Because the fact that Qatar is organising the World Cup makes people uncomfortable, notes Meeuwsen. “The price is high for the sport that is supposed to bring world peace.” According to a study by the British newspaper The Guardian, 6,500 people died during the construction of the stadiums. Others became incurably ill. Research by NRC also showed that at least one person died at a stadium where the Netherlands will be playing.

So how should you react to that as a fan? “I refuse to give journalists a ‘one-size-fits-all’ answer. Everyone has their own conscience, which is why people are really struggling with the concept.” So what can Meeuwsen, philosopher and former triathlete, actually do? “Ask fundamental questions, help those involved to reflect and therefore pave the way for new choices.”

Sandra Meeuwsen (1966) graduated as a philosopher in the mid-1990s and then ended up in the sports world through the Dutch Olympic Committee. There, she was faced with one surprise after another. Rivalry, doping, corruption, transgressive behaviour. She started her own consultancy firm in 2008 and helped sports associations and municipalities through research and advice on sports policy. After ten years, she completed her doctorate at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel with a critical analysis that focused on the flip side of sport. She was then asked to set up ESPRIT, which launched in June this year. The Erasmus Center for Sport Integrity & Transition helps with integrity issues and transitions in sport.

It feels like your institute is needed more than ever.

“We have tremendous momentum. The issues in sports are intense, the very existence of top sport is at stake. If sport is to survive, it will need to change radically. In gymnastics, for example, the entire branch of sport is in jeopardy because of the impact of transgressive behaviour. There is a growing awareness that these are not isolated incidents, that they have a structural character. We would even go one step further and say that the integrity crisis in sports is a systemic issue.”

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Image credit: Bas van der Schot

Where does this momentum come from?

“We are running up against the boundaries of feasibility everywhere in our society. In education, in politics, on the planet itself in terms of climate. And the same applies to sport, because that is part of our society too. This is illustrated not only by the integrity crisis, but also by the problems that ice rinks, swimming pools and stadiums are currently experiencing with regard to remaining affordable.”

What is this systemic problem in sport?

“All sorts of unconscious forces have free rein and are holding coaching, policy and governance captive. Sport is a very attractive vehicle for selling your city, or giving a country a certain reputation. In the beginning, sports also embraced this. But we can increasingly also see this being abused, which leads to some uncomfortable situations. The World Cup in Qatar might be in the spotlight at the moment, but previously it was the Winter Olympics in Sochi, where our king had a beer with Putin.”

It seems hard to do something about this.

“During the Covid lockdowns, football seemed in danger of toppling because the self-evident nature of the financial side of things fell away. As a result, the clubs were no longer able to offer and organise football at the level we wanted. These kinds of ruptures are exactly what sports needs. And they’re coming, because the whole capitalist footing on which our economy is based is under discussion. We’re running out of fossil fuels. This is also reflected in the sports world. You can see the ice rinks and swimming pools failing in the Netherlands. Stadiums are also major consumers. At what cost are we willing to maintain this? Or could it also be more sustainable, and operate at a smaller and more human scale?”

Is the World Cup in Qatar a low point in this capitalist development?

“It’s a hell of a warning. This wonderful game has fallen into the hands of some very dubious regimes. And that’s because we said: sport is on the market, you can sell it. And then, of course, it just goes to the highest bidder. It’s only now that people are waking up to the price that’s being paid. You need to close your eyes to human rights practices, for example.”

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Image credit: Bas van der Schot

This isn’t very different to how things used to be, is it? The World Cup was in Argentina in the 1970s, and that was a dictatorship then. This also met with criticism, with protest actions such as ‘Blood on the post’.

“In the case of Argentina, the criticism came mainly from the left. These days, we see a broader social awareness and discomfort. This is also because human rights are at stake, and the price is too high for something that should actually bring world peace. Even the most avid football fan must feel uncomfortable about that.”

“Another difference compared to Argentina: in Qatar, you notice that the criticism has been around for ten years, actually since the World Cup was awarded. Firstly, the discussion was mainly about the heat and much less about the bad political regime and the repression. The criticism has increased greatly over the past ten years.”

