/ 21 January 2024

Total football, total sportswashing

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A DR Congo supporter reacts during the Africa Cup of Nations 2024 group F football match between DR Congo and Zambia at Stade Laurent Pokou in San Pedro on January 17, 2024. (Photo by SIA KAMBOU / AFP)

Another international football tournament, another dose of sportswashing. This time it’s in the name. The TotalEnergies Africa Cup of Nations kicked its first ball in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, last Saturday, the start of a month-long battle for the continent’s most glamorous prize.

The French petro giant — formerly called Total — has been a longtime sponsor of the event. Like any of its oil-rich ilk, it invariably attracts its share of bad press and criticism through any given year. But there’s a sense that this time is different.

For one, after the 2022 World Cup in Qatar the football populace is more attuned to the idea of “sportswashing” — cleaning one’s image through professional sport. For another, the company would welcome some positive headlines after a slew of negative ones in recent months.

The East Africa Crude Oil pipeline was sold as an ambitious infrastructure project that would benefit people from western Uganda to eastern Tanzania. Civil groups and residents in the area say it has been anything but. Human Rights Watch’s aptly titled Our Trust is Broken report details how thousands of residents have been stripped of land and livelihood. Environmental groups have since seen their own concerns rejected at the East African Court of Justice, but remain vocal in their calls for the company to be boycotted. 

In October, a criminal complaint of manslaughter was filed in France against Total by survivors and family members of victims of the 2021 attack in Capo Delgado, Mozambique, near the company’s natural gas project. They accuse the company of failing to take the measures necessary to protect subcontractors and of wilfully failing to assist people in danger. TotalEnergies has denied all accusations. (Amid the headlines, it’s tragic that journalist Alex Perry’s work, which found that about 1 200 civilians probably perished in the attack, is usually treated as little more than a footnote).

Perfect weather for football then.

It’s not hard to understand why sportswashing is so effective. Organised sport unites humanity like no other activity. In the 90 minutes of a football match, or between the ropes of a boxing bout, we come together as a collective to share the experience. 

One-and-a-half billion people watched Lionel Messi lift the World Cup in Doha in 2022. Any avid football fan would tell you it felt like destiny fulfilled, that we were watching God’s plan manifest live on television. How do you cling to enmity after that?

The portmanteau “sportswashing” — coined for Azerbaijan’s hosting of the 2015 European Games — has only come into vogue in recent years, but its underpinning principles are nothing new. Hitler hosted the world in Berlin for the 1936 Olympics. Historians often remember it as a backfired tactic, with Jesse Owens claiming four gold medals to give the middle finger to Aryan sensibilities.

But the most well-known — and most successful given its eminence in history — is 1974’s Rumble in the Jungle. Kleptocrat Mobutu Sese Seko stuffed the pockets of parasitic boxing promoters to host the fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in then Zaire. Ali danced on the ropes, striking a left hook and then a right to send Foreman to the floor and himself into immortality. 

Today, sportswashing accusations can be flung across codes and continents, from F1 destinations to football club owners. The finger is most often pointed at resource-rich Middle Eastern countries, leaving the lingering suggestion that elements of racism taint this line of thinking. For any truth there might be in that critique there is also little question about the blatant nature of the strategies on display.

Saudi Arabia has risen as the king of this domain. Faced with a future that depends less on oil supplies, the kingdom has been forced to diversify — of which tourism is a major part. Travel agents struggle to persuade holiday-goers to make a trip to a land best known for assassinating journalists and stuffing them in suitcases and for its deplorable women’s rights records. Enter sport, the great unifier.

Obscene amounts have been spent to secure the best fights boxing can offer. Football has had some of its biggest stars plucked from its biggest leagues and taken to a competition that has as many viewers as Saudi Arabia has rivers.Twenty-five of those players — Sadio Mané, Kalidou Koulibaly and Riyad Mahrez among them — return to Africa this month. They are unlikely to feel the same intensity of scrutiny that they do in their day jobs. But we can never forget, sportswashing is not just a new word in our lexicon. It’s a malicious, Machiavellian tool that is being increasingly used and honed in the games we love. It is equally dangerous in the hands of a morally corrupt prince or French multinational.