Q&A | Sports diplomacy at the World Cup

Dr. Kelly McFarland and Dr. Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff discuss the ever-growing field of sports diplomacy and how we might see it in practice at the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.

Sports continue to be a positive driver of economic development and community resilience throughout the world. Large international competitions like the World Cup bestow tremendous economic, cultural, and political gains for the host nation. This year’s World Cup in Qatar, however, has been embroiled in accusations of corruption and human rights abuses, potentially undoing any gains for the host nation. Beyond the privileges and pitfalls of hosting, there is also the chance for geopolitical rivals to meet on the pitch, like the U.S. team and Iranian team will later this month. These matches are more than just games and serve as a symbol of cooperation, communication, and diplomacy. Sports and politics are never easy to disentangle, and this year’s World Cup will have plenty of dramatic athletic and political moments.

(Image: Fauzan Saari on Unsplash)

Dr. Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff is a historian, writer, speaker, and consultant working at the intersection of global sports, communications, and diplomacy. A sports diplomacy specialist pioneering work within the basketball diplomacy framework and a leading expert on French sport, she is the author of The Making of Les Bleus: Sport in France, 1958–2010 (Lexington Books, 2013) and Basketball Empire: France and the Making of a Global NBA and WNBA (Bloomsbury Publishing, forthcoming Sept. 2023), as well as a veteran of the U.S. Department of State.

Dr. Krasnoff also recently authored an ISD case study on sports diplomacy in Africa, examining the creation of the Basketball Africa League. You can read that case study and access other interesting resources below:

Case 360 — Sports Diplomacy in Africa — The NBA and the Basketball Africa League

FIFA UncoveredA Netflix documentary on the corruption that propagated within international Football’s largest governing body.

Welcome to Wrexham — Rob McElhenney and Ryan Reynolds run Wrexham Football Club as they try to create an underdog story the world can root for. From Hollywood to Wales, the docuseries tracks their crash course in ownership and the interwoven fates of a team and a town.

French Sports Diplomacy — The French Foreign Ministry, recognizing the important role of sports diplomacy in today’s world, has launched a website to explain its recent efforts on this front.

Transcript of interview with Dr. Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff:

Note: This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Dr. Kelly McFarland:

Hello, and welcome to the special recorded Q-and-A for The Diplomatic Pouch, the online magazine of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy (ISD). I’m Kelly McFarland, director of programs and research at ISD.

The fans of the world’s most popular sport turn their attention to Qatar this week as the 2022 FIFA World Cup gets underway. 32 national teams will meet, and on December 18, a winner will be crowned. Massive global sporting events like this attract politicians and celebrities, stoke national pride, and perhaps surprisingly, to many watching this, provide a unique opportunity to practice diplomacy. Sports offer an influential avenue to engage with the world, promote economic growth, and foster more resilient communities.

Unfortunately, this year’s World Cup in Qatar has been mired in allegations of corruption and human rights abuses, challenging Qatar’s prospects for effective sports diplomacy at the games.

Joining us to talk about the world of sports diplomacy and how we might see it in action in Qatar over the next several weeks is Dr. Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff. She is a historian, writer, speaker, and consultant working at the intersection of global sports, communications, and diplomacy. A sports diplomacy specialist, pioneering work within the basketball diplomacy framework, and a leading expert on French sport, she is the author of The Making of Les Bleus: Sport in France, 1958–2010 (Lexington Books, 2013) and the forthcoming book Basketball Empire: France and the Making of a Global NBA and WNBA (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2023), as well as a veteran of the U.S. Department of State. And I should also mention she’s an author of a recent ISD case study on the Basketball Africa League, which you can find in the link above.

Lindsay, thanks so much for joining us to talk about the World Cup.

Dr. Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff:

Thanks for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Dr. McFarland:

Well, let’s start off with a thirty-thousand-foot level question for our listeners and those who are watching this. Give us a little bit of a background on what we mean by sports diplomacy and why states pursue it.

Dr. Krasnoff:

Sure. Well, sports diplomacy is a newer phrase for an age-old practice. Sports diplomacy is when the acts of diplomacy, representation, communication, and negotiation intersect in and around the sporting arena.

