World Cup and nation branding misses

FIFA President Sepp Blatter announces Russia as the host nation for the FIFA World Cup 2018, in Zurich in this December 2, 2010 file picture. Swiss authorities have opened criminal proceedings against individuals on suspicion of mismanagement and money laundering related to the allocation of the 2018 and 2022 FIFA soccer World Cups in Russia and Qatar.   REUTERS/Christian Hartmann/Files ORG XMIT: IM01
REUTERS/Christian Hartmann/Files ORG XMIT: IM01

In the weeks since the U.S. Department of Justice’s forty-nine count indictment, including charges of corruption, money laundering, bribes, and kickbacks against members of the soccer’s global governing body FIFA, public relations teams have scrambled to save face. FIFA’s various marketing and advertising partners have endeavored to tow a line of safe distance from the very sport entity from which they so fiercely competed to purchase sponsor rights of affiliation.

But the risk associated with branding is not just a corporate worry, it is also a concern shared by nations. While the US Department of Justice (DOJ) report details $150 million of FIFA corruption schemes that involve geographic regions and actors that span the globe, two particular nation states ­– Qatar and South Africa – particularly witnessed their sport and nation branding strategies quickly becoming mired in disaster.

Though co-linked in scandal, the nation branding aims – and now also reputational woes – of South Africa and Qatar are quite distinct.

The Lure of Sport Diplomacy

For nations, hosting global sporting events like the World Cup seems to promise a medium for creating and communicating national identity. While such nation branding objectives may be about domestic agenda, policy, and solidarity, nation branding through sport is in equal measure a strategy to communicate to global publics and states, as well as transnational corporations. Sport diplomacy provides states a powerful tool by which to accrue legitimacy and soft power while also attracting desired trade relations, partners and foreign direct investment.

The expectation for states is that sport will deliver hopefully favorable nation branding possibilities. However, as the unfolding FIFA scandals have shown, there are also serious dangers. As nation states turn to commercial strategies of self-promotion and identity building, they simultaneously make themselves vulnerable to the PR risks and the possibility of corrupt dealings and money handling.

Qatari Aspirations

AP Photo/Osama Faisal, File
AP Photo/Osama Faisal, File

By hosting prestigious sport mega-events and aligning itself vis-à-vis sponsorship with iconic champion caliber soccer teams like FC Barcelona and Paris Saint Germain, Qatar has seized upon sport as a strategy to emerge as a player on the global cultural stage.

Qatar’s ambition to distinguish itself via a sport development and diplomacy route reached a peak when the nation was selected to host FIFA’s 2022 World Cup.

To be sure, Qatar’s hand in premier sport and soccer, in particular, has not received full applause or doting media attention. Besides the miserable conditions of a ghastly hot climate with temperatures capable of rising to 120 degrees, making Qatar not ideally suited for healthy or elite sporting performance, Qatar first emerged in particularly deviant light for its utter failure to prioritize basic human rights, namely the labour rights of the immigrants it has recruited to build the purported state-of-art stadiums for its hosting of World Cup 2022.

More than 1,200 migrant laborers have already died in Qatar’s estimated $200 billion dollar World Cup venture. The International Trade Union Confederation warns that Qatar’s appalling labor conditions will put an additional 2,800 lives at risk.

In the run up and readying for World Cup 2022, the gravity of such egregious labour conditions translates to 600-900 labour deaths per year.

The DOJ’s FIFA indictments have served only to intensify the negative awareness – even vilification – of Qatar. One of twelve of the current corruptions schemes detailed in the DOJ report points directly to Qatari FIFA members.

In 2012, Qatari FIFA Member, Mohamed Bin Hammam was banned – for a second time – from FIFA and football for life after trying to buy his way into the “elected” position of FIFA President by paying a number of FIFA members $40,000 cash for their votes. Whether Mohamed Bin Hamman’s actions were totally errant and rogue, or not, the scandal damages Qatar’s aspirations of nation branding through sport endeavors.

Re-Introducing South Africa

South African former President Nelson Mandela holds the Jules Rimet World cup beside Capetown Archbishop Desmond Tutu, 15 May 2004 at the FIFA headquarters in Zurich. South Africa won the right to host the 2010 World Cup finals, the first to be played in Africa, football's world governing body FIFA announced here 14 May, "The 2010 World Cup will be organised by South Africa," said FIFA President Sepp Blatter. AFP PHOTO FRANCK FIFE        (Photo credit should read FRANCK FIFE/AFP/GettyImages)

With the end of apartheid in 1994, South Africa’s newly elected President Nelson Mandela gave modern voice to the conviction that sport can be a source of positive social change and inclusion – a powerful social technology to facilitate peace:

Sport has the power to change the world.

Just as the international community applied pressure upon South Africa through exclusions from the world’s sporting stages, including the Olympics from 1964-1988, so also South Africa returned to reclaim sport as a way to rewrite its political identity and international posture in its post-apartheid era.

As the first African nation selected to host the World Cup, South Africa’s 2010 World Cup was celebrated as both a national and continental opportunity both to correct stereotypes and forge new stature and relations internationally.

While the siren-like presence of vuvuzelas during the 2010 World Cup may not have left a sweet nostalgic memory of South Africa for global fans, South Africa made some headway in reframing its international image through its hosting.

For South Africa, the World Cup helped outlay a nation branding legacy in which a post-apartheid South Africa could show itself as truly democratic global power, while also rewriting its crime reputation in a fashion that might better attract tourism and foreign direct investment. It was during this World Cup preparation and hosting moment in which South Africa first obtained a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council in 2007. South Africa again secured this UN Security Council seat in 2012.

In response to the DOJ’s accusations implicating South Africa in a $10 million bribery scheme said to have secured its hosting of the 2010 World Cup, South Africa Minister of Sport, Fikile Mbalula, initially issued a statement categorically denying the charges:

Our hands are clean, we are very clear about how this was executed within our policy of diaspora, and it was above board.

But as the details of the investigation have unfolded, South Africa’s posture has changed from one of out and out denial to one more admitting of having been abused and embroiled in a corruption without it fully knowing.

Nation Branding Backfires

Sport diplomacy ambitions can and often do backfire. Sport often delivers a ham-fisted medium for achieving branding goals.

Qatar and South Africa are two very different nations implicated in the shady money dealings involved in the business of FIFA’s governance of the world’s so-called beautiful game.

Whether a nation desires to put itself on the global map or project certain national images of normalcy, competency, and legitimacy, the FIFA corruption scandal offers an abrupt cautionary lesson.

Sport is not a clear bet for nation branding. Sport diplomacy’s attractiveness can mask reality. Nations, like corporations, ought to better pause before drinking the Kool-Aid of sport’s dreaminess and good.

Related: FIFA scandal offers a primer on globalization


Rook Campbell is an Adjunct Professor of Communication at the University of Southern California. Follow her on Twitter @cabinet48


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