Qatar is putting a huge amount of money into it. For example, look at the campaigns that allow supporters to come for free if they report uncritically on their socials. Why is Qatar doing this?

“Qatar wants to become a major power in the Middle East. It already is because of fossil fuels, to be honest, but this is now coming under pressure. So the regime is working hard to build a position and reputation that will make Qatar one of the seven largest industrialised countries in the world. Sport is a fantastic showcase for this, because no one is against sport.”

“It’s a strategy that they’ve been following for a long time. By bringing cycling to the country, as well as riding and athletics. It was a good idea of theirs. But nowadays, this is called sportswashing, following the example of greenwashing and pinkwashing.”

What would be your advice to the Dutch government, which says it wants to conduct a constructively critical dialogue and that Qatar is ‘too important’ to boycott?

“This is a big global political game with all kinds of interests, and I can’t look at all the chess boards. If we stick to sports and the role that we have given sports as a means of lubricating international cooperation, I have serious doubts about the chances of making a difference in Qatar. You are too gullible if you think that the ultimate discussion on human rights will take place during the World Cup. You can also address Qatar about this via the United Nations.”

Do boycotts help?

“Boycotts by teams are no longer relevant in this case, because everyone is going. Governments can still make good choices, but the Dutch government is wavering in this regard. First, they said they wouldn’t send anyone, then they sent several government representatives and then perhaps the King had to be there after all. It comes across as opportunistic.”

“As far as the teams are concerned, they will have to switch to different methods. I’m still waiting for a really surprising gesture by the Dutch team.”

Can you ask that of players? They didn’t choose to hold the World Cup in Qatar, after all.

“On the one hand, we extol players as role models and demigods, but when it comes down to it, they should suddenly just toe the line and should be happy to have a job.
Athletes are also citizens with an opinion. Look at Colin Kaepernick, the American football player with his Taking the Knee action. That was a major political gesture. Why wouldn’t that kind of thing be possible in football?”

What do you hope captain Virgil van Dijk will do? Wear a T-shirt with a message, for example?

“Why not? You can win eternal fame if you do something now. Although Kaepernick lost his job, he received an incredible amount of satisfaction in a different way. And in the end, a lot of support too. Or take the gesture by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the Olympic Games in Mexico in 1968, when they raised their fists during the medal ceremony. That turned out to be so iconic. Those two were removed from the event, but they always crop up in any discussion about the power of a gesture by athletes. We need these kinds of heroes to drive change.”

Couldn’t this kind of World Cup actually have a good effect? In Argentina, journalists who reported critically on the regime and wrote about the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, for example, did have an impact. According to a report from Studio Sport, the mothers were pleased with the attention.

“Either way, this World Cup will have an impact. We will see how unenlightened the regime is, and how lacking in empathy. People are going to be arrested there, and we’re going to respond as a Western world. This confrontation is going to affect football, as well as international cooperation. I just can’t predict how.”

Are there any arguments for people to watch it?

“Dialogue is a widely heard argument. Thinking that the world will collapse if we don’t enter into dialogue during a World Cup.” Meeuwsen starts laughing hard.

How about people who say: you have to keep sports and politics separate? Is there any truth to that?

“That’s a construct. People came up with that when designing the modern Olympic Games, at the end of the 19th century. It was a kind of deal between politics and the sports administrators: you can operate autonomously with your own administrative structure if you don’t interfere with the regular politics. Practice has shown that this is untenable, because sports has always been about politics. Internally, how the power is divided. And externally, about who you work with.”

“As a supporter or citizen, you really do have an influence. If nobody watched, now that would be a major statement. You can already see that sponsors are less eager due to the criticism. The fewer people who watch, the greater the effect. And this is a huge opposing force, as ratings and exposure for sponsors are the pillars of the earnings model of professional football.”

So if you look at it purely rationally, you should say…

“I’m not going to be watching it myself. Certainly not in the beginning, anyway. If we make it to the final, I’ll be in trouble then, because sports is my job. Perhaps I would still watch it, if that happens…”

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