Yet, in the three years since Australia and New Zealand won the right to host the World Cup, organizers have had a relatively easy go on the reputation and public relations front. The biggest scandal, a brief blip in January 2023, arose when FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) announced that Visit Saudi, Saudi Arabia’s tourism authority, would be a sponsor of the event. FIFA was widely condemned by rights groups, activists and others critics of Riyadh. Football's global governing body was accused of averting its eyes from Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and treatment of women, with many claiming the kingdom was engaging in sportswashing by associating itself with the tournament. FIFA and Visit Saudi eventually canceled the deal.
As the competition has played out since the group-stage matches began on July 20, neither the Australian nor the New Zealand government has faced any serious criticism of their human rights policies.
Sportswashing has emerged over the last decade, first used by rights groups and later appropriated by journalists, fans and governments to condemn certain nations. It is not a term that has been universally or retrospectively applied. Sport delivers image and reputational benefits to countries that enjoy some form of sporting prominence: Britain’s killing and persecution of people across the empire was often sanitized through deployment of, for instance, cricket teams to India.
It can be argued that sportswashing is a form of “othering” used by people in the Global North – it is what other people in other countries do, not something we ourselves engage in. This is perhaps why Qatar’s World Cup was condemned, whereas Australia and New Zealand have avoided sportswashing criticism, as the United States, Canada and Mexico may well do when they host the men’s World Cup in 2026.
But times are changing. There is a major pivot underway from the Global North to the Global South, influencing how both sides see the other. New centers of power are emerging – countries such as China and Saudi Arabia – that are challenging the Global North’s dominance, whether in geopolitics, geo-economics or sport. Some in the Global North may not like what they are encountering – labelling certain events as sportswashing may help them deal with the discomfiting shifts taking place which are being driven by people who do not look, think or behave like them.