Historically, sports diplomacy and diplomacy more generally have been the domain of official state representatives, so ambassadors, diplomats, heads of state, or elite athletes representing their nations in international competitions such as the Olympics or the FIFA World Cups.

However, in the twenty-first century, in which we are interconnected in so many different ways through transportation, the Internet, so many different digital entities, plus having a very global, modern sports industry, the concept of who engages in sports diplomacy has become more diffuse.

And increasingly, it’s everyday citizens who can engage in what we call people-to-people sports exchanges. This is the cultural, technical, and knowledge exchange that organically occurs in and around the sporting terrain, particularly within the professional sports arena, but also at the elite level for international competition, as well as at the grassroots level and amateur levels.

When we talk about sports diplomacy, this is what we mean. We often distinguish in terms of whether it is formal sports diplomacy or informal sports diplomacy. In formal sports diplomacy, there is always that official state representative involved, whether it’s national teams at the FIFA World Cup or ambassadors, diplomats, tournament hosts, and committee members, for example.

Informal diplomacy, however, centers in and around what is often referred to as non-state sports actors. Every day individuals like you, like me, like members of the Georgetown basketball teams, for example.

And that is the great majority of sports diplomacy today. So if this is our understanding of sports diplomacy and who engages in it, there are many different ways that states pursue it.

Returning to the formal sports diplomacy concept, states pursue it for a multitude of reasons. It is a way to help generate and cultivate soft power, the ability to influence others through leadership and other entities, and through helping to showcase a nation’s culture through sports and its cultural endeavors.

A really interesting thing that we’ve seen emerging over the past 10–15 years in terms of why states pursue sports diplomacy are some of the more hard, tangible benefits that we’ve seen in terms of sporting tourism. Increasingly, several different governments around the world, as they’re formalizing or refreshing their official sports diplomacy policy, are looking at the benefits of sports tourism as one part of that.

The contributions to the job market and to GDP for hosting major tournaments are also a consideration. And you’ll see that increasingly, particularly within, say, FIFA, as well as FIBA, the International Basketball Federation, after these major tournaments for the past several years, they produce reports that measure the kind of economic impact that hosting these sorts of sports diplomacy endeavors has had.

Dr. McFarland:

It’s a lot of different things that are going on here, and I appreciate your answering that and demonstrating that. And I think it’s not just Forrest Gump playing ping pong with the Chinese here. I’m not quite sure where that would fall in the sports diplomacy realm.

Moving on to Qatar specifically. We think of Qatar, and we don’t necessarily think of the World Cup. Right? I mean, there’s a reason we’re playing it in November and December right now, and that’s because the country is really hot in the summer.

This had to shift everything to the fall and winter. And it’s a tiny state, relatively. It’s not a soccer powerhouse, so what’s in it for Qatar, basically? What did they see in this? And then how does FIFA make the decision on who gets it? That brings us to the elephant in the room, which is the human rights abuses and the corruption that are tied to this year’s World Cup.

Dr. Krasnoff:

Sure. Big question. Starting at the beginning, what does hosting the FIFA World Cup bring? From the very get-go, Qatar has used hosting this World Cup tournament to help propel several state projects and infrastructure projects. It has helped fuel infrastructure and construction and growth. It has also helped put Qatar on the map in terms of international affairs through sports, not necessarily for its sporting on-field or on-pitch performances. Although certainly in the lead-up to hosting the World Cup, they have made every effort to invest in their football and soccer programs, and some of their teams have been winning at different levels. But in terms of hosting the tournament, it has injected Qatar into conversations prior to winning the right to host the World Cup. More than ten years ago, no one really talked about Qatar in those ways. It’s part of a larger sports diplomacy strategy in which Qatar has used sports to become a much more influential player internationally.

It’s not just hosting the FIFA World Cup. They’ve also purchased the professional team of the French capital, Paris Saint-Germain, and through that, they have infused a lot of money and energy into French football. Also, its sports broadcasting company, beIN SPORTS, has grown significantly over the past ten years, being a mainstay in certain parts of Europe. beIN SPORTS also has a big audience and market in Latin America as well.

Those are just three examples. Qatar has been involved in sponsoring other sporting events. But perhaps it is the FIFA World Cup that is the crown jewel in terms of just being the biggest platform.

