SPORTSWASHING, apparently, was one of the trendy words of 2018. It has been applied to the practice adopted by dubious regimes, individuals or corporates in buying credibility through investing in or sponsoring big-time sport. In doing so, they attempt to change public perception or distract people from some of their less acceptable activities. Furthermore, by pouring money into football, they also look to leverage the financial power and influence of the world’s most popular pastime.
Human Rights Watch describes sportwashing as follows: “Egregious human rights abusers using sports to scrub their awful human rights abuses.”
We’re caught up in a massive web of sportswashing at present and questions have to be asked as to the game’s moral code. Football clubs go to great lengths – as do corporates and financial institutions – to champion their charitable causes, to paint themselves as benevolent bodies of caring, sharing people. Only the naïve see this as a real attempt to become good Samaritans while the sceptics see it for what it is – PR, advertising, and in some cases, making industries with very skewed wealth distribution models feel better about themselves. There are some good and genuine people around, but setting up a foundation or charity is seen as a good career move for a player rather than something he has longed to do.
But what about clubs and their sources of income? Does the average fan in the stand really care about where their club gets its sponsorship or patronage from? In today’s cynical world, there’s scarcely an industry that has not been touched by scandal and as regulatory bodies become ever more stringent and society demands punishment for newly-defined crimes that didn’t exist 40 years ago, there’s sure to be more skeletons to emerge from long forgotten cupboards.
Football seems to lack the level of scrutiny that prevails in other industries. For example, there are certain states that banks and other financial industries cannot easily deal with. They have black lists that include countries with high levels of corruption, exploitation and political or financial instability. Human rights are an important element when determining if a country, company or investor is a fit and proper counterparty. In this context, football has rules, but how does a club evaluate if taking money from oppressive regimes is the right thing to do?
In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, the developed world, notably Europe, too time to recover. The saviours of the global economy were, supposedly, Brazil, Russia, India and China. There was a lot of growth in Asia and the Middle East was awash with oil billionaires. With globalisation, the wealthy from other continents started to invest in European football. But these were not like the investors of old, their money was often made very opportunistically, often gaming the system in their countries. Many of them came from countries with debatable human rights agendas.
It really started earlier with Roman Abramovich and Chelsea. The Russian, a so-called Oligarch, made a fortune through the somewhat questionable privatisation process in the old Soviet Union. Russian influence in football has grown substantially since 2003, culminating in the 2018 World Cup and the rise of Gazprom as an ubiquitious figure at major events.
Russia, despite its successful World Cup, is ranked 119thin the world in terms of Human Freedom (the UK is 8th). Civil liberties and political freedom are both lacking and there’s no such thing as a free press. Migrant workers are invariably exposed to exploitation. Russia, without doubt, put on a good show in 2018, but how much of that was due to a “clean-up” operation to present a smiling nation to the rest of the world? Fans returned speaking highly of the set-up and the reception, but it is difficult to ignore Russia’s record. Chelsea, who rarely see Abramovich these days, used to play the Kalinka as a tribute to the club’s owner and there were banners proclaiming the “Roman Empire”, but as the west’s relationship with Russia has turned frosty in recent years, there’s even been talk of Abramovich selling the club.
There’s no denying Abramovich has been a good owner for Chelsea, but how many fans have questioned the origins or mechanics of his wealth or whether money laundering has taken place. It merely demonstrates how shallow the football experience is at times and whether devotion to clubs is clouding over some of the more important aspects of life.
The same can be applied to most clubs that have benefitted from money from states that have very poor human rights policies. Manchester City’s links with Abu Dhabi is a classic case. The United Arab Emirates is a federation of hereditary absolute monarchies. Sheikh Mansour is a member of the royal family. The UAE hands out death sentences without a proper trial. Is this not comparable to, say, the 1936-37 Manchester City being sponsored by Germany’s Nazi party? Sounds dramatic, but the UAE is ranked 117thin the Human Freedom Index and some of City’s players, if they lived there, would not be welcome because of the colour of their skin. Yet does anyone protest about the club being backed by Abu Dhabi?
Qatar is in the same boat, ranked 103rdin the Human Freedom Index, but high enough to win the right to stage a World Cup. There are, apparently, few civil liberties permitted in Qatar and limited access to economic opportunity. Many foreign nationals face economic abuse such as withholding of wages, contract manipulation, poor living conditions and excessive working hours. Not exactly an inviting place for supporters wishing to attend the 2022 World Cup. Paris Saint-Germain, of course, are backed by Qatar and many see the transfers of Mbappe and Neymar as exercises in soft power play by the Arab state. Qatar may yet feel they backed the wrong horse, however, as PSG need European domination to justify the huge outlay rather than continual Ligue 1 titles.
China has also investment billions on western football, partly as a way to become a football state, but also as an aid to economic growth and greater credibility of their own country. Although China’s rise has been accompanied by better relationships and an emergence of a middle class eager to enjoy the material wealth of the west, it’s important to realise that it has an authoritarian regime that includes some repression. That’s why it is ranked 135thin the Human Freedom Index.
These are just a few examples. As the emerging markets continue to grow, greater wealth is being created and the individuals that benefit from this growth will look to exploit globalisation. Football, with its mass appeal, cash generating potential and business momentum, will naturally appeal to business from Asia and other regions. Ownership of European clubs is already in the hands of China, the Middle East and not to mention, the US and this will surely continue to grow.
It is naïve of fans to dismiss the role being played by investors that have less than clean CVs by suggesting that sport is neutral when it comes to politics, financial crime and abuse of human rights. They should think again, because the freedom they exercise by visiting a football stadium, chanting, showing appreciation and spending their disposable income, is not necessarily enjoyed by people from the countries that are providing financial support to their clubs. If we were all truly principled, we would not endorse clubs backed by states that offer no personal freedom.
That said, there are other nations with less recognised levels of corruption and malpractice, including some of the world’s largest economies. As it is, by accepting these as the norm, we all become part of the same hypocrisy.