Sportswashing outcry will pass and big business of sport will trundle on

Cash has long been the sporting king and when the sportswashing outrage dies down, players, owners and fans will carry on regardless

Joe Brolly

On October 30, 1974, Muhammad Ali fought George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire, a dystopic country vividly depicted in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

The fight has been described as “the greatest sporting event of the 20th century”. It was watched by a record billion viewers around the world. It attracted the biggest purse in history. President Mobutu Sese Seko paid $10m to host it.

A leopard-skin clad psychopath, Mobutu bought the fight to improve his image. The month before the opening bell, he rounded up 1,000 men with criminal records and imprisoned them under the stadium where the fight was to be held. One hundred of them were arbitrarily picked out and executed. It was Mobutu’s warning to his people to behave when the westerners arrived.

All of this was well known, but it didn’t matter. The world descended on the Congo, the world loved it and the fight and carnival that surrounded it is the stuff of legend. In professional sports, there are no ethics.

The golf world is in the midst of a faux crisis. Saudi Arabia, like Mobutu, is sports washing its image. Some golfers and journalists are wringing their hands and bleating about ethics. That will soon pass. Anthony Joshua, the widely loved English heavyweight, is slated to fight his rematch against the Ukrainian Oleksandr Usyk in Saudi in August. Promoter Eddie Hearn says he is “comfortable with the decision.” Joshua doesn’t see what the fuss is about.

Saudi is now the venue of choice for many of the biggest fights precisely because it brings in the most money. The journalists will descend en masse. The fight fans will fly in from all over the world. The PPV will be through the roof. As Hearn puts it, “my only obligation is to make the most amount of money possible.” This is not sport. It’s business. Hearn could be a hedge fund manager or a media mogul or a superstar banker. What’s the difference?

The Saudis are now heavily invested in big business all over the world. Formula One, horse racing, wrestling, boxing, the Premier League and no-one is boycotting these events. It is one of the most brutal dictatorships on the planet, but the power brokers and competitors don’t care so long as the money is flowing out of the ground and into their pockets. The fans? They will go anywhere to see a big event.

In March this year, 81 people (mainly from the persecuted Shia Muslim minority) were beheaded by the Saudi regime in a mass execution. The sporting world shrugged and said f**k it.

A minor incident like that couldn’t possibly be allowed to get in the way of the Saudis’ newest toy, Newcastle United FC. The UK government (they sell the Saudis a lot of weapons and buy a lot of its oil) announced they could not reveal details of their involvement in the takeover deal “because it could harm relations with Saudi Arabia.” On behalf of Her Majesty’s government, Foreign Office Minister Amanda Milling told the House of Commons that “the Saudi Public Investment Fund purchase of Newcastle United is welcome.”

Newcastle’s stadium has been full to the neck since. They stormed down the final furlong of the Premier League. The fans, and so many others with a vested interest in the Premier League, are positively quivering with excitement as Saudi billions turn Newcastle into another Man City. Who cares if they stone women to death for adultery? Or send homosexuals to prison for ‘sodomy’? Or assassinate journalists? Or behead teenagers for petty crime? Their new striker cost £75m and looks like a contestant on Love Island. Hooraaaayyy.

In 2008, Manchester City were bought by Sheikh Mansour, i.e., the United Arab Emirates. It is one of the world’s most appalling dictatorships. Torture, show trials, imprisonment without trial, solitary confinement for critics of the regime, forcible disappearance, serial war crimes against Yemen? Never mind about that, Man City won the Premier League.

The World Cup is another whited sepulchre of corruption and sportswashing (just like the Tour de France, or the Olympics, or cricket or MMA). Qatar, perhaps the vilest country on earth, won the rights for this year’s corruption festival after bribing left, right and centre. Fifty degree heat? Never mind that, officials will be able to afford that heated swimming pool or that peachy villa in France.

In February 2021, analysis by the Guardian newspaper revealed that since the rights to host the FIFA World Cup were awarded to Qatar in 2010, and the stadia and infrastructure construction work began, 6,500 migrant workers have died. The real death toll is “significantly higher” since countries like the Philippines and Kenya have not made figures available. Cardiac arrest, heat stroke, work accidents, sickness. These were real human beings, engaged in back-breaking work, living in sqaulor, to send home money to desperate families.

The impact on families and communities has been horrific. But who cares? The stadia and pubs will be full. The TV channels all over the world will be giddy with excitement. Contacted for comment, the Qatar authority said: “Every lost life is a tragedy, and no effort is spared in trying to prevent every death in our country.” FIFA said: “We are fully committed to protecting the rights of workers in FIFA projects.” Fair enough. Now, beer, fun, and ole ole ole ole ole. Hopefully, it will be every bit as enjoyable as the last World Cup. Remember where that one was held?

In his Observer column a few years ago, journalist and Man City fan Simon Hattenstone wrote that “People live and die by Sheik Mansour’s rulings. If I were as principled as I’d like to be, I’d denounce my club and walk away — of course, human rights trump a football club. But I can’t. So for now, I’m sticking with City, while pleading with them to speak up for justice.” Simon was only telling the truth. As Al Pacino’s Godfather put it when he was criticised by the delightfully corrupt US senator, “Senator, we are all part of the same hypocrisy.”

Liverpool-til-I-die Mo Salah has been in the news. He is earning a mere £10.4m a year. Mo loves the people of Liverpool so much that he is prepared to stay on for £20.8m a year. Liverpool are offering £14.3m, which is heartbreaking for Salah. So heartbreaking that he is going to leave next year on a free transfer. It’s not personal. It’s merely business.

Meanwhile, in Derry, it is intensely personal. There is huge excitement about the upcoming All-Ireland series. We can’t talk or think about anything else. Our young people are queuing for autographs and making flags and posters. Our players are mixing gladly with their people. These are true bonds of loyalty and togetherness. None of the players have to say it was their boyhood dream to play for their county in Croke Park. We know it was.

They will go back to their jobs on Monday morning come what may, teaching our young people, working as doctors and builders and plumbers.

And a week later they will turn out for their clubs again and in due course they will take teams and mark out pitches and become chairmen and secretaries and umpires. They will be real role models.

As my late father was inclined to say, “Without the GAA, we’d be savages like the English.”

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