Who’ll win the sports diplomacy World Cup?

Whether or not underdog Morocco pulls off another upset by beating France in the men’s soccer World Cup semifinals on Wednesday in Qatar, one thing is certain: a being the first African and Arab country to get this far in the biggest sporting event on the planet has put Morocco on the world map.

The Atlas Lions, as the team is known, may not have expected such an amazing run, but their overachievement is no coincidence. It is the result of decades of heavy investment by the kingdom in developing its players as part of Morocco’s wider sporting diplomacy – which now has something to show for it.

Hold up. What yes sports diplomacy? This is “when the acts of diplomacy – communication, representation and negotiation – cross the world of sports, whether on the field or off it,” says Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff, who has experience on a thing or two about sports diplomacy since she teaches it. at NYU.

It can be formal when done by governments or an athlete representing a country, or informal – like the privately run NBA’s effort to make basketball a global game. But the goal is always the same: to bring awareness to your country or your sport so that you can “sell” it to the world.

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Although success in sport is ≠ success in politics, it boosts a national brand. A good example is Croatia, a country of less than 4 million that has only been independent for 30 years. Four years ago, it is often said that France won the World Cup but Croatia won the hearts of fans around the world by making it all the way to the final of the tournament in Russia.

Her pacifist streak gave Croatia a short punch above its small diplomatic weight and global footprint. According to one study, during the competition tourism website visits increased by 250% – a big thing for a country that makes 20% of its GDP from foreign visitors.

Symbolism is important, too. Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, the president of Croatia at the time, stepped in to show her support for the national team in Russia. She won global acclaim for travel in economy class with fans, giving customized jerseys to world leaders, and trying to pour down to comfort the players after losing to France in Moscow. The president made her country look cool – just what you want to encourage foreign investment and tourism.

(Unfortunately for Grabar-Kitarović, she became more famous abroad than popular with Croatian voters, losing re-election in 2020.)

We’re not saying it had anything to do with the World Cup, but since then Croatia has hit some big political milestones. In 2020, he was leading the EU in the middle of a pandemic. Next year it will adopt the euro and join Schengen, the European ID-free travel zone. And their football team can still make the final in Qatar! Not bad for a country born from the ashes of war in 1992.

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At the same time, it is almost certain that Morocco will benefit from shining in the World Cup. A quick video from the Moroccan tourism board dominates half-time adverts at the tournament across Europe, which means the government is keen to invest in the success of the Atlas Lions. The key is to build on the reputation the players have brought to the country to get the most bang for your sports diplomacy buck.

“It’s nice to make a print, but you want to do more than just go into the history books,” Krasnoff explains. “You want to maintain that to the highest level of get miles out of your investment.”

Furthermore, even if it does not translate immediately into political power or foreign investment, the importance of being seen on such a large scale in the world cannot be overemphasized. But it can also go very wrong.

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Of course, there is such a thing as going too far when investing in sports diplomacy. That is what happened to Qatar, which more than ten years ago not only “won” the right to host the World Cup but also launched BeIN, a global sports channel under the network Al -Jazeera, which bought the French football club PSG.

Since then, the Qataris have backtracked on the alleged bribes involved in their bid as well as their human rights record, BeIN has lost the rights to several major air competitions, and traditional European fans have been hurting PSG for being. nouveau riche. Money may attract mega stars like Leo Messi to Paris, but it won’t buy respect for romantics who just love the Beautiful Game.

So, who will benefit the most from sports diplomacy in Qatar 2022? The promises are very different for Morocco and the host country.

After a dismal performance on the pitch, super-rich Qatar and a regional soft power can take credit for hosting the World Cup with the best race for the Arab world. But on the pitch, less wealthy and influential Morocco has captured the imagination of Arab and non-Arab fans alike – with none of Qatar’s political baggage.


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