Sportswashing is not new – but has never been more insidious

Miguel Delaney argues that we are now so used to the phenomenon of sportswashing that we have become blind to its effects, in the Premier League and beyond

Wednesday 10 June 2020 10:07 BST
Amnesty International has accused Manchester City's Abu Dhabi owners of sportswashing
Amnesty International has accused Manchester City's Abu Dhabi owners of sportswashing

It is a sentiment that is difficult to dismiss, but then that is the entire point.

“If I get to celebrate our first trophy in decades alongside my son, I won’t care who is in charge of us,” one Newcastle United supporter told The Independent on social media. “That’s the reality. It’ll be great.”

Many Manchester City supporters no doubt feel the same, especially about the 2011-12 period. Paris Saint-Germain would be just as grateful if they finally won the Champions League.

This is the emotional power of sport, and the more insidious effect of sportswashing. There’s not much mental space to consider a state’s human rights abuses amid the euphoria of victory. They are, in many senses, washed away.

It is precisely why sportswashing works so well, and why Saudi Arabia have been seeking to following the examples of Abu Dhabi and Qatar, as they attempt to purchase Newcastle.

PSG chairman Nasser Al-Khelaifi unveiling Neymar in 2017

The fundamental of the idea is tapping into the emotional connection sport fosters, which allow it to go to levels way beyond that.

The phrase is one that has become quite commonplace in the last few years, although isn’t without controversy. There is some debate about its exact definition, but virtually all academics and human rights bodies at least use the term.

“Amnesty use it more than we do, but we have used it,” Adam Coogle of Human Rights Watch says. Dr Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, fellow for the Middle East at Rice University in Houston, willingly refers to it.

Since the concept is at the core of Newcastle’s takeover and is set to become even more of a controversy, it is worth examining exactly what it is, how it works and – in truth – what to be attuned to as regards its effects.

It could even be argued that talking about the success of these clubs without talking about the owners’ aims, as becomes quite natural, is a form of sportswashing.

That emphasises how it goes so much deeper than the simplistic perception that it’s just about public relations. It’s really about integration, and obviously goes back much further than modern club takeovers.

You could even say it started in gladiatorial games with “bread and circuses”, and it isn’t a coincidence the notorious 1936 Nazi Olympics borrowed freely from such Roman pageantry, an event that preceded the 1978 World Cup and so many tours from Apartheid-era South African teams. These were all the most naked politicised uses of sport.

The excellent recent documentary ‘Stop the Tour’ tells the story of those South African times, and there’s a pointed line when an England rugby match is described at the time as “conferring respectability”. This is the common trend, as Peter Hain – the former MP for Neath who led the protests against Apartheid teams – tells The Independent.

The last Olympic runner reaches Lustgarten in Berlin, in 1936

“Apartheid politics infected the very essence of sport in South Africa in a way that really only the Nazis’ persecution of Jewish people has parallels but what was similar is the use of sport to confer blessing on an unjust and tyrannical political system, to project their own political brands and try and normalise it.”

That’s the primary problem to be mindful of. The use of sport allows these states to break down initial barriers that their more criticised policies might otherwise bring. The stadiums represent a gateway.

“It is about integration,” Dr Ulrichsen explains. “You see it with the UAE, where you have football stadiums named after Emirates and Etihad. So, even without thinking, people are saying ‘I’m going to the Emirates this week’. It’s that soft power, that normalisation of the UAE within ordinary conversations, where people don’t even think about the fact the fact they’re spreading branding for UAE.

“Look at City games. All the advertising hoardings, Abu Dhabi tourism, investment companies, all of the interlocking systems of support. That’s very powerful, especially because football is so popular.

“It’s part of the whole process of drawing the UAE or Qatar into our war of life, making it look like this benevolent accessory to something we’ve been enjoying for over a hundred years.”

The Etihad Stadium in Manchester

It is also why ownership, as Ulrichsen puts it, is a significant “step-up”.

“It’s not just sponsorship. Nobody remembers that Chelsea’s first sponsorship was Gulf Air, of Bahrain. Even a tournament is a one-off. Ownership is a much greater thing. You actually work your way into the social fabric a club has with its supporters.

“And you draw people in, especially when the reserves they have can lead to great success.

“Abu Dhabi have an army of people in Manchester doing unpaid work for these regimes. That’s the power they have, in terms of people’s hearts and minds. That’s a sportswashing element – thousands going to bat for them. The reaction in Newcastle has been strong already. Imagine what it’s going to be like if they take over.

“It’s an instinctive response, and a tribal response, which is what they’re counting on in terms of building support.”

Fans naturally feel the need to rush to a defence of their club

This is why the consortium attempting to buy Newcastle have already approached club legends about representative roles. It’s the easiest good will.

It’s also part of a more sophisticated strategy, that goes way beyond supporters.

The point, as Coogle argues, is to create an image that “these are good people to do business with”.

“It’s about trying to inculcate a certain image within the western public,” Coogle argues. “The whole game is to try and make foreign investment seem safer.

