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The World Cup, Qatar and Human Rights Violations – Empirical insights from an equally controversial

What impact does the Men’s Football World Cup have on human rights issues in the autocratic state Qatar? This question divides football fans, particularly in European countries, who – instead of the usual questions of possible line ups and favourites – are now confronted with the repression of LGBTQI+ people and the deaths of hundreds of workers who died building the stadiums[1]. Recent incidents, like FIFA’s ban of the “One Love” armband[2] or the case of the Danish reporter, who was threatened by Qatar’s Security Forces on air[3], provide even more arguments for critics of the World Cup. The discussion, as so often in football, quickly turns emotional. Fortunately, a recent paper published by Scharpf et al. (2022) in the prestigious American Political Science Review offers data-based insights to the debate.

Why autocratic countries host international sports events

First of all, the authors note that the share of autocratic hosts regarding international sports events has risen steeply from 8 % in 1990 to 37 % in 2020, as shown in Figure 1. The attractiveness of such events stems from the unique opportunities they provide for autocratic leaders to achieve their main goal: staying in power. First, enormous funds are required to build the necessary infrastructure.

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Figure 1. Autocratic Hosts of International Sports Events

For example, Qatar has currently spent 220 billion USD, which is more than 50 times the amount Germany spent hosting the World Cup in 2006[4]. Autocrats allocate these vast sums strategically, in order to buy off the opposition and reward loyal allies with contracts. Second, the events are used to improve public opinion and prestige of the host government, not only abroad, but also back home. The most infamous examples of this strategy are the 1934 World Cup and the 1936 Summer Olympics, which were used by Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler respectively to convey carefully constructed images to the world.

The dilemma of hosting international sports events

However, the positive effects of international sports events for autocratic leaders are counteracted by the risks they entail: Travelling journalists could investigate corruption, human rights abuses and undemocratic practices with a scrutiny usually suppressed in the host country. This provides an ideal opportunity for the opposition to start protests and raise awareness for their cause, since autocratic governments cannot respond with their usual repression while the whole world is watching.

To sum it up, the authors argue that international sports events provide unique opportunities for autocratic leaders to strengthen their rule and improve their international standing, but also entail substantial domestic political risks because of media-induced limitations on repression. How do autocrats solve this dilemma?

Strategic adaption of repression

Scharpf et al. argue that autocratic hosts increase repression before the tournament to prevent protests during the event, when repression decreases as the world watches. Thus, in advance of the sport event, opposition networks and movements are destroyed, dissidents are captured, and torture is used to intimidate and spread fear. The streets should be clear of opposition during the tournament, when repressive measures could be investigated by foreign journalists. Scharpf et al. note that journalists are concentrated in host cities (where the games are held) during international sports events, which is why they expect that the repressive regime does not change its level of repression in non-host cities, as nobody is watching. Their argument is summarized in Figure 2.

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Figure 2. Strategic Adjustment of Repression within a Host Country (Source: Scharpf et al. 2022)

More repression before the World Cup, less during the World Cup

The authors test their arguments with new data on repression during the Men’s Football World Cup in Argentina in 1978, which was also highly controversial due to the military junta’s record of human rights violations. As Scharpf et al. note, the tournament was a success for the junta, despite all criticism. For instance, the captain of the German national team, Berti Vogts, said that “Argentina is a country where order reigns, and I did not see a single political prisoner”[5].

Using negative binominal regression, the authors analyse data on repression, ranging from three month before until the end of the World Cup. The data stems from an updated version of the report by the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons, which provides information about the location and timing of repressive acts.

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Figure 3. Repression in Argentina 1978

The results show that the authors were indeed right, repression spiked in host cities before the World Cup and stopped mostly during the tournament, whereas little change occurred in non-host cities. This can be seen in Figure 3, where the number of repressive events is plotted: In host cities, repression increases substantially before the tournament and stops almost during the tournament. In non-host cities, the number of repressive events drops in the beginning of the World Cup, but increases back to pre-tournament levels quickly. Overall, the data supports the argument of Scharpf et al.

