Markfield: FIFA frustrations

Harrison Markfield, Columnist

In a somewhat more normal timeline, the 2022 World Cup would not be getting many headlines in early autumn. The international break on the soccer calendar would be for innocuous friendlies disrupting the flow of domestic and continental club competition.

Of course, this is no normal timeline since the World Cup is being held in a Gulf state in November, breaking from its usual summer placement. The tournament has drawn numerous substantiated allegations of bribery against both Qatar’s footballing authorities as well as FIFA, who awarded the 2018 (Russia) and 2022 tournaments at the same time in 2010.

International sporting events are no stranger to — nor ever entirely separate from — geopolitics, and many Olympic and World Cup tournaments draw criticism for the capital costs involved that rarely see returns after the tournament’s conclusion, but this winter’s World Cup is an egregious example. 

Migrant workers have been taken in by the oil-rich country and put to work constructing opulent stadiums and urban landscapes to attract the eyes of the world, costing the lives of thousands in service of sports watching. 

According to “The Guardian,” those workers were underpaid or had wages withheld, given inhumane living conditions and had their passports confiscated. Effectively, they were victims of modern-day slavery, and their deaths and suffering will not receive reparation.

The tournament has drawn significant protest from human rights groups, and rightfully so. However, players and national associations have somewhat shied away from those claims, with a new, notable exception.

Hummel, a Danish sportswear brand and longtime equipment sponsor of their national team and a few other clubs, announced last week that they would obscure the logos on their equipment and “tone down” the style of their kits for the tournament. They cited that the death toll involved in putting on the international spectacle made them want to disassociate themselves from it.

The irony is inherent, considering that this was done in a press release nearly two months before the tournament and after the final matches of an international break. This means that the eyes of the footballing world wouldn’t have many other places to look until the weekend, especially not in Europe. 

The marketing department couldn’t help themselves either, talking about the design ethos of the kits and how they relate to past Danish performances. Hummel’s statement, while somewhat admirable in its intention, feels vapid and part of a larger issue surrounding meaningful protest in sports. 

The company passes itself off as not willing to lose money or risk any kind of financial or reputational stake that they stand to receive from the tournament, save perhaps a few embittered fans who think sports and politics are meant to be like oil and water. Nor is Hummel willing to expose or condemn specifics of the Qatari regime. Instead, it’s a mealymouthed way of positioning oneself in the center. 

Whether one believes it is the responsibility of a sporting entity to make these kinds of statements is something that has a place for debate. But it has become an expectation for leagues in multiple sports around the world to make statements and campaigns for equality, though often without making meaningful material contributions or critically confronting their own place in how those issues are perpetuated. We see it every NFL Sunday, with flyovers and the anthem sandwiched around statements reaffirming a commitment to justice.

To be sure, the difficult geopolitical relations between the Western world and the wealthy petrostates they rely on complicate these matters. When Formula 1 announced it was racing in Saudi Arabia and Qatar in recent years, skeptical fans were quick to point out both countries’ egregious human rights records. 

Platforming these regimes through one of the biggest lenses in the world — sport — is unnecessary and should draw more criticism, but it needs to be meaningful and have physical consequences. Hummel’s press release (and, to be clear, they are far from the biggest stakeholder involved) does not have meaning or consequence. 

The only people hurt are graphic designers who lost months of work. And, as one of the stakeholders who could make a real statement and impact the amount of money the tournament pulls in, they needed to do more with their position. Same with other manufacturers, sponsors, players, national associations and ultimately FIFA.

A real statement of intent would be to sacrifice some money and take on some outrage out of respect for the people who died in service of a tournament founded on corruption. But nobody is willing to give that up. Instead, we are all likely to spend our holiday season glued to our TVs and breathing in the tournament. And when you do, look for the bee on the chest of the Danish shirts and the chevrons on the shoulders. They’ll be there, just blended in. Ask yourself if it really made any difference.