Sport

The Qatar World Cup should be a watershed moment in sports journalism

Hours before the World Cup final in Qatar, a diplomatic delegation from the three host countries of the 2026 World Cup – Canada, Mexico and the United States – met with dignitaries in the coastal city of Doha to hand over responsibility for the 2026 edition of the tournament.

The delegation, represented by Canada’s transport minister Omar Alghabra, US ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield and Mexican Football Federation president Yon de Luisa, were photographed receiving a ceremonial ball from Sheikh Joaan bin Hamad Al Thani, president of the Qatar Olympic Committee. The symbolic gesture signaled the closing stages of one of the most controversial sporting events in modern history – an event marked by show-stopping soccer, appalling human rights abuses, and dystopian displays of wealth and luxury.

And despite accusations of bribery, abuses of migrant workers, and the criminalization of same-sex relationships, the wealthy Gulf peninsula succeeded in hosting the world’s most popular sporting event, culminating in a thrilling match between France and Argentina that will be remembered as one of the best tournament finals in decades.

Now, following back-to-back World Cups hosted by autocratic regimes in Russia and Qatar, the 2026 edition will signal the quadrennial tournament’s return to democratic nations for the first time since 2014. While this may be a cause for relief and celebration for some, it is vital that sports journalists continue to apply the same critical lens they’ve applied to Qatar to other host countries.

For years, journalists at the Guardian, among others, have been at the forefront of reporting on the intersection of politics at the World Cup in Qatar. From investigative pieces uncovering the exploitation of migrant workers and the resulting death toll to thoughtful pieces reflecting on the ways authoritarian states stand to benefit from hosting prestigious sports events, the reportage has helped breathe new life into sports journalism, rightfully demanding that reporters expand their coverage beyond what takes place on the pitch.

However, the work should not end there.

While it was easy to find fault in Qatar given its autocratic nature and well-documented human rights abuses, it is essential that those same journalists approach all future international sports events, including those in the Western world, with a similar critical lens in order to avoid the perception of hypocrisy, orientalism and journalistic posturing.

For example, the 2024 edition of the Uefa European Championships is scheduled to take place in Germany, a country that is currently in the midst of a socio-economic and energy crisis. Germany has also seen a rise in far-right extremism with nearly 24,000 far-right crimes recorded by police in 2020 alone. Official government reports have also found more than 300 cases of far-right extremism in Germany’s top security agencies, further emphasizing the problem.

Looking ahead to the 2026 World Cup – a tournament spanning 16 cities across three countries – there is no shortage of concerns worthy of critical journalism. The vast majority of the games will take place in the United States, a country that has withstood a tempestuous few years marred with an attempted insurrection, a marked increase in mass shootings, longstanding racial injustice towards Black Americans and people of color, and increasing legal regulation of gender minorities, including women and transpersons. Surely those subjects warrant coverage in the context of the 2026 World Cup.

It is also worth noting that while a portion of the critical coverage of this year’s World Cup shed light on Qatar’s criminalization of homosexuality, we, as journalists, would be remiss not to mention that the United States has seen a significant increase in attacks on the LGBTQ+ community. Back in May, US president Joe Biden warned of “disturbing setbacks and rising hate and violence” targeting LGBTQ+ peoples. Biden’s warning came amidst a slew of anti-LGBTQ+ bills being introduced in state legislature throughout the country, and only months before a mass shooting occurred at a LGBTQ+ nightclub in Colorado Springs left five people dead.

Meanwhile, under a new directive from Texas governor Greg Abbott, families with trans kids are fleeing the state after facing child abuse investigations for providing gender-affirming care.

The United States is also not above criticism when it comes to the role the country plays in propping up authoritarian regimes around the world. This includes Qatar, a country that hosts the largest American military base in the Middle East and which Biden officially designated as a major non-Nato ally in a presidential declaration. The US even approved a $1bn arms deal with Qatar during the US men’s national team World Cup match against Iran – an incident that went sorely underreported.

North of the border in Canada, the situation is not much better. The second-largest nation in the world is currently reckoning with its colonial past and its systemic intergenerational oppression of Indigenous peoples, including the notorious residential school system, which involved the Canadian state forcibly removing Indigenous children from their families and communities and sequestering them in residential schools usually thousands of miles away from their home. These schools were rife with physical, sexual and emotional abuse, and have been described as sites of cultural genocide. The last of these schools was shut down in 1996.

In May 2021, a mass grave of 215 children was found at a residential school in British Columbia, one of the two provinces that will host matches at the 2026 World Cup. And despite its stated commitment to reconciliation, the Canadian government is yet to label its past treatment of Indigenous people as genocide.

Canada is also under scrutiny for its treatment of migrant workers under the country’s Temporary Foreign Worker program. Recent reports suggest that workers are poorly paid and abused while also being denied the rights afforded to Canadian residents and citizens. After years of reporting on Qatar’s migrant worker’s crisis, many sports journalists should now be adequately equipped to apply their skills to other societal contexts, including the West.

There are countless examples of concerns worthy of extensive reporting ahead of the 2026 tri-nation World Cup. And while each of the three host countries has repeatedly restated its commitment to human rights and democratic freedoms, it is crucial that sports journalists continue to hold their governments accountable. This is especially true as sports continue to have significant geo-political and socio-economic influence.

Over the past decade, I have made a career of reporting on the intersection of sports and politics around the world. My reporting spans more than two dozen countries in six continents, covering everything from the beautiful game to the sweet science. Consequently, that experience has helped shape my understanding of the role that sports play in the modern political landscape. However, the most recent edition of the World Cup was the first time I felt the topic was part of a prevailing narrative rather than a one of niche consideration. I would like to believe that this profound shift is not a temporary one and that we will not return to the worn-out cliché of keeping sports out of politics.

If we want the legacy of this World Cup to be a watershed moment in how we report on the intersection of sports and politics, it is vital that journalists continue to reflect and report on that intersection at the next World Cup and other future global sports events in democratic countries.

We have crossed the Rubicon. There is no turning back now.