Sponsors are everywhere in football, on the players' jerseys, around the football fields and even on the microphones used in post-match interviews. There is no mystery about why sponsorship and sports go hand in hand as the calculation is simple. Clubs need money to buy players, build stadiums, and stay competitive which they get from their sponsors in exchange for ad placements and promotions. But should dictatorships be allowed to strike similar deals with football clubs?
Authoritarian regimes spend heavily on football as the governments know that investing money in sports makes them look good.
This practice is as old as the Romans who used sports for political purposes. It is a way to rebrand oppressive governments. For example, the 1934 World Cup in Italy was also adorned and washed by Benito Mussolini's chief spin doctor, Achille Starace, who is considered the inventor of the straight-arm salute. With the Champions League knockout stage kicking off on 16 February, this aspect of mainstream football will once again be highlighted. The executive arm of the competition has never looked so convoluted.
Let me introduce a very interesting string of facts. FC Barcelona took on Paris Saint-Germain over two legs in the Champions League. Paris Saint-Germain is owned by Qatar while FC Barcelona is sponsored by Rakuten who has been accused of being the world's largest online retailer for elephant ivory. Qatar also sponsors the current champion Bayern Munich and a Real Madrid "foundation" project. Similarly, an emirate from the UAE, Abu Dhabi, owns Manchester City and uses football to clean the bloodstains from their shirts.
Qatar, accused of multiple human right violations and modern-day slavery, not only bankrolls extravagant football transfers and teams but is also set to host the upcoming football World Cup in 2022. They brought in millions of migrant workers to make it possible by overhauling its infrastructure.
The financial muscles of these countries are what make others turn a blind eye to their questionable practices. For example, PSG is even conducting a training camp in Qatar, not only does this enable players to benefit from warm-weather training but also highlights the region in a good light. Qatar wants to clean up its profile, not build the best football team. Qatar Airways, a state-owned airline, paid Bayern Munich 10 million euros a year so that the club flies to Doha and has a mid-season training camp which they have been doing since 2011. On multiple occasions, fans have been observed to hold banners in the stadiums protesting the clubs' deals with these countries.
Similarly, Abu Dhabi United Group bought Manchester City in 2008, turning the club into the richest one in the world overnight with over $1 billion worth of transfers being carried out since the acquisition. Despite the UAE being an undemocratic country that forces its migrant workers to work in terrible living conditions, it tries to paint itself as a top holiday destination where football stars from all over Europe enjoy vacations.
As the regimes in the middle-east, Russia is also known to delve into sportswashing. Although Gazprom on paper is a private company, since 2005 the Russian government has owned more than half of its shares. It entered a partnership with UEFA in 2012 and extended it until 2021 as a way of downplaying the environmental impact of its oil extraction practices.
Football never looked so afflicted by political interests. Fans have the right to know why the owners of their favourite team are spending money.
The author is a graduate of the Khulna University of Engineering and Technology, Khulna
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.