Roy Keane doesn’t think that the World Cup should be staged in Qatar. Gathered on the side-lines of the Group C game between Argentina and the host nation, the pundit let rip: “The World Cup shouldn’t be here, it shouldn’t be here,” he said. “It’s been mentioned there about corruption regarding Fifa, as a country the way they treat migrant workers, gay people and I think it’s great that it has been brought up.”
Keane is one of many notable figures in the game who have called out Qatari human rights abuses. And like many others, he isn’t disgusted enough to stay home.
Keane’s tirade demonstrates a key truth about the World Cup. Even with the murky backdrop – reported Fifa bribes, perilous working conditions, draconian laws that persecute women and LGBTQ communities – for many, the tournament is too important a commercial prize to miss.
Brands are doing a similar turn as the former Manchester United ace. Issuing protestations about the ethics associated with the cup, then showing up anyway.
If some brand managers considered whether sponsoring such a tournament would lead to a backlash, it didn’t take them long to decide which course of action to take. The scrum (ok, wrong sport) for sponsorships in the lead-up to the competition has contributed to bumper earnings for Fifa. The authority announced that it had pulled in revenues of $7.5 billion in the four years leading up to November. Fifa also reckons that about 5bn people watched the last World Cup, which was staged in 2018 in Russia – another socially progressive, liberal utopia where absolutely nobody suffers due to the cruel whims and prejudices of a small group of men in charge.
For someone whose job is helping brands do more for communities, it’s all dispiriting stuff. Fortunately, some companies aggrieved at the state of sponsorship have been taking a stand. The most notable by its absence is energy drink Lucozade. While the England team are usually seen re-charging after an exerting half with branded bottles, Beam Suntory, the energy drink’s parent company, has vouched to remove all its branding from the tournament.
ING Group, an enormous international financial and banking group that usually sponsors The Netherlands and Belgium also thought it in poor taste to use the competition for marketing purposes, so pulled its branding from those teams’ kits. In the cacophony of brands shouting for attention in the media coverage, these positions might seem small, but they are significant.
By contrast, consider the backlash experienced by craft beer brand BrewDog when the company announced (with all characteristic shouty-ness) that it would be the proud anti-sponsor of the World Cup. Derisive billboards thought up by ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi feature slogans like, “First Russia, then Qatar, can’t wait for North Korea”. Then it emerged that the brand was showing World Cup games in its bars and was selling its beers to Qatar too. This is the marketing equivalent of Roy Keane’s turn at the Argentina v Qatar match. We shouldn’t be here. But we are.