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Guest: Nick Sprague,  a sports and technology entrepreneur and chairman of Love.futbol, a global NGO.

The Qatar World Cup is a clear – maybe too clear – example of the increasingly gray line between politics and sports. Just look at the European politicians arrested last week in Belgium for accepting Qatari bribes. So, what are the soccer predictions and the policy takeaways from the world’s largest sports gathering?

As the first soccer World Championship to be held in the Middle East, the Qatar World Cup is both historic and controversial. And the political controversies have been on full display – from LGBTQ rights to defending Iran’s protesters, the world was watching. Are these political debates the new normal? Our guest and friend Nick Sprague, a sports analyst and tech entrepreneur who traveled to Doha for the World Cup, joined us to talk about the event we can’t stop watching and all the global implications.

Nick Sprague was there and we are very jealous. So, we asked him about the atmosphere. Sprague explained, “It looks like about 400,000 to 500,000 fans traveled in, which is well short of the 2 million fans that the tournament was hoping to attract. […] I think that they will look back and lament really a tactical error that was made, which was there was price gouging on airfare and lodging at the last minute. […] That really cut against the whole idea of subsidizing the event in excess of $200 billion to get as many people to come as possible.”

The decision to choose Qatar as the host was tainted with controversy and corruption. What happened? How did we get here? And how will FIFA come out after the games finish? “Almost everyone [at FIFA] who was involved with awarding this tournament to Qatar over a decade ago is no longer around, even on the Qatari side. […] But it’s noteworthy to me that the show has gone on and that tells me that the decision to play this tournament in Qatar is a bit more institutionalized than kind of the transactional things that have always come up when discussing the tournament’s origin and awarding.[…] This is the first time the Middle East has hosted a World Cup. And once that decision was made, I think it was very tricky for any of these litanies of new stakeholders that have stepped in to change that despite the reputational damage that many have suffered as a result of it,” notes Sprague.

There are so many stakeholders from world leaders, corporations, real estate typhoons, FIFA, the players, and the media, to name some. We asked Sprague to draw a map of the political landscape. He responded, “If you take the different stakeholders- like the corporates as an example- there were some brands that decided to sit this tournament out because of the noise surrounding it. But overall, it’s been record sponsorship revenue for FIFA. So in general, the response has been this is a massive event that transcends the world, and I want in on it. I think the media coverage of this tournament has been extremely high, regardless of which angle they’re covering it. […] If you take it from the players’ perspective the tournament continues to be a life-altering event. […] So I think if you kind of look at these things, there is an alignment of stakeholders across the ecosystem of sports – and the World Cup being a very good example of it- where increased money and power and influence into sport is, in general, a good thing. And, as we know, where we have money and power, the politics will always follow.”

But there is also a dark side to politics and sports. We have already seen backlashes and it seems to be getting worse. Altamar’s Muni Jensen asked, “Is this going to dissolve into a self-interested industry? What do you think is going to be the evolution of this trend?” Sprague said, “Well, we’re not there yet. I think the backlashes that we’ll continue to see are going to be specific. So, take the Russian oligarchs having to sell their ownership stakes in English Premier League teams in the aftermath of the Ukraine invasion. […] that’s a clear example where you will have occasions where sports will move to accommodate the broader societal pressure and a backlash will occur, but it’s still narrow and specific to particular things. Because the overall alignment that I was just mentioning of money and power and influence is still too valuable for the stakeholders across the board to look the other way.”

Let’s talk soccer. We asked about a political debate between two friends: One friend says, “All is not terrible. We have a few good stories coming out of this World Cup. One is the 5 African teams and their coaches, showing the world that they are serious players in the soccer world.” Another friend says,” yeah, but in the end, all this excitement about new teams from Africa and the Middle East teams is like a shooting comet. In the end, Ghana lost badly, and Senegal lost badly, as did the other fun novices such as the US, Canada and Australia. We are ending up with all the usual suspects.”  Which friend is right? Sprague laughed and responded. “The second friend is right. There’s a club of eight winners. It’s Brazil, Argentina, France, England, Germany, Spain, Uruguay, and Italy. […] It’s so hard because the depth of the talent pool that the traditional powers bring to the table. […] You mentioned a few [new clubs] that could produce an exceptionally talented generation of players who maybe with 11 really good starters that can be on the field at that level. Then you look at Brazil and France’s 26-man rosters, and you realize that there’s almost no drop-off from player number 3 on the roster to player number 26. […] And you think how hard it is to get through seven games against teams with that kind of depth and to be the last man standing.”

How did the United States do? Altamar Peter Schechter asked, “I found the United States to be once again fully what it is always in these World Cups, which is disappointing. Do you disagree?” Sprague did disagree, This tournament marked a before and after for US soccer. The tournament was somewhat shocking because we saw two European blue bloods, England and the Netherlands concede possession and control of the game to the US. This is unprecedented for US soccer. […] What’s happened in the US is now you’ve got this huge professional league in MLS with almost 30 teams that have been operating for three decades now, and you’ve got a scouting and development pipeline that’s drawing on a massive number of people, 330 million people.”

In her youth and social justice-themed segment on Altamar, Téa Ivanovic asked about Qatar cracking down on players wearing One Love armbands. She asked, “What has been the result for the gay community and then in general the discussion around it?” Sprague responded, “I think is going to be ultimately a net positive for gay rights in the region. And I say that because I was really surprised how much discussion on the topic was generated in places that it was not discussed before.”

We finished by asking about the next tournament in 2026. We are already counting down the days. The United States, Mexico, and Canada will jointly host. What will the driving political message be? Sprague said, “This tournament in 2026 is explicitly commercial. I think it’s going to be because of the commercial nature of the tournament, it will be hard for political issues to break through because it’s going to be like 11 simultaneous Super Bowls being played out throughout the United States, which as we know is the world’s largest media market.”

What will the legacy of this World Cup be? Will FIFA’s reputation rebound?  Find out more by listening to the latest Altamar episode, available wherever you get your podcasts. You can download the episode here.

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Episode 141