Blood Sport: Covid-19’s Troubling Legacy
Many thanks to Forbes.com who published this article (which quotes redcardcovid19’s founders, Veera G. & Greig H.) on June 25th. Check out Will Nicoll’s original article here.
The rise of soccer in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Nicaragua during the coronavirus pandemic poses serious questions for the beautiful game’s ethics. These questions hit the Western press on June 12 when Burundi’s former president Pierre Nkurunziza became the first world leader to die from Covid-19.
An internationally sanctioned Christian evangelist (who played center-forward for his own soccer team, Hallelujah FC), Nkurunziza deliberately used sport to turn world attention from a contentious election. In a vote marred by social media blackouts and intimidation, Nkurunziza successfully brought his annointed successor, Évariste Ndayishimiye, to office in a campaign in which hundred lost their lives. In the process, the late president caused his own death.
Covid-19 And The Rise Of Soccer Tyrants
Nkurunziza’s two great loves were football and power. Until his death, the dictator demolished opposition parties, shut down dissent with force and kept Burundi’s league playing throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. The top flight of soccer in the country, known as the Amstel League, became the only association on the continent to play league matches in Africa “with up to 12,000 spectators in the stands.”
While spreading word of Ndayishimiye’s potential (interspersed with the New Testament), Nkurunziza was of course spreading the coronavirus himself. While Nkurunziza was particularly violent, other tyrants have employed similar tactics.
Examples include Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Belarus. Countless pictures have circulated on social media showing the president of Tajikistan, Emomali Rahmon, with his son, Rustam Emomali, breaking social-distancing rules that the Tajik regime itself mandates.MORE FOR YOUAs Belarus Elects A President, Soccer Fans Should Speak Out Against ‘Europe’s Last Dictator’Why Ireland Raised $3 Million For Native Americans Hit By CoronavirusThe Wealthy Have Their Election Escape Plan Ready
The younger Emomali also happens to own the soccer team Istiklol FC (where he once played as striker, before graduating to manager and owner). Teams that beat Emomali’s have been fined or arrested. He has now transitioned from soccer to mayor of the country’s capital city, Dushanbe, and principal speaker in the country’s senate.
Turkmenistan, which ranks alongside North Korea among the most authoritarian nations on earth, has seen the coronavirus pandemic as cause for a renewed, absurd and deadly play at dispelling bad press. The nation is selling a vision of sport as the solution to Covid-19 via countless outdoor displays of athleticism and league fixtures with fans in the stands. President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, who calls himself “the protector,” enjoys guns, helicopters and other tough-guy antics (as reported beautifully by CBS LastWeekLive host John Oliver). Apparently, he also loves cycling. As the Economist reported, the dictator’s decision to assemble 7,000 cyclists in the capital, Ashgabat, for World Health Day on April 7 “can still be considered the most reckless celebration of public health ever undertaken.” Instead of speaking up to power, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) decided to grant Turkmenistan’s president its highest accolade. The UCI then announced that Turkmenistan would host the 2021 World Track Cycling Championships. Double standards in sport and ethics arise every day, but given Turkmenistan’s reputation for torture, that particular public-relations coup for a despot is incredible. For context, as Eurasianet.org reported, Berdymukhamedov “marshaled thousands of spectators into packed stadiums to celebrate Horse Day” later the same month.
As Eurasianet added, Berdymukhamedov was determined (by absolutely impartial judges) to have the most beautiful horse in show. He is pictured in this link petting it. I am grateful to Eurasianet.org for locating this image and suggest anyone interested in the horse show refer to their coverage of Central Asia’s Covid-19 crisis. But back to sport, and straight to the point.
Could anything other than a global pandemic have led international organizations and corporations to play ball with governments that are so authoritarian, and also so absurd?
Sport’s primary driver is, of course, cash. That has led to pressure during the pandemic, with alternate revenue streams taking center stage for any company with a stake.
Gambling companies and broadcasters have been squeezed by the loss of revenue. For some, soccer in poor countries far away has become a diversion, a sad side show for fans who don’t realize the regimes this type of business activity supports, or the league players it kills.
These isolated regimes have become lone lights on betting sites for others to enjoy. Countless pieces on which teams to back litter the internet. Veera G. and Greig Hunter (who recently set up a small NGO called Redcardcovid19.org, which aims to highlight human rights violations by leagues like those I mention) pointed me to this odds explainer by BWin’s Italian subsidiary, published on the May 21.
As Veera G. told me by phone, “that roundup of odds on games in Burundi by BWin left me speechless. Burundi’s president was sanctioned for the death of about 1,200 people. Belarus is known to torture people. Maybe I’m naive, but in ordinary circumstances would anyone sane do deals with those sorts of dictatorships? It’s a damn big red flag to swerve, right?”
Some international companies appear to be involved in betting on these leagues, although this may be a result of misrepresentation by the countries concerned (which are notorious for spreading disinformation). Lest I defame any multinational conglomerate mistakenly, I wish (or rather must) state that myriad intermediaries, third-party contractors and joint-venture partners handle trademarks abroad for big companies and may legally make them blameless for betting deals or business activities in sanctioned or authoritarian countries.
