LONDON – After leading Britain for a decade, believing society was becoming more tolerant, Tony Blair cannot comprehend how the national sport is being blighted by racism.
"I've been noticing and reading and hearing about it coming back in to football," the former British prime minister said in an interview with The Associated Press. "This is really shocking to me."
Anti-discrimination campaigners in English soccer have cataloged a rise in discrimination from the grassroots to the professional game in the Premier League, and particularly players being targeted with racial insults on social media.
England and Tottenham defender Danny Rose has even spoken about looking forward to the end of his playing career to try to escape the specter of racist abuse at home and abroad.
"We thought, not that we had got rid of (racism in soccer), but we thought it had become completely beyond the pale for people to engage in it," said Blair, who served as prime minister from 1997-2007. "And yet now it's back. So I think that's something to watch."
Blair was speaking ahead of the Sport Industry awards ceremony where he was honoring his former culture secretary, Tessa Jowell, who helped London win the right to stage the Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2012 and died last year.
Blair also played a central role in lobbying for votes before the International Olympic Committee decision in 2005, bringing the games to the British capital for the third time.
"It gave Britain a great image in the world," Blair said.
It shows why mega sporting events like the World Cup and Olympics are pursued to project soft power, used by countries with questionable human rights records and limited democratic freedoms to try to cleanse their image in what activists call "Sportswashing."
"If the sporting event — provided it is done in a good way and in a way that is respectful of differences and harmonious and well put together — usually having these events helps engage a country," Blair said. "Even one with a difficult say, human rights record, with the outside world."
Blair stoked criticism after leaving Downing Street over his choice of countries to advise, including Kazakhstan and the United Arab Emirates. Now he runs the Institute for Global Change.
"I always, whenever I am in a country and they've got the opportunity or possibility of hosting a sporting event, I say, 'Go for it,'" Blair said, without discussing a particular country. "Because whatever the challenges of putting it on, you'll reach a different group of people. ... Diplomacy and politics and geostrategy and all of that stuff is for a limited number of people, whereas sport — it goes right out into the grassroots of communities all around the world."
Few sports events have attracted as much scrutiny from human rights groups as the Qatar World Cup, and it is still more than three years away. Under pressure over poor workings conditions, Qatar has implemented some changes to labor laws.
"I tend to think that engagement is important for the future," Blair said. "So the more you can kind of keep political criticism out of sport, the better I think most of the time."
Geopolitical tensions, though, are affecting preparations for the Middle East's first World Cup in 2022. Diplomatic, economic and travel ties were severed with Qatar in June 2017 by neighbors, including Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The regional boycott not only prevents fans — as it stands — from flying into Doha from those surrounding countries but also prevents them being part of FIFA's push to expand the hosting in the Persian Gulf.
"It's a difficult situation," Blair said. "I hope in time it can be resolved in a in a good way for all sides. You've got to hope so. But I'm sure, whatever happens, these great sporting events will always be able to rise above politics. Very occasionally they don't and they can't, but mainly they do. And we've had successful sporting events in countries that have had quite severe issues or problems and challenges and they've still managed to put on a great event."
Rob Harris is at www.twitter.com/RobHarris and www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports