Sport Diplomacy, Reputation, and Country Branding: Who will host the 2030 World Cup final?

Pau Solanilla

16 mins - 19 de Abril de 2024, 07:00

Sporting success has long been a powerful symbol of national or community pride. This is best exemplified by the notoriety and prestige of the Olympic Games, the world’s most important sporting event. Its beginnings date back to 776 BC in Ancient Greece and the city of Olympia. In those days, they were a series of athletic, wrestling and chariot-racing competitions contested by citizens of the many states that made up Greece. These Great Games culminated in a prize-giving ceremony in which each of the winners was proclaimed “the best among the Greeks” and received a crown of plants, made from the leaves of the tree consecrated to the various divinities who sponsored the Games: olive at Olympia, laurel at Delphi, fresh celery at Nemea and dried celery at Corinth. Sporting success was an element of prestige and reputation reflected in the epinicians or “victory odes” that the poet Pindar dedicated to the victors (Olympians, Isthmians, Pygmians, or Nemeans). These were poems almost always dedicated to chariot races, and the victory did not go to the driver, but to the owner of the winning chariot as a symbol of the high social rank of horse owners.

There we could situate the origin or germ of what we now call “sport diplomacy”, which refers to the capacity and influence of sport to bring people, nations and communities closer together through a shared passion for certain sporting activities. Likewise, sport diplomacy is underpinned by a shared purpose, that is, to promote values and life skills related to fair competition, values such as leadership, equality, non-violence, participation, or peaceful coexistence between nations, groups or communities.

In the modern era, as it was in ancient times for the various Greek states, sports diplomacy has become one of the most important levers of country-brand positioning, deployed as another tool in the external relations of nations, and even of cities or territories. The Swiss tennis player Roger Federer, one of the figures who enjoys great prestige on a global scale for representing values such as elegance, honesty and fair play, was awarded an honorary doctorate in 2017 by the University of Basel, his hometown. The award was given not so much in recognition of his sporting achievements, but for his contribution to Switzerland’s reputation. Another unique case is Nelson Mandela, who was able to project a renewed image of his country to the world during the rugby World Cup won by South Africa in 1995, instilling the spirit of one nation in blacks and whites. One of the best sports diplomacy operations in modern history, narrated by the journalist John Carlin in his book The Human Factor, which was later adapted into the film Invictus, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring world-renowned actors such as Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon.

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In the field of diplomacy and the reputation of the beautiful game, football, the English player Gary Lineker popularised a phrase that became engraved in the collective imagination after losing to Germany in the 1990s: “football is a game in which 22 men chase a ball and in the end Germany always wins”. A myth that Spain managed to shatter after successive victories at the 2008 and 2012 European Championships as well as in the 2010 World Cup final in South Africa thanks to Andrés Iniesta’s legendary goal. From that moment on, Spain rode on the back of a great sporting success story that has formed the backbone of its sporting diplomacy and country branding over the last decade. A story accompanied and complemented by the individual sporting feats and successes of figures such as the Gasol brothers or Rafa Nadal, elevating them to the category of symbols of national pride. Similarly, the successes of FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, equally global brands, complement and feed the story of a prestigious Spanish sports brand. The victories of the great sportsmen and women are celebrated in style, being received and treated as true heroes by presidents, ministers or mayors in multitudinous acts in a modern version of the rituals of Ancient Greece. Heroes who mobilise the emotions and passions of an entire country or territory and act as a balm and emotional community amalgam for the battered souls of many citizens, as shown, among others, by the celebrations of the victory of the Argentinean football team in the last World Cup in Qatar.

Sport Diplomacy and Reputational Economics
In addition to the emotional impact of sport, its economic impact is also an important incentive to deploy ambitious international sport diplomacy. In the case of Spain, the sports industry contributes around 3.3% of Spanish GDP and generates almost half a million jobs, according to a study by PwC Spain. International sporting success in major tournaments is a powerful instrument for generating economic value. Experts such as Marco Mello, the researcher and author of A kick for the GDP: the effects on winning the world cup, even claim that a country at risk of experiencing a “mild recession” can escape it thanks to winning the football World Cup, and even achieve GDP growth of at least an additional 0.25% in the two quarters after winning the World Cup. An example of this was Brazil, which after winning the 2002 World Cup in Korea and Japan increased its exports by 13% in the two quarters after winning the World Cup.

