Skip to content Skip to navigation

Loughborough University London Blog

Other Blogs

Playing Politics: Public Diplomacy in Football 

16 February 2024

5 mins

By Eamonn West, Winner of the 2022 Dissertation Prize in the Institute for Diplomacy and International Governance, Loughborough University London 

The blurring of politics and international relations into more mundane aspects of our daily lives has always proven extremely interesting to me. It’s easy to write off international politics as focused on grand conferences between superpowers or diplomatic deliberations on issues on the other side of the world. Yet, the interconnected world of today facilitates a level of public diplomacy never seen before and is fascinating.  

Thailand’s government funds Thai restaurants and chefs abroad to help establish their international presence through gastro-diplomacy, IKEA works in unintentional tandem with Sweden to improve Sweden’s global image, and Denmark even recreated their whole country in the video game Minecraft and allowed people to download it for free. Establishing a presence in the international public’s consciousness and expanding soft power has become a critical objective of a nation-state’s diplomatic ambition- and is a fresh, exciting and understudied aspect of international relations. However, while states may aim to improve their soft power through unique and modern methods, this is not always the case- soft power campaigns can backfire, shining a negative light on the state and causing soft disempowerment.  

Sport is a particularly useful medium to communicate with a global audience due to both it’s scale and popularity, as well as the intense emotional bond it causes, resonating with people regardless of geography or social dividers. While all sports are observing an increase in state involvement, football- as the world’s most popular game- acts as an excellent case study for the broader ramifications of this trend in sport. As a football fan myself, I’m particularly drawn to the involvement of states in the sport I love, especially as it is an exponentially increasing trend. Thus, I decided to focus my dissertation on the role of public diplomacy within football specifically.  

Originally I had the intention to analyse the involvement of specific states within football, and evaluate their various strategies, successes and failures; however, it became apparent early in the research process that their strategies were often similar and intertwined. As such, therefore, my dissertation instead focused on evaluating the different methods states use to increase their involvement in football. I identified three primary methods: hosting sporting mega-events, sports club ownership, and sports club sponsorship. On top of this, I also identified three primary actors which used these methods; the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, who would remain my focus throughout.  

The role of mega-events in football and sports through the lens of international relations has much more research than other aspects, despite this arena of public diplomacy being heavily understudied. It is understandable why; they seize global international attention and can prove to be an efficient tool in presenting a tailored image to the outside world. The primary benefit and risk attached to mega-events is the level of attention and discussion surrounding them. While they can prove to be colossal events which put their respective countries on the map, they can also bring significant focus on the negative aspects of the country. Qatar’s 2022 World Cup is a recent clear example of both soft power gain and soft disempowerment- being both a great success in establishing Qatar’s brand internationally, yet marred with major attention on their human rights violations. 

Both sports club ownership and sports club sponsorship benefit from the institution the state is attaching itself to. Mega-events are highly effective, but short term- they bring global attention, but for a limited period of time, and thus require a broader, comprehensive strategy to be a part of. Conversely, the strength of sports club ownership and sponsorship is the long-term and medium-term attachment that it brings. Mega-events primarily influence perceptions over the course of the event itself, whereas club ownership and sponsorship benefit from influence whenever their club plays, week in, and week out. They even benefit in the off-season, with discussions about clubs due to transfers, with specific players from countries bringing localised attention from new regions.  

There are several strategies within sponsoring or purchasing specific clubs; the UAE model of the City Football Group purchases numerous clubs across the globe, creating international networks which benefit each other, as well as diversifying the nation’s image across football. Qatar instead has focused primarily on one club- Paris Saint-Germain, utilising its location in Paris to strengthen diplomatic ties with France, and co-opt the fashion-focused brand of the city. Both sponsorship and ownership perform similar roles but diverge around cost and direct attachment to the club- sponsoring a club is cheaper, but carries less potential for association- therefore reducing risk but also the potential benefits. 

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed researching this topic and exploring deeper into the sport which consumes far too much of my life. The links between states and sports seem only set to deepen, and I believe much greater academic attention should be paid to this growing realm of public diplomacy.  

Loughborough University London

Blogging everything that’s happening at Loughborough University London

Scroll to Top