Sportswashing the World Cup from Geneva. Source: SWI

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Sportswashing the World Cup from Geneva

Qatar chose Geneva to push its foreign policy agenda Illustration Helen James /

Qatar chose Geneva to launch a massive public relations campaign in a bid to secure the World Cup and impose its narrative on sports. From there, the emirate could access FIFA, United Nation institutions, heads of state and diplomats. SWI investigated the links between Qatar and the Swiss city. This content was published on November 10, 2022 – 09:00 November 10, 2022 – 09:00

Perched just a few hundred metres above Geneva’s exclusive Nautique sailing club in the posh Cologny neighbourhood, the sprawling residence of the Qatari ambassador to the United Nations maintains a near-level view across Lake Geneva of the UN’s European headquarters.

The acquisition of the 550-square-metre home set on over two hectares of land came a year before then-FIFA boss Sepp Blatter announced, to the surprise of many, that Qatar had won the bid for the 2022 football World Cup. Zurich-based FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) is the global sports body that controls international football and organises the World Cup.

The oft-played scene of jubilation by the Qataris and surprised reactions from members of competing delegations to that announcement back in December 2010 in Zurich raised certain suspicions among longtime FIFA observers.

Qatar, which does not have a football-playing tradition, faced limitations as a host nation as average summer temperatures there surpass 40°C. The fossil fuel-rich state may have argued the contrary, but holding the sporting event in June and July, when the event normally takes place, was a risky prospect for players. 

A bid mired in death and corruption

Internal “feasibility studies” by the world football body went on to determine that the tournament would not be viable during the regular summer slot. Nonetheless, the kickoff was confirmed for late November-early December 2022, to the despair of European tournament organisers and fans alike.

Advantages of autocracy

The United States and the United Kingdom, which had bid for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups together with Korea, Japan and Australia, had long been rumoured to be among the favourites. But intense lobbying by Qatar, FIFA’s arguable penchant for supporting authoritarian rule over democracy to get the job done, and hosting in a region where the sport could still grow, all ran in the emirate’s favour. Jérôme Valcke, FIFA’s former secretary-general, admitted in 2013 that “less democracy is sometimes better for organising a World Cup”.

He has since been convicted in Switzerland for accepting bribes. Subsequently, investigations in the US and Switzerland culminated in 2015 with the revelation of a massive corruption scandal at FIFA, followed by arrests of high-ranking officials and an end to Blatter’s term.

Despite winning the bid, Qatar’s reputation as a credible and transparent sports host was severely damaged. Its reputation only worsened as the country eagerly embarked on a quest to make the World Cup bid a reality. Reports by human rights groups of abuses and deaths of migrant workers building the infrastructure for the World Cup became a growing liability to the upbeat narrative the country was eager to project. 

Even before the bid, Qatar, aware of its poor international image, looked to ramp up support among sport organisations, heads of state and diplomats. It chose Geneva as a location to lead a vast public relations campaign.

This three-part investigation shows the lengths to which the emirate went to whitewash its reputation, and the role Geneva played in this marketing stunt.

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