Football embraces petrodollars again

“Saudi Arabia has executed 100 people so far this year, revealing its chilling disregard for the right to life. In August alone, authorities executed an average of four people a week. “He is one of the world’s main executioners,” denounces Heba Morayef, director of Amnesty International for the Middle East and North Africa. The organization documents numerous cases of people being sentenced to death for acts ranging from the publication of a few tweets to drug crimes, all following “flagrantly unfair trials that did not at all comply with international human rights standards.”

Lately, the Islamist dictatorship has made headlines for the modernized football market despite the fact that there is still a stunted Arabian Peninsula. At the same time that Saudi Arabia appears to the outside world as an attractive, open and avant-garde country, it has a very worrying history regarding the rights of women, LGTBI people and immigrants. But who cares about that? “If imagewashing is going to increase my GDP by 1%, then I will continue to do imagewashing,” Mohammed Bin Salman, the prince of Saudi Arabia, told Fox News.

The controversial Saudi crown prince, who is leading the expansion of his country, has struck a blow at the world sports table to make the Arab territory a ‘Mecca’ of different disciplines. From the Formula 1 Jeddah Grand Prix, to the creation of professional padel and golf circuits bathed in money, the bid to organize a 1,000th tennis Masters, the Dakar Rally, the celebration of the Spanish Super Cup in exchange for 40 million per edition, the purchase of English Newcastle for 350 million… until the transfer campaign with Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and other stars of European football. Saudi Arabia has burst into the world of sports with a checkbook and its objectives are insatiable.

The latest achievement, the organization of the World Cup in 2034, “the greatest spectacle on earth”, described as such by Gianni Infantino, president of FIFA, an organization that is pleased that football “is increasingly global”, as time that once again embraces petrodollars as happened before with Qatar, which held the World Cup in 2022. The same organization that has suspended Luis Rubiales for three years for his non-consensual kiss with Jenni Hermoso, wins the great event of the king sport to one of the countries where gender inequality is greatest. It’s the market, friend.

A path with a red carpet

The Saudi project, the only candidate after Australia’s withdrawal, saved FIFA a voting process that could have led to murky matters such as accompanying the Qatar election with bribes in the purchase of votes, and satisfied almost everyone with the distribution of a large cake that goes from the 2026 edition (United States, Canada and Mexico) and the 2030 edition (a World Cup that will be played in Spain, Portugal and Morocco, with opening matches in Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay) to the designation, without no surprise, from the Saudi candidacy. A new chapter of whitewashing of world sport towards dictatorial regimes.

What chances of diplomatic success does the ‘sportswashing’ of countries like Saudi Arabia have? «I wouldn’t dare give a percentage, but I think they are scarce. And I don’t think this has to do with the capacity of the stadiums, good organization and logistics, or the efficiency of the materials used, but rather with the fact of knowing that there is no consistency when it comes to using football. as a country transforming vehicle. Quite the opposite, it is perceived as a persuasive strategy aimed at selling an image of the country that does not coincide with reality. And when this happens, when the product and the brand are not consistent, we say that communication becomes ineffective,” resolves Mario G. Gurrionero, professor of the Master’s Degree in Sports Marketing at the International University of La Rioja (UNIR).

The path to the designation has been a true red carpet, and the procedures that FIFA itself has created over time have left no doubt as to who would be the host. Chance? From the criterion of rotation of editions announced in 2007, so that the same continent cannot host two World Cups in a period of eight years, to relaxing the stadium rules – from 14 to only a minimum of four existing ones – or the closing of the requirements for those who wish to hold the tournament – eleven years from now – before October 31.

Saudi remains unbeatable in ‘sportswashing’, a play on words that refers to the whitewashing of despotic regimes like theirs through major events. The main objective is to improve its image, and the ultra-conservative kingdom has spent almost €6 billion on sports deals since the beginning of 2021, according to exclusive information revealed by The Guardian. A figure four times higher than the sum disbursed over the previous six years. Is it enough to divert attention from its human rights record?

«Surely not, we are in 2023 and organizations like Transparency International are already evidencing the democratic deficit of this country. Of course you can cover the moon with a finger, but you can’t go much further. Another different issue is that there was a real commitment to transform the country at all levels and that I wanted to take advantage of the circumstance of celebrating a World Cup to publicize this change of course. There we would be in another scenario,” reflects Gurrionero, who is also strategic director of CEG. Communication Advisors for Elite Athletes

The organizational success of the last World Cup in Qatar, which was consumed massively from the West, has partly served as a boost to the Saudi strategy, which according to expert voices from the international consulting firm Brand Finance, has seen how the emirate has managed to show itself to the world. in a positive way, as well as improving its reputation abroad.

The country plans to build new stadiums and modernize existing ones, as well as improve its transportation and accommodation infrastructure. If Qatar was characterized by being the first World Cup held in winter (between November and December), the same thing could happen in 2034, although it is an issue that is not resolved today. “There are numerous technological innovations that allow cooling or adding air conditioning in stadiums,” Yasser Al-Misehal, president of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation, recently stated.

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