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Sportswashing in football, and the head burying dilemma

Sportswashing is as taboo a term as one can find in modern sport. Entangling the intricacies of sporting success with the means of getting there is a messy web for the brain to unwind.

Three weeks ago, Chelsea and Manchester City faced off in the biggest club football match on earth. Chelsea won. Before the match (and particularly during the semi-final stage whilst PSG were also still involved) much was said about the methods by which these clubs had arrived at this point. 

This was the year of the sportwashers. They declared it, a term, applied to varying degrees to both of the finalists (and PSG) to describe how states or individuals use sport, in this case club ownership, as a PR tool to whitewash their negative reputations. The Independent believed the phenomena had now been taken to “the next level”. The Irish Times named PSG vs City the “sportwashing derby”. The usual references to Adolf Hitler’s Berlin Olympics were made. 

After the match, though, there was mostly talk about just how good N’golo Kante is. 

Next year Qatar will host the 2022 World Cup. By this point our beloved sport will have been so thoroughly washed it should sparkle like Bobby Firminio’s gnashers under the hot Doha sun. Amnesty International have worked hard to shine light on the worker exploitation and abuse involved in the construction of new infrastructure for the tournament, with their website containing extensive and grotesque detail. The organisation has also detailed broader human rights violations in the state. 

But despite all that will be written on the topic, when that first whistle sounds and when the action takes grip, will all those pre-tournament dissenters be lost again in the white noise of football drama? Will the cries of sportswashing remain then?

That’s the very gamble being taken. Both in Qatar, and with the Champions League clubs.

The allure of beauty

So awestruck might you be at the presence of the Elgin Marbles sitting in the British Museum, you stop caring how they arrived there.

Manchester City, Chelsea, PSG etc, are all such museums in their own sense. Achingly beautiful monuments populated by glorious artefacts. All plucked from across the globe. An Aguero from Argentina, a Neymar from Brazil, a Benin Bronze from Nigeria. Whatever blood spilt in their wake, can you help but marvel at the expert finishing? The samba trickery? Intricate brass warrior figures? 

The success of these sportswashing projects is an emphatic power play. There goes you, with your placard and your word, maybe even your human rights ambassador. Then there goes us, doing as we please. Conquering Europe and earning the adoration of the masses. Building great and proud emblems to our own brilliance.

In turn, this emphatic brilliance makes any question of their methods or ideologies look weak and jealous. The term itself often reads as both of these things. For this reason, it is absolutely essential to the Chelsea and Manchester City brands that they project as the height of competence. Neither rich nor stupid. The two managers, computer-brained savant Thomas Tuchel and arch-philosopher and intellectual revolutionary Pep Guardiola are indeed currently at the forefront of this. 

In something of a turn for both Chelsea and City, they’re also now producing some of the most exciting young talents for the English game. The impeccable strategies at these clubs, the burgeoning academies, tactical excellence and state-of-the-art facilities affords them a kind of footballing high-ground and detaches them from the image of money-lobbing playthings for oil states and oligarchs. 

You only have to glance at those luxurious birds-eye images of Man City’s sprawling £200 million plus Etihad Campus to know that this is the engine room that will fuel your desire for aesthetic footballing perfection for years to come. Every surface is so smooth. Blade of grass mowed to the perfect length. Every neon light so hypnotic. It’s like a football training complex episode of MTV cribs, teasing at your worst impulses. That lust for absolute beauty and perfection that you feel in spite of yourself. At ground level, this is how football clubs should be run. It would be hard to disagree otherwise. 

Opening one’s eyes

Such is the power of sportwashing as political weaponry, its defence mechanisms are in-built. The obvious correlations between those using it, financial resources and on-field success makes the ‘sour grapes’ retort utterly inevitable. Consequently, a relatively young piece of terminology already reads as fusty bitter. Its proponents supposedly unable to accept the most basic truths about 21st century existence and how all power is in some way corrupted. 

Chelsea, you could perhaps even argue, revel in their faint whiff of villainy. It’s an extension of the brand, worn on their sleeves, carefully woven into the royal blue fabric. Look at Roman Abramovich. Friends in high places. Complete unaccountability, moving like a hammed up Bond Villain who plans to conquer the universe by reflecting hypnotic beams off the Champions League trophy. His erratic hiring and firing, luring any manager who shows the slightest fault to his yacht and dumping them into the glistening Monte Carlo waters. This is somehow accepted at Chelsea as part of the model, whilst elsewhere it is a troubling modern trend. This is a club that doesn’t care to be liked, one that would actually prefer not to be. 

Of course, a trigger happy owner and a genuinely murky past are entirely different ball games. However both seem to be embroiled within the Chelsea FC mythology. At Manchester City, the slight of hand is subtler, more in line with the traditional connotations of sportswashing. This involves a front as far removed from ‘villainy’ as possible.

The East Manchester infrastructure projects undertaken by Sheikh Mansour and his cohort since arriving in the area, such as a £1 billion pledge made in 2014 to build over 6000 houses, are intended to be taken as testaments to the benevolence of the Prince. These actions, gold blown all over run-down dilapidated areas of the city, are far closer to home for the people of East Manchester than some accusation or murmuring of wrongdoing seeping out of a desert country half the world away. 

By rooting themselves within a city, its football culture and heritage, entwining their image with a club so tightly that you cannot have one without the other, these ownerships are ultimately able to exploit the emotive power of sport. People centre their entire lives around their football clubs. They become the determinant factor in an individual’s happiness. The cornerstone of social lives, the crescendo point of the working week. A legacy to be passed on through generations. The emotional heft of these things is so great, so deep-set, it is the ideal counterbalance against the supposedly ‘bad’ PR of an Abramovich or Mansour. 

Sportswashing intricacies

It’s important to understand the mechanisms of sportswashing. This isn’t merely wool-pulling. State leaders shouting “Look over there!” whilst committing an opportunistic atrocity. There are intricate strategies of sportswashing at play here. From the bravura look what we can do, you can’t stop us to the strategic infiltration of people’s emotions. Dangling before the desperate fan what they most desire, luring them into a state of political indifference. Just say the words, just say “Well, it’s not like the others are any better” and the world will be yours. 

This is not to lay the blame at the door of supporters who simply want to see their club enjoy successes. Nor is it to directly entangle the good efforts of Mason Mount, Phil Foden and the likes in all manner of human rights abuses and geopolitical events. It is simply to recognise the methodology, the reasons we’d often rather not confront the great sportswashing being undertaken. The reason it, as a phrase, is already starting to seem washed up.

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