That’s a little bit about what benefits the World Cup helps bring to the state. In terms of how FIFA made the choice of granting the right to host the World Cup to Qatar, there’s a great documentary on Netflix right now that tackles very much this exact question in granular detail about how the FIFA executive committee in 2009 decided to award the rights to host the 2018 and the 2022 World Cups at the exact same time.

And there is a lot of speculation in terms of what kinds of deals were made to try to influence the executive committee members for their votes. These are certainly allegations, and there are both sides of the story there. But in 2009, the FIFA executive committee did select Russia to host the 2018 World Cup and Qatar to host the 2022 edition. Very much, you know, with the Qataris, they were up against many other, perhaps far more popular bids, bids that did not require playing football in the middle of the desert summer, which gets us to your point of why we’re about to embark on a FIFA World Cup at the end of the year. That’s the short explanation of how Qatar wound up hosting the World Cup. The way that FIFA made its decisions for awarding the bids has since changed as a result of the systemic corruption that was exposed by a U.S. Department of Justice investigation and arrests several years ago.

It is much different now in terms of who chooses and who hosts all these various different tournaments.

Dr. McFarland:

Yeah. It’ll be interesting to see over the course of the ten-plus years since Qatar got the World Cup what tangible benefits they can actually bring out of this because there’s been such bad press over that decade — whether it’s the corruption or the human rights abuses with the workers that are building all these state-of-the-art stadiums. Can they get past that to get a net positive for their country?

Dr. Krasnoff:

Right? Yeah. And I think winning the right to host this World Cup has been a little bit of a double-edged sword for the Qataris. It has put them under an excruciating spotlight in a way that previous hosts have not really had to handle, and certainly not for such a long period of time. 2009 to today, that’s more than a decade. While there are very legitimate and very grave human rights issues involved, not just in terms of the migrant workers, but also the LBGTQ community and much more — and those are very real and very valid — I think you could make an argument that there have been some policy changes put into place since 2009 so that the situation is better. It’s still not ideal; it’s still not in line perhaps with Western standards, but I think there has been movement, and you get back to, well, what is the main objective of diplomacy?

It is to continue to have conversations and to try to influence, to achieve your objectives, to achieve goals. And even if you don’t get 100 percent of what you want and what you ask for, it is that negotiation aspect. In this, I think sports has served to help to change some policies in Qatar. Have they changed fast enough, as totally enough? No, but I think that the use of sports, in this case, has helped.

Dr. McFarland:

Yeah, I think that’s a good point. And I think you already mentioned, too, that FIFA has changed their actions on how they go about awarding who gets the games and everything too. I think the movement still has a long way to go, but it is going in the right direction. Moving to the games themselves and beyond Qatar, there are also unique dynamics because, for instance, the United States plays Iran the week after next. I can’t remember the date, but maybe November 29. It’s always an interesting point when they play because the United States hasn’t had the best relationship with Iran over the last 40 years. But even today, with the protests that are ongoing in Iran, I saw something the other day where they might keep some players off the team, which was showing some siding with the protesters a little bit.

There’s a lot going on with that. Is it just a game, or is there more to it than that when the United States and Iran play, or when countries like that play? Can they possibly get something more out of it?

Dr. Krasnoff:

It’s never been just a game. You can go back decades. International sport has always been about more than a game. It’s been about promoting different things over different periods of time. But I think it’s very hard to justify the argument that sports and politics should not mix — they always have. So I would start with that. I think the U.S.- Iran match will certainly be one of high interest for many because of the reasons that you state. Particularly given the protests, especially the way that so many of the Iranian national athletes have been starting to speak up in support of the women’s movement there.

I know a lot of attention has been focused on the soccer team, but the water polo team very recently refused to sing the national anthem ahead of an international competition. I think that the U.S.-Iran match is going to be very interesting in a number of different ways, not just in terms of the symbolism and the representation, but I’d also be very curious in terms of being the proverbial fly on the wall. I’d love to hear some of the one-on-one conversations that the players might have with each other on the field — in whatever way their universes might possibly interact through the World Cup.

I want to point out that one of the United States’ other competitors in the first group phase is Wales. When you talk about what national teams representing at the World Cup stage can do for a country? If you look at Wales, they have very much come fully on board with the whole soccer diplomacy aspect and how their national team is a great way to gain visibility and punch above their cultural weight. I know they’ve been doing a lot of really interesting sports diplomacy programs here in the United States. I know they’ve got some things lined up both in New York as well as Washington, D.C. At Dupont Circle, I believe, next week.