However, Scharpf et al. dig further and use a Gaussian generalized additive model to analyse the level of repression based on the location of hotels where journalists stayed. Unsurprisingly, the aforementioned effect happened almost exclusively in areas where journalists’ hotels were located. In other words, the autocratic regime increased repression drastically before the tournament in areas where foreign journalists would work and potentially meet dissidents during the tournament. During the journalists’ stay, repression decreased drastically, so they were unlikely to observe any repressive acts.

Repress while journalists are focused on the World Cup

Moreover, the authors analysed whether the autocratic regime adapted its repression to the working hours of journalists. Indeed, as Figure 4 shows, 30 % of repressive events before and after the World Cup happened in the period of 12 pm to 11 pm (journalists’ working hours during the tournament). During the World Cup, the share of repressive events during that period increased to 60 %. Put simply, the junta adapted to the presence of foreign journalists and killed, tortured and captured (alleged) dissidents while the correspondents were busy reporting on the football matches. Outside journalists’ working hours, repression decreased strongly. Thus, the chances of repressive acts occurring in front of reporters (and thus the whole world) were minimised.

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Figure 4. Repression during journalists‘ working hours before, during and after the World Cup

In summary, Scharpf et al. provide evidence that the Argentinian junta adapted its repressive methods by sharply increasing repression in host cities leading up to the tournament and decreasing it drastically during the World Cup. Moreover, repressive events occurred mostly – in contrast to before and after the World Cup – during the time period in which journalists reported on the games. So, what can we infer from Argentina 1978 about the World Cup in Qatar?

Generalisability of the 1978 World Cup

To answer this question, the authors discuss the generalisability of their findings, mentioning the importance of regime type, technological progress and resources. First, the Argentinian junta was a military regime, a regime type known in political science for having fewer non-repressive means to stabilise their rule. Other regimes, like a party-based regime (e.g., China), might need to utilize less repressive measures to achieve stability. Second, the number of available resources might influence the level of repression that is thought to be necessary by the autocratic regime. Since Qatar had to build new infrastructure (eight new stadiums) for the World Cup, this infrastructure might achieve the desired effect of separating journalists and dissidents/protesters.

Thus, it might be easier to exert repression without alerting the media. Third, host countries might be under international observation way before the event itself due to digitization and social media. However, new surveillance methods could also enable autocratic regimes to repress dissidents more efficiently without raising (too) much attention. For instance, the installation of two mobile apps is mandatory upon arriving in Qatar – apps that European data protection regulators are warning against, due to massive privacy breaches[6]. The German Foreign Office also mentions the excessive use of digital technologies like facial recognition and CCTV cameras in public spaces[7].

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Figure 5. Changes in Repression around International Sports Events

Irrespective of these (potentially) moderating factors, Scharpf et al. demonstrate in Figure 5 that, from 1945 to 2020, repression in autocratic nations generally increased two years before international sports events and decreased in the year the event took place. This descriptive data indicates general support for the authors’ argument, which is so far only tested thoroughly in the Argentinian case.

What does the article tell us about the World Cup in Qatar?

In conclusion, does this paper from Scharpf et al. answers whether the Men’s Football World Cup improves or worsens the human rights situation in Qatar? Not directly, as this question can only be fully answered in hindsight. However, the research of Scharpf et al. impressively demonstrates how autocratic regimes adapt to maximise gains in public relations by shifting from daily repression to preventive repression before the tournament and adjusting to the locations and working hours of journalists. This article is a crucial reminder that autocratic regimes act strategically and actively try to hide their human rights violations. Thus, the mere fact that spectators and journalists do not observe any repression during their stay does not mean that there is none. If everyone opposing the regime is in jail or otherwise intimidated before the start of the World Cup, there is no protest left to repress.

Author: Tobias Weitzel

You can read the article by Scharpf et al. here:

International Sports Events and Repression in Autocracies: Evidence from the 1978 FIFA World Cup | American Political Science Review | Cambridge Core

Scharpf, A., Gläßel, C., & Edwards, P. (2022). International Sports Events and Repression in Autocracies: Evidence from the 1978 FIFA World Cup. American Political Science Review, 1-18. doi:10.1017/S0003055422000958


[1] Due to Qatar’s intransparency, different estimates of dead workers exist. Qatar admits around 400 to 500 deaths. Qatar official says ‘400-500’ migrant workers died on World Cup projects | World Cup 2022 | The Guardian

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