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Soccer fans cheer Middle Eastern money, despite ethical price tag attached

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In the most recent season of the Apple TV show "Ted Lasso," a player on the fictional AFC Richmond Premier League soccer team has a dilemma.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TED LASSO")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Do you want to look at your photos from the Dubai Air shoot?

TOHEEB JIMOH: (As Sam Obisanya) Oh, yes please. Oh, God, I'm very nervous, but also very excited.

CHANG: Star defender Sam Obisanya is doing an ad campaign with a team sponsor, the fictional Dubai Air. But then he discovers that the company has been recklessly polluting his home country, Nigeria.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TED LASSO")

JIMOH: (As Sam Obisanya) It's come to my attention that Dubai Air's parent company, Cerithium Oil, is destroying Nigeria's environment and at the same time, bribing government officials to look the other way. I can't be the face of one of their subsidiaries.

CHANG: Obisanya drops the ad campaign but then goes a step further. He covers up the Dubai Air logo on his uniform with black tape, and his teammates follow him.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TED LASSO")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) You're a teammate, man. Gotta wear the same kit.

CHANG: This daring move is supported by the team's owner. And then soon after, like magic, the team has a whole new sponsor.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TED LASSO")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) There he is.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, cheering).

TARIQ PANJA: In the real world, if a player had spoken up, he would have been out of his club before the next game.

CHANG: Tariq Panja is a reporter for The New York Times who covers the darker corners of the global sports industry.

PANJA: One of the things we haven't seen in this era of athlete activism really have been players speaking out over ownership groups.

CHANG: Panja has been reporting on a new trend - countries that have been accused of human rights abuses are in fact showing a growing interest in soccer. And while these partnerships make some people wary, this huge influx of cash is largely welcome. We talked about one recent example, when the Premier League Soccer team Newcastle United was purchased by the public investment fund of Saudi Arabia this past fall.

You have pointed out that there are obviously human rights abuses that these fans should be concerned about - including the assassination of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi officials. Has that human rights record even slightly entered the conversation since his purchase was announced?

PANJA: I was struck by and I was kind of shocked by how little it mattered to the fans of this particular team. Obviously, fans of other teams were railing against this, maybe for self-serving reasons. One thing I've noticed here - I wonder if Saudi Arabia would buy another team, whether they'd be just as welcome. I think they would be. I think for soccer fans, they were willing to swallow anything if there is that chance to dream that we're going to have a winning team on the field. You know, I couldn't believe what I was seeing. So on the day of the takeover, you had Newcastle fans arriving at the stadium for the first game dressed in thawbs - you know, the white tunics of - that proliferate in the Gulf. So these guys in the Northeast who wouldn't have ever gone to the Middle East were dressed in - head-to-toe in Gulf garb. Saudi Arabian flags - talking about how rich that they suddenly were, chanting slogans to that effect, too. Everything is acceptable as long as you can promise us the world.

CHANG: OK. So I see that for a lot of these fans, these wealthy countries from the Arabian Peninsula buying these teams means greater opportunities for these teams that they are total fans of. But what's in it for these wealthy countries to take an interest in global sports leagues? Like, we see Manchester City is now owned by officials in the United Arab Emirates. We see a prominent soccer team in France, Paris Saint-Germain, is owned by Qatar. So why is this becoming a trend?

PANJA: There isn't a bigger global platform, I would argue, than professional soccer. There just is not. You know, billions of people around the world follow this - not just follow it casually. It stirs so much passion. If you think about Saudi Arabia under Mohammed bin Salman for example, he is launching, in effect, a total reset of Saudi Arabia. Raves in the desert, movie theaters. We're just like you. Nothing says we're just like you than owning, I would say, a professional soccer team - a sport that is loved by billions. It really puts these countries on a map like no other entity, no other product can.

Qatar for example is a really good one. It's smaller than Saudi Arabia. It's smaller than Connecticut, if you're in the U.S. It's smaller than Yorkshire, a county in the U.K. A very tiny percentage of the world's population would have ever heard of this place at the time it bid for the Soccer World Cup. I would argue that's been turned on its head now. And most people will have heard only - if only for its association with international soccer.

CHANG: Right. Well, let me ask you this. I mean, as you mentioned, Qatar is going to be hosting the World Cup next year. But an investigation by The Guardian last year estimated that there are more than 6,500 migrant workers in places like India, Nepal who have died there since World Cup planning began a decade ago. And yet these games have not been cancelled. Let me just ask, why do you think these revelations have not caused more concern?

PANJA: I guess it's a question of values. Look whether people are coming from. We're talking about people from Nepal, Bangladesh and India. You know, for a lot of people, these are distant lands that they don't have real contact with - maybe the guy who owns the restaurant down the road or something like that. They've almost become non-people (ph). They've become invisible in ways. Soccer, for some reason, is able to pulverize all these bad headlines. We're all marching towards this big tournament. What are we going to talk about?

You know, I remember the day before the first game of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, or the week before leading into it, the U.K. newspaper The Sunday Times had published this story of how several FIFA officials, soccer officials had accepted huge bribes.

CHANG: Right.

PANJA: And for two days, it was huge news. And then the referee blew the whistle for the first match of the 2014 World Cup - Brazil hosting Croatia in Sao Paolo. We didn't talk about that again.

CHANG: Yeah. I'm also thinking about the Winter Olympics. I mean, they'll be held in Beijing next month. The White House said that it won't be sending any U.S. government officials to protest the, quote, "ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang." But American athletes will still be participating in those games, of course. So what do you think the larger lesson is here?

PANJA: These tournaments or these events, these sports are like a juggernaut that can't be stopped. There is a symbiotic relationship between money and sports federations, and nothing - no genocide, no human rights abuses seems to be - it's untrammeled - seems to be able to stop that. China will have enough global leaders there. We will write the story that there is a boycott, yet the games will go on. And once the first medals start being awarded, that's what's going to be the focus.

CHANG: Tariq Panja is a sports reporter for The New York Times.

Thank you very much.

PANJA: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Christopher Intagliata
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.