“They use other industries beside sports, but they ultimately need things from rich, relatively democratic, mostly western countries. They need arms. They need protection or support in international fora, or they need sources of legitimacy.

Abu Dhabi 2020 is infinitely worse than Abu Dhabi 2008

Dr Kristian Coates Ulrichsen

“It just makes it easier. It’s something you can point to on a government committee, right up to approving arms sales. ‘Look, they’re a good partner, they’re investing considerable money into our country.’”

This is nakedly visible in the city of Manchester itself. Ownership of the club has allowed Abu Dhabi to build a construction empire – and one that has attracted considerable controversy of its own.

The Sunday Times revealed in November how Sheikh Mansour’s private equity fund had amassed an estimated £330m-plus property portfolio, writing how the city’s “economy and political establishment had been the subject of a quiet takeover by Abu Dhabi”. Sir Richard Leese, the leader of the Labour-controlled council, also told the newspaper about how the subject had come up in initial takeover discussions.

“Early talks with ADUG were about the club but also about their commitment to strengthen their involvement in community work and to support the regeneration of east Manchester,” Leese told The Sunday Times.

The nature of that investment has been criticised because they fail to meet the council’s own policy objectives on affordable housing. “None of it is affordable,” was one line. A common quip has been that “regeneration stops at the Etihad Campus”.

Pep Guardiola at Manchester's Eithad Campus

Whatever about the financial figures in terms of net gain, a wider debate revolves around the net reaction.

An argument often made is that such takeovers actually bring awareness of human rights abuses that wouldn’t otherwise exist. That is true, and it’s certainly the case that more City and Newcastle supporters are more attuned – and often invested – in the debate than they would be.

The problem, as both Dr Ulrichsen and Coogle argue, is that it doesn’t matter. For one, the minimal criticism from journalists, academics and human rights groups tends to be greatly outweighed by wider effect – not to mention the many fans “going to bat”, as Dr Ulrichsen puts it. Secondly, and more importantly, it is proven to have no effect within the actual countries.

“The argument is often the extra scrutiny from sports washing makes them improve their human rights, but actually it doesn’t,” Dr Ulrichsen says. “Abu Dhabi 2020 is infinitely worse than Abu Dhabi 2008.”

The Arab Spring fundamentally altered geopolitics in the region

Coogle concurs.

“It was the response to the Arab Spring [in 2011]. They’ve moved from limited basic rights to basically full-on no civil or political rights whatsoever, mass arrests of political opposition. Some really insidious practices have started coming to the fore: forced disappearances, arbitrary detentions, torture…”

“No one can claim ownership of Manchester City has had a moderating effect,” Dr Ulrichsen adds. “There’s no link whatsoever. And again, it’s something people are bringing up with Newcastle, that the additional scrutiny will accelerate a process of change in Saudi Arabia. Well, it won’t. You can look at Abu Dhabi to see that. The arguments people are making in support of the takeovers of Newcastle and Man City just don’t stack up when you look at the reality.”

This is another key problem. Far from encouraging change – as Gary Neville recently argued – owning football clubs essentially allows business as usual. It shows there’s no consequence to such human rights abuses in sporting terms. States are able to appropriate social institutions without doing much more than putting up the money.

Major leagues have done little to intervene

“The theory of change in human rights activism is that you find any sort of leverage you can to encourage or pressure, and big powerful levers are these deals, these relationships they have with governments,” Coogle explains. “If you can get authorities to take a stand and really make a point that a practice is fundamentally unacceptable to us and we’re not going to do do x or y until it changes, it can have a powerful effect.”

The most powerful and extreme example of this was the sporting boycott of Apartheid South Africa. Hain has written a book on the topic with Andre Odendaal, titled Pitch Battles and to be released in October, and argues it is why the idea of “dialogue” doesn’t really work.

“It’s naive, to be blunt. The idea of a crown prince somehow changing discrimination or other forms of oppression is just naive.

“The boycott was immensely powerful, but that’s why I think it’s different. There is a chapter in our book where we discuss this, where sports apartheid was in literal terms a black and white issue. The area of sportswashing is much greyer, in terms of the globalisation of sport, the commercialisation… big sport is now on a completely different plane.”

It is within those shades of grey that these states are looking to take advantage of tribal colours.

“They know it’s the most direct way into people’s hearts,” Dr Ulrichsen says. “And if Newcastle do become successful, they will literally forgive the Saudis anything. And it’s a way of shifting the conversation. Some people may talk about human rights abuses, Jamal Khashoggi, the war in human, the biggest catastrophe in the world, but many others will talk about a benevolent Saudi, a Saudi bringing success to a deprived part of England.”

“It’s effective because people do have such close, strongly held feelings towards their teams,” Coogle says. “A lot of people will take that trade-off.

“None of this is fans’ fault, so they shouldn’t really be put in the position to answer for it, but at the same time if it creates the phenomenon where they begin defending Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, that’s really unfortunate. That’s the problem. Their team has become so bound up in geopolitics, it’s inseparable from the actions of a foreign government. This is one of the issues of states owning teams.”

It is just another illustration of the power of sportswashing – and why it usually works spectacularly.

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