Originally published in Campaign.
Football is an immensely powerful and influential sport and brand, but has got itself into a right mess. And in doing so, so have many brands, teams and individuals connected to the game. In fact, the World Cup debate and the different stances that many have taken, shows serious levels of hypocrisy and contradiction.
We’re now just three days out from the opening ceremony and the first game of the World Cup. And England only announced their squad last week.
But among the UK marketing and media community, and indeed the wider population, the focus is very much on Christmas, not football. The John Lewis ad just launched and our TV sets, social feeds and poster sites are filled with Santa, good will to all men, and mince pies.
In any normal World Cup year, we’d be in football fever. Every sport brand under the sun would have their World Cup ad out, featuring the players who wear their boots. Every beer brand, every supermarket would be promoting World Cup deals, and many brands with no connection whatsoever to football would have been working through their ‘world cup briefs’ for some time.
Back in 2002, our national news was dominated by David Beckham’s metatarsal for weeks before the tournament started. But not this year.
The human rights record and the ‘Dark Ages’ laws of Qatar, and the reported 6,500 migrant worker deaths while building stadiums and facilities (although this number has been heavily disputed by the Qatari authorities), means everyone is quiet about the football. And likely too concerned about the backlash. A World Cup to sit out.
But how did we get here, and are brands actually being hugely hypocritical?
Firstly, there is a FIFA argument that growing the game of football means taking the World Cup to new regions of the world, like the Gulf. There is also the argument that in doing so, the game of football helps to spread the philosophy of inclusivity and progressive social thinking into places that might appear backwards by Western standards.
But that’s all a bit rich. It’s widely reported, although not necessarily proven, that corruption and bribery were at play when Russia and Qatar were appointed to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. And it’s broadly thought that money was the determining factor, rather than the extended reach of football, or inclusivity. The laws against homosexuality in Qatar don’t appear to be in line for change any time soon.
When FIFA made the decision to award the World Cup to Qatar, I happened to be working in the region, spending a lot of time in Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Qatar. Given the appointment was for a summer World Cup, in June and July, the one thing I knew very well was that it would be impossible. Not because of human rights issues (that would conveniently be overlooked) but because in the summer it’s 55 degrees every day. Playing or watching football in a stadium for five minutes (let alone 90) was never going to be humanly possible. A complete an utter non-starter.
Moving the flagship event for the world’s biggest sport to December was the only answer, disrupting all the major leagues around the world, and creating a compromised environment for sponsors, brands, broadcasters, players, fans, and just about everyone else.
For brands, seasonality is everything. From January sales, to Summer, and from back-to-school to Black Friday and Christmas, brands build their comms plans around these major events that fit into consumers’ lives. For brands, December is solidly Christmas. Football World Cups are solidly summer.
And then there is the issue of attendance, which is expected to be way down on standard fan numbers. How many people do you know that are traveling to Qatar to watch? FOMO? Not this time.
Many politicians have said they won’t travel to Qatar for human rights reasons, most notably Keir Starmer. And broadcasters in the game who are going, who involve themselves in social issues and politics outside of football, such as Gary Neville, have been heavily criticised.
But if we are all joining forces to largely snub Qatar, are we all being hugely hypocritical?
Football fans all seem to enjoy watching Paris Saint-Germain when they come up against English Champions League rivals. The French club is owned by Qatar Sports Investments, paying the sport’s biggest star, Lionel Messi, a reported £960,000 per week.
Newcastle United sit third in our Premier League, and are owned by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund. Saudi’s human rights record is arguably even worse than Qatar’s. But many football watch Newcastle.
Qatar also happens to be the largest owner of property in London. The Qatari Investment Authority, Qatari Holding and Qatari Diar own 23,253,699 square feet of London, including Harrods, the Olympic Village, Canary Wharf, the Shard, Claridge’s Hotel, the Park Lane Inter-Continental Hotel, the Berkeley Hotel and the Connaught Hotel. They also have a 20% stake in Heathrow Airport, 22% of Sainsbury and nearly 6% of Barclays bank.
So, if brands and individuals snub the World Cup because it’s in Qatar, what other difficult questions and decisions should follow?
Whichever way you turn in the World Cup debate, there are contradictions everywhere. Teams that make public statements against Qatar policies (like Australia),will get on a plane to travel to the tournament. Musicians and ambassadors, from Robbie Williams, the Black Eyes Peas and David Beckham have all got on board and are travelling to Qatar.
The one brand that has publicly made a stance against the tournament, with their ‘anti-sponsorship’ campaign, is BrewDog. But in turn, they have been heavily criticised for showing the games in their bars and for previous beer distribution to Qatar.
Bottom line: it’s a shocking mess. And whatever your stance, football seems to have made a fool out of everyone.
Written by Jamie Williams.
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