How autocrats use sports to their advantage

How autocrats use sports to their advantage

Plus: Slovenia elects its first female President, a deadly bombing shakes Istanbul, and the key takeaways from this year’s ASEAN summit

Hi there Intriguer. Mehran Karimi Nasseri, the Iranian refugee who lived in Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport for 18 years and inspired the movie ‘The Terminal’, passed away in the airport last week. He first settled in the airport in 1988 due to a dispute over missing documents, then decided to continue living in terminal 2F by choice.

Today’s briefing is a ~5.0 min read:

  • World Cup 2022: How autocrats use sports to their advantage.
  • ➕ Plus: Slovenia elects its first female president, a deadly bombing shakes Istanbul, and takeaways from this year’s ASEAN summit.

Qatar’s deadly World Cup could boost its international profile

In brief:

  • Qatar’s controversial World Cup – which kicks off next week – is an excellent example of how governments try to use sports to advance their interests.
  • Autocracies, in particular, use sports to soften their international image and increase their diplomatic influence.

Everyone wants a piece of the World Cup.

Big business

There is no doubt that football is the world game – no sport or cultural event comes close to matching its global reach. Half the world’s population – nearly 3.6 billion people – watched the last World Cup in 2018.

And all those eyeballs bring in a lot of cash. FIFA, the international football governing body that organises the World Cup, grossed $5.36B in revenue during the 2018 World Cup.

Autocrats want in

The upcoming 2022 World Cup, which starts on Sunday, has been mired in controversy since Qatar’s selection as host in 2010.

So, if it’s not always profitable to host significant sporting spectacles, then why are governments – especially autocratic ones – so eager to get in on the action?

1. 🛁 Sportswashing 

Autocratic regimes can leverage the popularity and apolitical nature of sports like football to bolster their reputations and distract from humanitarian concerns.

Saudi Arabia is betting big on this tactic and has used its $620B Public Investment Fund (PIF) to make several marquee purchases.

  • In October of last year, PIF became a majority owner of the English football club Newcastle United.
  • The fund also established the LIV Golf Tour, which has used guaranteed payouts of up to $138M to lure top talent from the PGA Tour.

But Michael Rosenberg, a senior writer at Sports Illustrated, notes that the phenomenon is neither new nor confined to any one corner of the globe:

“There is a hint of sportswashing every time a U.S. president throws out a first pitch […] Sports seem like they aren’t political, which is precisely why they are so often used for political purposes. The drama seduces us, and our passions distract us, and so we swallow whatever government officials feed us without even realizing it.”

2. 😏 Soft power 

Hosting a major global sports event like the World Cup can boost a country’s diplomatic standing.

As the Middle East’s first host, Qatar’s World Cup could drive tourism across the Gulf and even into Iran, with whom it maintains closer ties than any Arab nation.

And despite Qatar’s relatively small population of 2.6 million (of which only ~300,000 are citizens), its international profile is growing.

Sport isn’t all bad…

Sporting events can be used to promote peace and cooperation effectively. For example:

  • The term “ping pong diplomacy” was coined when US and Chinese athletes helped break the diplomatic tension between the two countries in 1971.
  • Turkey and Armenia often resort to “football diplomacy” when tensions escalate between the long-time rivals.
  • And, of course, Nelson Mandela famously used the Rugby World Cup in 1995 to try and heal a divided South Africa.

So, as big football fans, we’re asking: are we allowed to enjoy watching this World Cup?

The Economist has a reasonable suggestion: skip the self-promotion of the opening and closing ceremonies and consider “an offset for your conscience, a donation to a human-rights group, say, or an anti-corruption charity.


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🇭🇷 Croatia

The European Parliament voted to welcome Croatia into the Schengen Zone, which would allow passport-free travel between Croatia and 26 other European nations.

  • Croatia was one of only four EU member states – along with Bulgaria, Romania, and Cyprus – that had not met the criteria to join the Schengen Zone.

🇫🇷 France

The United Kingdom and France signed an agreement on Monday to stem migrant journeys across the English Channel.

  • The $74.5M plan would increase cooperation between British and French migration officials, and includes a 40% increase in the number of patrol officers.

🇸🇮 Slovenia

Nataša Pirc Musar, a journalist and lawyer, will become Slovenia’s first female President after winning the country’s election on Sunday.

  • Though the role is mainly ceremonial, her win over conservative Anže Logar is being hailed as a victory for Slovenia’s pro-Europe bloc.

🇹🇷 Turkey

Six people were killed and more than 80 were injured after a bombing at a popular tourist street in Istanbul.

  • Turkey accused the alleged bomber of acting on behalf of the Syria-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party; the group denies any involvement.

🇺🇦 Ukraine

Ukrainian forces faced little resistance upon re-entering Kherson, a strategic and symbolically-significant city that Russia had occupied since March.

  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visited the city on Monday, describing the victory as the “beginning of the end” of the war.

What you need to know about the ASEAN Summit

Southeast Asian leaders practising their catwalk during the 41st ASEAN summit in Cambodia. Credits: Khem Sovannara/AFP/Getty Images.

International summit season rolls on! The 41st annual Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit ended on Sunday.

  • The Southeast Asian group has become an increasingly important regional forum for economic and political issues.

Here are the key takeaways from last week’s ASEAN summit. 

Takeaway 1: The US and ASEAN elevated their ties to a ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’, which will lead to closer collaboration on trade, climate change, and illegal fishing.

  • Washington seems determined to not cede ground to Beijing, which announced a CSP-level relationship with ASEAN last year.

Takeaway 2: Southeast Asian leaders reiterated their concern about the ongoing civil war in Myanmar, but announced few changes to their Myanmar policy.

  • But human rights activist Maung Zarni is looking on the bright side:

“The 11 Nov. ASEAN SUMMIT statement refused to call [the military junta] “government” of Myanmar. Instead it identified Myanmar Armed Forces as the largest among the parties in the civil war.”

Takeaway 3: ASEAN has agreed in principle to accept East Timor as the bloc’s 11th member.

  • The regional body hasn’t expanded since the last millennium: its ‘newest’ member joined back in 1999.

The extra takeaway: Attending leaders got to take luxury watches home as souvenirs. Hopefully these won’t be forgotten at the back of a filing cabinet.


Credits: SportyTrader.

We need to get out more…

… because we’re starting to see each World Cup match as low-stakes manifestations of global geopolitics. A game of Risk via the medium of trying to kick a ball into a net, if you will. For example:

  • France will play Australia on 22 November to settle bad submarine blood once and for all.
  • The US will face off against Iran on 29 November, with the loser to accept responsibility for the last 40+ years of tensions.
  • And Belgium plays Canada on 23 November in the ultimate showdown of which country has the weirdest French accent.

Strap in for some fireworks… the pre-match, celebratory kind, of course.

Of the five betting odds favourites, who do you think will win this year’s World Cup?

Login or Subscribe to participate in polls.

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