Similarly, the attraction of major sporting events mobilises thousands of people and moves hundreds of millions thanks to connectivity and millionaire global audiences, so countries and cities deploy their strategies and invest huge amounts of energy and resources in ambitious sports diplomacy actions to attract the world’s major sporting events. Organising the final of the Champions League in football, the Final Four in basketball, the Davis Cup in tennis, the World Championships in athletics, the Olympic Games, the World Cup in football, the F1 or the Ryder Cup in golf, are an attempt to combine the improvement of the positioning of the country brand with the generation of business and economic value and are the vectors that move and motivate today to a large extent the sports diplomacy of countries and territories.

A good example of the potential and growing complexity of sports diplomacy is the strategy of some Middle Eastern monarchies to use the attraction of sporting events and major sports figures as an instrument for their international projection. Their strategy involves placing sport at the service of the strategic interests of the country brand. One of the most paradigmatic cases is the holding of the football World Cup in Qatar 2022, which was accompanied by great controversy in many countries but which, paradoxically, was defined by experts and analysts as “the best final in the history of World Cups” with the epic victory of the Argentine national team over France. The final will go down in the annals of history as it consecrated Leonel Messi as the best football player in history and left a not inconsiderable legacy for the Arab world, both for the celebration of the World Cup in the Qatari country and for Morocco’s historic fourth place finish. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia’s strategy of buying sporting talent on the cheap, with Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo as its flagship, or the purchase of European football clubs such as Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain, is changing the rules of the game of international sporting diplomacy, bursting the seams of its traditional working method.

Sport and Emotions
In a “fast and furious” world that moves at a dizzying pace and in the face of a juxtaposition of crises, positive sports news is a good antidote to forget, if only momentarily, the different crises. Major sporting events and successes help to generate a more pleasant social atmosphere, generate positive collective emotions and allow us to escape from a complex reality that generates uncertainty. Emotions are the new energy that moves the world. They have an impact on human behaviour, as neurologist António Damásio explains in his book Descartes’ Error, coining the term “the somatic trace”, the mechanism by which emotions guide - or bias - people’s behaviour and decision-making. Emotions have an enormous impact on our civic-political behaviour, and the perception of sporting success creates positive mental states and a sense of shared purpose, of longings and dreams that are indispensable to (r)emote citizens and generate a strong sense of belonging. Successful sports diplomacy is mainly based on harnessing emotions to generate complicity, quality connections and favourable states of mind about countries, cities, teams or territories.

Spain, A Sporting Power with a Bad Story
Sports diplomacy is nothing more than the construction of a great story that is inserted into the collective imagination of individuals and groups. Countries, nations, cities and territories cannot choose the circumstances in which this takes place, but we can choose our dreams and build stories that partially contribute to improving our circumstances. Sports diplomacy is part of building an emotional bond with people as well as with public and published opinions, whether here or beyond, through a good story that marries or reconciles the yearnings of different communities. To do this, we have to design a delicate strategy of focusing our efforts in a mix of tactics and strategy, identifying opportunities to launch the right messages at the right moments. It is about knowing how to communicate our purpose while avoiding the risks of telling our story badly or having others tell a story that is alien to our interests and can erode our reputation and trust in our project. Similarly, reputation requires consistency and exemplarity between what we say we are and what we do, as it is basically a perception based on a set of shared beliefs. If a negative narrative is installed about our purpose, or our behaviour, the risks to our organisation, country, city or group multiply.

This is precisely what is happening to Spain’s sports diplomacy. It is a sporting power that is going through a major crisis of reputation and narrative on the eve of the organisation of the 2030 World Cup. The scandal and the deep crisis in the Spanish Football Federation, with the Rubiales case at the forefront, has opened a huge gap in the credibility and reputation of the Spanish brand at a sporting level. An unprecedented scenario after the women’s national team was proclaimed champions of the FIFA Women’s World Cup Australia and New Zealand 2023. A feat that was tarnished and diminished by the lamentable behaviour of the Federation’s president Luís Rubiales, which triggered worldwide condemnation and has uncovered the corruption and rottenness of the Federation’s top sports leaders. The scandal of Rubiales’ non-consensual kiss was not the cause, but the consequence of decades of ethical, moral and professional decadence of an organisation called to organise one of the most important sporting events in the world and for the country in the coming years and which is in charge of the management of tens of millions of public money as well as the management of non-professional sport.

