World Cup sponsors tread fine line over involvement with Qatar tournament

Brands claim they can better influence change by sponsoring the 2022 World Cup, despite Qatar’s record on human rights
The FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Official Countdown Clock at Doha’s Corniche Fishing Spot with flags of participant countries
The FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Official Countdown Clock at Doha’s Corniche Fishing Spot with flags of participant countries

The decision to award Qatar the 2022 FIFA World Cup in 2010 raised a number of eyebrows. Many questioned how a small Middle Eastern nation with one stadium, 40-degree summers, little footballing history and a questionable record on human rights could be assigned as host of one of the world’s premier sporting events.

With kick-off in a little over a week, some of those questions have been answered. The tournament is taking place in winter to avoid the worst of the heat and an estimated $200bn (£175bn) has been spent on infrastructure and stadia. However, the country’s stance on LQBTQ+ rights and treatment of migrant workers – some 6,500 of which are estimated to have died – still threaten to overshadow the competition.

Despite this, companies continue to spend large sums in order to be associated with the event, which FIFA predicts will be watched by 5 billion people. While this is down on some previous tournaments (data from GlobalData estimates sponsorship deals will generate $1.1bn (£960m) for FIFA this year, a 16% drop since the 2014 World Cup), it’s clear brands believe the rewards of an association with the event outweight the risks.

“We’ve not seen huge drop-offs in terms of sponsor spend at this tournament,” says Conrad Wiacek, head of sport analysis and consulting at GlobalData. “And there has been an increase in spending from local partners.”

This comes despite Castrol, Continental Tires, Emirates Airlines, Johnson & Johnson and Sony all ending deals with FIFA after the Brazil World Cup, in the wake of the scandal surrounding the awarding of Russia and Qatar with the following two tournaments. 

Football’s governing body responded by courting Middle Eastern companies, with Qatar Airways signing up in 2017 and state-owned oil company QatarEnergy partnering with FIFA earlier this year. The other FIFA partners for the Qatar World Cup are Wanda Group, Visa, Adidas, Hyundai Motor Group and Coca-Cola.

Sponsors pledge to leave ‘positive legacy’

Accusations of sportswashing have left many of the tournament’s headline corporate sponsors in a difficult position. A coalition of human rights groups approached 14 FIFA partners to press the football governing body and the Qatari government to properly compensate migrant workers. Only four (AB InBev, Adidas, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s) issued a statement of support.

Some companies have responded by not referencing Qatar in their World Cup messaging, such as in Adidas’ latest advertisement. “It’s a simple communication trick they are using to limit exposure,” says founder of Sport By Fort Consulting Ricardo Fort.

Others contest that they can better influence change in Qatar by being involved in the tournament. One of the longest-serving FIFA partners is Coca-Cola. A spokesperson for the company claims that “sport has the unique potential to bring the world together and be a force for good”, although it recognises that “further reform remains to be done”.

Both Coca-Cola and Adidas point to their involvement with human rights organisations as an “example of tangible progress”. This has resulted in human rights principles being embedded into FIFA’s contracts with hosts, while work alongside the International Labour Organization has led to reform of workers rights in Qatar, including an increase in the minimum wage. 

However, the kafala sponsorship system – used to employ many of the migrant construction workers who helped build the World Cup stadia – has meant that many are not protected by domestic labour laws. The system leaves workers open to exploitation and has been likened to forced labour by Amnesty International

McDonald’s, which is part of the second tier of sponsors for the 2022 tournament, says: “We believe the advocacy surrounding the World Cup coming to Qatar has led to positive change and momentum regarding human rights, including safety and worker’s rights, in the host country. However, we also recognise there is more to be done to ensure that the World Cup leaves a positive legacy in Qatar.” 

LGBTQ+ rights in Qatar

Qatar has also been widely criticised by the international community for its attitude towards LGBTQ+ rights, with homosexuality still a crime punishable with up to seven years in prison. This alone should have been sufficient to revoke Qatar’s right to host the World Cup, according to 62% of Brits

Many brands that are sponsoring this year’s World Cup also held LGBTQ+ awareness initiatives during Pride month earlier this year, leading to accusations of double standards. Organisers of the World Cup have insisted that “everybody’s welcome”, yet none of Qatar’s discriminatory laws have been suspended for the tournament. 

If brands really want to make a point, why are they still sponsoring the World Cup?

Robbie de Santos, director of communications and external affairs at LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall, says: “LGBTQ+ people in Qatar are criminalised and persecuted for simply existing and cannot compromise who they are. It’s vital that the international community, including multinational companies working in the country, make clear that they expect Qatari authorities to respect and uphold freedom of assembly and expression and the rights of all, including LGBTQ+ people.”

Adidas, which has been a FIFA partner since 1970 and will be providing the match ball for the tournament, claims that it has “strongly advocated for unrestricted access for all visitors regardless of nationality, religion, sexual orientation or ethnic background”. A spokesperson for the sportswear brand adds: “We expect the World Cup to be fully accessible to all visitors. If there are any infringements, we will pursue the matter.” 

Sponsors accused of hypocrisy

The continued involvement of sponsors will leave some of them open to accusations of hypocrisy, according to Wiacek. “If brand sponsors really wanted to make a point, why are they still sponsoring it?” he says. “The converse argument is that the only way you shed light on these issues is to actively engage with these countries. But other people may point to the situation with apartheid South Africa, where the sporting boycott was effective.”

In most instances, he expects World Cup sponsors will “hold their nose and hope that criticisms are forgotten about by the time the next event is held” – particularly with the promise of a North American World Cup on the horizon.

Hummel, for example, has chosen to “tone down” its branding on Denmark’s World Cup kit, explaining that it doesn’t “wish to be visible during a tournament that has cost thousands of people their lives”. But Fort claims this is “ more of a PR trick than a meaningful protest”. 

“Hummel only sponsors one national team, so the risk of doing any harm to its own business by making its logo the same colour as the shirt is minimal,” he adds. 

Fort anticipates that any conversations about human rights issues will be much less prevalent once the first ball is kicked. He points to the fact that every World Cup competition has had some level of controversy surrounding it – whether that be questions over the safety of construction workers in the build up to the Brazil World Cup, or the 2018 tournament in Russia, which he claims was “a nightmare for everyone”.

“As a sponsor, you have to develop capabilities, processes and structures to deal with these issues,” he says. “Crisis management is really important and you have to be aware of all the possible implications of being involved with an event like this. Qatar might bring some additional problems, but it’s certainly not alone.” 

The US sanctions on Iran led to Nike withdrawing its supply of boots for the Iranian national team. Fort also suggests that, if a brand includes Taiwan in a map of the world in its World Cup promotions, “the Chinese government might complain”.

He says: “Everything you do and everything you say or don’t say as a sponsor, will be perceived positively or negatively by a lot of different people. There is no way to win, you just have to choose who is going to beat you.”