But using the soccer diplomacy that was first launched through the television series “Welcome to Wrexham.” And then the national team qualified, and everything has come into play. Two very different examples of what participation at the World Cup stage can do for teams and the symbolism, communication, representation, and negotiation that can be involved on and off the pitch.

Dr. McFarland:

Yeah, it’s going to be interesting to see how these things play out, and especially the U.S.-Iran game, and the whole British system and Wales, just things like that. And they really are punching above their weight in a number of different ways.

To get you out of here, I have one last question. I think you would make the argument that the U.S. government and other government entities have gotten better at using sports diplomacy over the decades. Still, a long way to go, probably in your estimation. But what are some ways that you think they could do a better job of doing sports diplomacy, bringing it into line with other diplomatic initiatives? Should there be more government activity, or is it more on the organizations themselves, like the NBA or the MLB, or NFL? And we’re recording this just a few days after there was a huge welcome of the NFL teams to Germany over the weekend, which, from all reports, sounded like a huge success. So, where do you think forward momentum comes from on this? Should it be governments? Should it be the organizations themselves? Should it be a mixture of the two?

Dr. Krasnoff:

Thank you for giving me a soapbox. I’ve long argued that sports diplomacy can be such a powerful, impactful tool in the diplomatic toolbox for anyone when done with intention — the intentionality factor — and when done with authenticity. I think that’s one of the really potent aspects of sports diplomacy. And I think the first thing that U.S. policymakers need to realize is that sports diplomacy is far more than just programmatic people-to-people exchanges where you send your athletes overseas or you bring people to the United States.

That has been the blueprint of U.S. sports diplomacy for the past 20 years. And that is great. It’s wonderful, it is impactful, and it has its place. But as the sports diplomacy field has evolved in the twenty-first century, sports diplomacy is much more than just programs moving people from point A to point B. It has been harnessed and integrated up and down the policy ladder by many other governments.

I would suggest for U.S. policymakers to stop thinking of sports diplomacy as purely programmatic and to start to think of it also as a tool that should be part of your integral policymaking apparatus.

I think that’s the first thing. Whether it involves education in terms of understanding how sports diplomacy has evolved since the year 2000 and who is doing what, there are lots of ways to speak to the government side of sports diplomacy.

There are lots of really cool, cutting-edge sports diplomacy initiatives being taken by other governments around the world. Rwanda, regardless of what you might think of the Rwandan government’s policies, its sports diplomacy initiatives are new and innovative. Forging sponsorship partnerships with some of the world’s top global soccer teams, hosting and becoming a beacon of sports diplomacy efforts in Africa, which have gotten many of its fellow African countries starting to formulate their own sports diplomacy policies. It’s not Rwanda gaining all the thunder. Wales, Australia, and France, to name just a few. There are many others in the works that are using sports diplomacy as an integral part of their policymaking process.

If you go to the government of France, their Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, they spell out their entire sports diplomacy policy in French and in English, making it accessible and explaining how since 2013, it has become integrated throughout their foreign policy and representation worldwide.

There’s also cutting-edge stuff being done on the digital sports diplomacy front as well. So there are lots of opportunities. But the first thing is that U.S. policymakers need to realize that it’s not just programmatic, that it is policy and much more multifaceted than many people think.

In terms of the last point, should it be a government-led initiative or driven by the private sector? I think it should be both because the private sector — unless it’s the basketball sector and the NBA, which have been taking their own initiatives and working with different governments, whether the U.S. government or the Rwandan or Senegalese governments — I think a lot of the private sector or the sports sector still thinks that sports diplomacy is only the practice of the government, when that is no longer the case. I think, for the United States, it needs to be a dual-pronged initiative.

Dr. McFarland:

All right, well, I appreciate your taking the time to chat with us today about sports diplomacy and the World Cup. And, go Team USA.

We’ll see if we can make it to the round of 16 this time. Who knows? Doubtful, but we’ll see. Anyways. Thanks, Lindsay. Great.

Dr. Krasnoff:

Thanks so much for having me.

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