The Youth Lab


World Cup Drama

“Make popular what needs to be said.”

“Everywhere, as it has for over a century, football creates and dramatises our social identities, our amities and our antipathies. No other sport, no popular cultural form, has been subject to this degree of adulation. Football is first: the most global and most popular of popular cultural phenomenon in the 21st century.” David Goldblatt, In The Age Of Football

World Cups are typically opportune and winning moments for brands - particularly for tournament sponsors. FIFA President Gianni Infantino estimates this year’s World Cup will be watched by 5 billion people, yet others argue viewership will be down with reports claiming up to 81% of people think home nations should boycott the sporting event. The 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar has been rife with controversy for over a decade. Now that it’s finally kicked off, there’s plenty more to discuss, not least that Qatar and FIFA have been called out for corruption and ‘sportswashing(the practice of using sports to improve reputations tarnished by wrongdoing).

This week’s 52INSIGHTS breaks down the big news so far - players’ attempts at protest, fan reaction and the role brands play in it all.


At first whistle, without pulling out of the tournament, football teams are using their position as a platform to stand up for basic human rights. A number of teams gathered together with a pledge to wear LGBTQIA+ armbands on the playing field. FIFA threatened teams with disciplinary action, with seven European nations deciding to no longer wear them, promising allyship in other ways. German players stayed committed, defying the threats by wearing their armbands and covering their mouths, as if gagged by FIFA. On their decision, the team had a united message that “it wasn’t about making a political statement – human rights are non-negotiable.” During the Iran Vs. England game, the Iranian team and fans used the moment to remind the world of the current violent regime against women in Iran, refusing to sing and booing the national anthem. The risk of this action is bigger than a yellow card - conservative politicians responded negatively to their actions, calling it a huge insult. Meanwhile, Black World Cup stars continue to be attacked online with racist slurs by Twitter Trolls (no surprise the platform was slow to act, busy with other drama).

Elsewhere off the pitch, other high profile names have been a part of the discourse, both good and bad. Artists like Shakira, Rod Steward and Dua Lipa all made statements that they would not perform at the World Cup. Pop icon Dua Lipa, who is known for being an LGBTQIA+ ally, said in her statement that she would visit Qatar once it has fulfilled all basic human rights pledges.

Other public statements (or lack of them) were deemed harmful - World Cup ambassador Khalid Salman was criticised for his harmful statements on the LGBTQIA+ community - while David Beckham has stayed silent in his role as a FIFA World Cup ambassador, with a reported £10 million deal. Scrolling on Beckham’s Instagram posts, plenty of upset fans have been expressing their disappointment. Comedian and activist Joe Lycett broke the internet with a message to him. Lycett’s platform for progress”, Benders Like Beckham, launched with a demand targeted at Beckham to end his relationship with Qatar, otherwise he would throw £10,000 into a shredder. Unsurprisingly, Beckham stayed quiet and Lycett followed through, breaking the internet even more, ending with a twist that was both an entertaining and inspiring action.

I never expected to hear from you - it was an empty threat, designed to get people talking. In many ways it was like your deal with Qatar, David: total bullsh*t from the start. I’m not even queer. Only joking! Joe Lycett to David Beckham on Twitter


Football is life for many, with many fans still unsure how to deal with this complicated situation. Even if many are calling for boycotts, 92% of fans still intend to tune in. Younger fans are more likely to question brands' sponsorship roles at the World Cup (22% of Gen Z vs 8% Millennials in a recent US survey), but what matters most to fans, (beyond the football itself) is the action and commitment teams are making to show up as an ally on and off the pitch.

Brazilian fans are no longer as enamoured with their iconic coloured jersey as it is now an emblem for the country’s new far-right President. According to YouGov, 52% of British football fans thought their team should have worn a rainbow armband regardless of the repercussions. Even fans in Qatar are pushing back and wearing rainbow hats against the rules.

In spite of all the controversy, one thing that still holds tough is rivalry, competition and moments of joy between nations, with fans still playing true to cultural stereotypes. Scottish fans are largely hoping that England doesn’t succeed. Known for being the politest fans, Japanese supporters took responsibility for their waste and cleaned up after themselves. “Queremos cerveza!" (“we want beer”) was chanted by supporters from Ecuador, left thirsty during their game.


Amnesty International claims that hundreds of thousands of immigrant workers in Qatar were exploited building World Cup infrastructure, with a reported 6,500 dying in the process, while FIFA profits. Brands and businesses are being challenged as to what position they should take given the now widespread knowledge of such violation of basic human rights.

Danish team sponsor Hummel were one of the first to make a statement in protest, removing the branding from the team uniforms. Australian organisation Socceroos shared a video statement calling out for basic human rights, sharing their message on the ‘values that should define football. Values such as respect, dignity, trust, and courage.’

Nike video series Home: Finding Our Place Through Sport challenges the stereotypes and narratives around displaced communities. Their latest video in the series, featuring Canadian star footballer Alfonso Davies. Davies shares his story of coming from a refugee camp in his voiceover. “I feel like refugees are underestimated. They didn’t choose to be there.”.

Shane O’Sullivan, Managing Director at Prism Sport + Entertainment, commented “Audiences will always remember brands that have acted on the side of right. But they'll definitely remember the brands who have acted on the wrong side of right or not acted at all.”

One example of this comes from Brewdog, a beer brand known for having a history of a brand with a toxic work culture. After revealing an ‘anti-sponsorship’ campaign, they were quickly called out for the hypocrisy of their actions, resulting in social media backlash. One Twitter user said - “How about you donate all the profits from all the beers sold during your *checks notes* in-venue screenings of all the matches?” Brewdog’s CEO has since confirmed that revenue and portions of profits will be donated to human rights charities fighting injustice in Qatar.

Meanwhile, Budweiser, who reportedly paid roughly $75 million to associate itself with the World Cup every four years, had to contend with a last-minute announcement by Qatari officials that no beer would be sold to fans in stadiums.


It’s been fascinating to see FIFA’s communications do them no favours in this difficult context. From FIFA president’s extraordinary speech defending Qatar and accusing the West of ‘moral hypocrisy’ to FIFA’s lofty claims of hosting a carbon neutral tournament (it’s estimated that the game will add millions of megatons of CO2 to the atmosphere) - the organisers haven’t done themselves any favours. One Twitter user said: “No amount of sportswashing can get rid of this stink.”


What’s your POV? - This World Cup is a stage on which some of the biggest global issues are getting spotlighted - with audiences that dwarf other sports. In today’s connected world, people increasingly want to know brands and businesses' viewpoints on social injustices that impact on basic human rights. The need for corporate and consumer comms teams to work together to proactively determine a brand’s positioning has never been greater. Brand guardians - be always prepared. You will be asked for your opinion, and more importantly what action you’re taking as a business.