mediocre Manchester City club in 2008, and transformed it, in record time, from an also-ran to a dynasty. It took a massive spending spree, but they acquired the best players and coaches in the world, and the world was duly dazzled by the juggernaut they assembled, myself included.
Guardiola runs an astonishingly good team. They’re beautiful to watch, poetry in motion, and they win title after title, to the point where the unfairness — the flagrant tilting of the playing field — is fully transparent to anyone who looks.
Already stocked with best-in-class players at every position — their second team would be a contender in any league — last summer they acquired, for staggering amounts of money, Erling Haaland, the phenom’s phenom, who at 22 is already the dominant player of the next decade. As fun as he is to watch, it is obscene that only two or three teams in the world could afford him, and that the one team that didn’t need him was allowed to sign him.
There are no salary caps in European soccer. Players are sold to the highest bidder, which works out well for oil-rich emirates. FIFA, the world football federation, tries to maintain an orderly market despite being itself notoriously corrupt. Its rules are lax and inconsistently enforced, and Manchester City has been known to stretch them to get what it wants.
The purchase of Manchester City led to a series of similar purchases of other clubs, major and minor, each leveraging the sovereign wealth of one oil kingdom or another.
Just last year, Saudi Arabia got into the act, buying another English club, Newcastle United. The Newcastle fans couldn’t be more thrilled to have Mohammed bin Salman splurging on brand-name players who can put them on the world footballing map. If they feel a twinge of guilt over the dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, it’s dispelled by the beautiful dream of seeing the next Erling Haaland play in Newcastle colors.
Which brings us to Qatar — the tiny desert kingdom with no international soccer profile whatsoever — that happens to be the host nation for next month’s FIFA World Cup.
While I was not at all shocked that Peggy didn’t know of Pep Guardiola — few Americans do — I was reminded that I’ll soon have to break it to her that the World Cup is coming for the holidays. And staying for a month.
I’ll have to explain that we’re about to be sportswashed, big time. And that no, World Cups are not supposed to happen in December.
She’s seen me in World Cup trances before. The games come once every four years, and, like much of the world, they rivet me to any screen I have handy. But they’ve always come in early summer — June and July — which I assumed was a global accord of some kind. She’ll ask why they’re holding it, this one time, in winter. Why indeed?
Because it’s Qatar, of all places, that’s why. Because in Qatar, a typical summer day is 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Because humans can’t survive those temperatures at the level of exertion these athletes will be sustaining. Because FIFA, belatedly pondering the problem, solved it by shoehorning the World Cup into the holiday season, where it doesn’t belong. But mark your calendars: November 20 to December 18.
“So why are they holding it there?” she is sure to ask.
I’ll have to tell her about the scandal that exploded in 2010 when FIFA, with great fanfare, awarded two World Cups — to Russia for 2018, to Qatar for 2022 — a decision which still, to this day, has heads scratching.
We have since learned, through a cascade of indictments, that as many as 16 of the 22 members of FIFA’s executive committee allegedly sold their votes — for cash, favors, lavish gifts, and political promises — all to buy Russia and Qatar the ultra-high global profiles that World Cup hosts are known to enjoy.
The 2018 World Cup, we’ll recall, was a bonanza for Putin’s oligarchs and an ethical dilemma for anyone who loves the game. The sportswashing was right on the surface, and we all felt guilty. But we watched the games anyway. They were really good.
This time around, the ethical thickets are even thornier. Peggy will be sure to remind me about Qatar’s dismal human rights record. About the muzzling of free speech, the anti-LGBTQ laws, the violence against women and minorities. Not to mention the appalling treatment of the foreign migrants who make up most of the Qatari workforce, many of whom have been worked, literally to death, building World-Cup-suitable infrastructure from scratch.
At that point, she will surely ask how I can possibly watch this sportswashing boondoggle, this billion-dollar humanitarian disaster, and still continue to live with myself.
It’s a fair question, but the ethical dilemma is not a new one to most sports fans. I’ve grown quite accustomed to deploring the often-slimy business practices of big-time sport. But I don’t miss any games over it, let alone any sleep. I accept my own hypocrisy.
The World Cup is its own gravitational force, an event that pulls into its orbit much of the Earth’s population, and it will be raptly watched even in the deepest trenches of the harshest Ukrainian battlefield. Even those who hate it won’t be able to ignore it. Especially during holiday season, as many families will soon find out.
So Peggy might say we’re all hopelessly sportswashed, and she wouldn’t be wrong.
But all I can promise her is that I will indeed feel guilty about it. Even as I watch.