It struck me as odd, though, that Tajikistan Football Federation presents Coca Cola as its sponsor. MyCujoo broadcasts the country’s matches globally. Betting companies have offered odds on soccer games in the countries I reference since March. This odds appraisal by BetFair focuses on odds in Turkmenistan and Tajikistan (referencing comedy character Alan Partridge’s catchphrase in its title for macabre detail).
As Nadejda Atayeva, president of the Association for Human Rights for Central Asia (AHRCA), told me by email, “Tajikistan has already surpassed all the countries of Central Asia in the number of political prisoners jailed, political emigrants who have fled, and in labor migrants elsewhere. The country now surpasses its neighbors in the numbers of victims of COVID-19, thanks to the holding of mass sport events. No matter how the authorities hide the number of victims of this virus, the consequences of widespread corruption and false propaganda no longer inspire confidence.”
Corporations are apparently more confident than human rights campaigners, though. I should add that BWin seem to have postponed bets on Tajikistan for now (in favor of its authoritarian neighbor Uzbekistan). Many sites, including PaddyPower, still offer odds on Belarus Premier League games.
What Is The Threat To Sport’s Global Reputation?
Simon Leigh, 34, is the founder of online reputation management agency Pure Reputation. The London-based firm has led many successful influence campaigns since 2011, defending both individual and corporate clients against efforts by competitors, ex-employees, ex-colleagues and others to discredit them online.
Leigh’s company works to remove a range of negative content from the internet, including negative reviews, forum threads, blog posts, images and videos, which made him a useful sounding board for just how bad the risk is to sport’s global reputation. (I should add that Leigh has worked with high-level sports clients, including ones in the UK Premier League, as well as clients in gambling.) So will international companies face risks to their reputations in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic?
“It is important that companies, especially in gambling, an industry that has a delicate reputation already, align themselves with positive causes and show they are part of the greater community,” Leigh told me by phone. “Being seen to support the Belarus league playing during the pandemic is irresponsible, and not in the spirit of the times. The same is true of Tajikistan’s Super Cup, which led at least one official involved in the league to die. Everyone is losing out, but as they say, we are all in this together.”
I pointed out to Leigh that the adage of togetherness is also used by FIFA, whose former president Sepp Blatter currently faces allegations of impropriety in respect to financial interactions with Trinidad and Tobago. Leigh pointed out that Blatter (in his biography) describes how Swiss authorities requested that he travel to Burundi to offer the late President Nkurunziza the position of “extraordinary ambassador to FIFA” on the condition that he cede power and resign.
“There is no adage here for me,” Leigh told me. “I believe it’s a time for businesses and individuals to be cautious. Companies have less people in the office to counteract negative press as effectively as they did before the crisis. Reputation management is not an afterthought. It should be in the back of companies’ minds with every decision they make, but it is difficult to justify any logic to foreign companies offering betting opportunities to customers in a jurisdiction where multiple sanctions and red flags apply.”
Showing Covid-19 The Red Card?
Veera G. (whom I’ve quoted in past articles) is CEO of Aggrandize Digital Solutions and has been in regular contact with updates on how he and his friend Greig Hunter (first name omitted) have taken steps to highlight how multinationals are making a mistake by at least appearing to be present in the dictatorships I first wrote about in May for Forbes.
Veera and Greig, who has worked for charities as a communications consultant and now acts in the same role for a separate NGO, created Red Card Covid-19 because of their shared experiences of what human rights abuse in soccer was doing “to the sport we watch, the people we know and the way this is monetizing human rights violations instead of reflecting on
the role sport has played in the pandemic,” they explained by Skype. “I am not stating that Coca Cola is responsible for sponsoring Tajikistan’s top league, but Coca Cola’s name certainly appears all over the league table. If it were my brand, I’d condemn that.”
“Covid-19 has made corruption more pervasive and insidious. Globally, in every sector, we’re seeing a spike in money laundering, sanctions compliance concerns and a lot of gray areas caused by the pandemic. Certain entities and individuals are really doing sport a disservice by putting operating profit above human life. Our supporters are in civil society and business, and we will soon be publishing their perspectives on sport in the pandemic.”
What about multinational outreach? Dozens of pictures on social media show Coca Cola’s name on scoreboards in Tajikistan’s top league, while the brand’s 2018 sponsorship deal totaled $30 million.
“So far we haven’t had any contact, emails or endorsements from the big multinationals,” Veera told me. “However, this is a very new initiative, and we are still moving forward. I remain hopeful that someone might contact us and show that they take human rights seriously.”
Having researched this subject in depth, and been offered too many insights to cover here, I find it impossible to ignore the ethical questions that arise from the behavior of dictators, brands and multinationals during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Even if the actual human rights atrocities committed on the ground in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Belarus and Burundi were deflected by using sport as a decoy, the money does often flow to the West.
The dictators I mention have certainly been enabled (or, at worst, tolerated) by Western companies that could have flagged their disdain very publicly. To my knowledge, they haven’t. Given the number of documents released to me during this article’s research and planned nation-specific insights, I’d value any views from the industry itself on soccer during Covid-19. The role of Central Asia and Africa during the first quarter of 2020 is a true phenomenon that I’ll be writing on in due course.