All of this is particularly relevant for analysing the reputational impact for the Spain brand and its capacity to deploy a sports diplomacy strategy that will enable the design and implementation of an intelligent and effective strategy for the coming years. Spain, Portugal and Morocco submitted a joint bid to host the World Cup in 2030. FIFA gave that responsibility to the three neighbouring countries, although the first three matches will be played in Uruguay, Argentina and Paraguay to commemorate the centenary of the FIFA World Cup held in Uruguay in 1930. The first of these three matches will be played in the stadium where it all began, the mythical Estadio Centenario in Montevideo, but still to be decided is the “jewel in the crown”, i.e. where the final of the World Cup, probably the most important sporting event in the world, will be played.

Who will host the grand final of the World Cup 20230?
Many in Spain take it for granted that Spain will host the final, anticipating a close contest between the newly renovated Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid or the Camp Nou, which is under reconstruction. However, if the Spanish Football Federation’s reputation crisis is not resolved satisfactorily and with some speed, it may not be so obvious. Morocco has shown its ambition and willingness to host the final and will play its cards with intelligence and determination. The Moroccan authorities have launched the design of the new large stadium in Casablanca, which will have a capacity of 115,000 spectators and a planned budget of 460 million euros. To do so, they have awarded the project to the American firm Populous, responsible for the new Wembley stadium project, and aspire to have the largest and most modern stadium in the world, above the Bernabéu (80,000 seats) and the Camp Nou (105,000), a declaration of intent.

Some may think this is a pipe dream, but beware of complacency and underestimating Morocco’s ability to deploy a tactic and strategy to have a serious chance of success. If we agree that confidence building and reputation have become one of the most precious assets in today’s world, the Maghreb country has gained significant ground, especially in sporting terms. Its fourth-place finish at the World Cup in Qatar in 2022 has given it a global sporting profile, and in October 2023 Marrakech hosted the annual meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, consolidating its image for hosting major international events.

Morocco has been preparing for this moment for years after five unsuccessful attempts to host the World Cup on its own. Morocco’s ambitious plan to build and renovate stadiums for the 2030 World Cup has a budget of 1.3 billion euros and includes six other stadiums - Tangiers, Casablanca, Rabat, Agadir, Marrakech, and Fez - in addition to the one in Casablanca. Similarly, our southern neighbour will host and organise the 2025 Africa Cup of Nations, the African continent’s major sporting event.

So nothing has been decided. The coming period will see an interesting struggle between the sports diplomacy and country branding of Spain and Morocco. The traditional power of European countries has weakened considerably and has lost much of its ability to impose its will. Today it is more important to seduce and excite than to impose or coerce. Influence and reputation have become the most efficient software in international organisations in which reputational capital is a critical factor. Spain arrives at this final sprint out of sorts and without figures who have the moral authority and recognition to lead this process. It would be desirable that the Spanish Football Federation, and the Spanish Government, set about the task of interpreting the new physical, social and emotional cartography in which the world of football moves in order to have solid options to host the World Cup final, and it would be a mistake to take it for granted.

The credibility of Spain’s sporting diplomacy and especially of the Federation, which is in charge of organising the World Cup, has been seriously damaged in the eyes of FIFA and a large part of the world. The task of rebuilding it must be undertaken as a matter of urgency by putting at the head of the World Cup organisation and international sports diplomacy a team capable of managing the interim and complexity of the Federation efficiently and stopping the bleeding of a scandal that is damaging the image of Spanish football and sport. But be careful, the promotion of the country’s image and the reputation of the world of football is much more than one or several communication campaigns. It is above all a promise of value that is associated with a series of expectations. Projecting an image of competitiveness, capacity and confidence requires coherent transmission of key messages about the country’s values and attributes that are built through facts and intelligent management between what we say we are (storytelling) and what we actually do (storydoing).  We urgently need to align sports diplomacy with reputation and country branding; we have much more at stake than the organisation of the World Cup final.
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