German champions Bayern Munich will no longer wear the logo of Qatar Airways on their sleeve, or anywhere else, after announcing an end to a controversial commercial deal on Wednesday.
"The contract between FC Bayern and Qatar Airways ends by mutual agreement on 30 June 2023 after five very exciting years together," the club confirmed in a statement that went on to say:
"Both partners have actively promoted an exchange between cultures. It has always been the goal of FC Bayern and Qatar Airways to connect people through football, including women's football. Trusting, open exchanges have created friendships that will continue."
Qatar's position on LGBT rights, dissent and other human rights issues have come increasingly under the spotlight of late, after widespread criticism of the World Cup last year. Meanwhile, the country's efforts to buy Manchester United and Saudi Arabia's moves in both football and golf have ensured that sportswashing, particularly from middle eastern countries is increasingly scrutinized in sections of the media in public.
In Munich, Bayern's sleeve sponsorship deal and other business partnerships with Qatar has attracted sustained criticism from supporters, who have protested against the relationship with banners at matches and motions and speeches at annual general meetings.
Though the very amicable language and somewhat dubious claims in the statement may not entirely appease those who opposed the Bundesliga side's relationship with Qatar, the most prominent opponent among the Bayern membership welcomed the news.
"Incredible news this morning," said Michael Ott. "It was completely unexpected, but it's all the better for it! Many thanks to all supporters who have rallied against the sponsorship. Together we are strong!"
Ott had risen to prominence in 2021 when he tabled a motion at Bayern's 2021 annual general meeting aimed at forcing the club not to extend the Qatar Airways deal. When the motion, and others like it, weren't admitted, the meeting descended into anarchy.
Nick McGeehan, co-director of human rights research organization FairSquare, also welcomed the move and praised the activism of Bayern's fanbase, telling DW:
"It's hard to believe that the critical response from a committed and organized section of FC Bayern's fanbase was not a major factor in this decision," he said.
"If that's the case, it's a small, but significant victory for those who see football clubs as community institutions not corporate content-providers and again shows that the German model of fan ownership is the one that other countries should strive towards."
A long battle
The 2021 AGM was the dramatic climax of a long-running dispute between Bayern supporters and their club over the topic of Qatar.
In 2022, in response to a series of questions submitted by fans at a roundtable event back in July, Bayern insisted progress on women's, workers' and gay rights was being made in the Gulf state and that dialogue and exclusion are preferable to exclusion.
"Bayern has been involved in discussions about values, interests and respect for other nations for many years," read the response posted on the Bayern Munich website.
"As a representative of German sport, the club stands for the normative ideas and values of our liberal democracy, both internally and externally."
Bayern's response came after club members, including those critical of Bayern's sponsorship deal with Qatar Airways, met with Hainer, chief executive Oliver Kahn, the Qatari ambassador to Germany Abdulla bin Mohammed bin Saud Al-Thani, and others at Bayern's stadium on July 4, 2022 to discuss "developments in Qatar".
Bayern: Dialogue as a vehicle for change
At several points in its responses to a total of 32 questions on human rights, anti-Semitism, finance and other issues, Bayern reiterated their belief in "dialogue" as a vehicle for change.
"With its sponsorship partnership with Qatar Airways, Bayern decided in favor of sporting, economic and social exchange, and against boycotts and exclusion," the club writes.
"If you believe that something has to change, whether in Qatar or other countries that are not democratically constituted, then this is not possible through exclusion. Bayern believes that changes and developments can only be initiated through exchange."
On the issue of workers' rights on World Cup-related construction sites, on which, according to The Guardian last year, more than 6,500 migrant workers have died since the awarding of the 2022 tournament to Qatar, Bayern insist that progress is being made.
"Amnesty International, the German Institute for Human Rights and the International Labor Association (ILO) have unanimously determined that Qatar is making a difference with regard to workers' rights," the club claims, despite regular reports from human rights organizations to the contrary. "But much remains to be done."
Critics aren't convinced. "All the talk of engagement and dialogue is utterly meaningless if you're not prepared to act on it," FairSquare's McGeehan, told DW at the time.
"Engagement and dialogue is not an end in itself, but Bayern seem to think that just by occasionally sitting down with people and listening to them but then ignoring them counts as engagement, but it doesn't."
Critics: 'A gross misrepresentation'
Another common feature which ran through Bayern's answers was the claim that the club's dealings with Qatar Airways were nothing out of the ordinary. They often highlighted a number of other prominent German businesses which have Qatari stakeholders, including Volkswagen, Siemens, Porsche and Deutsche Bank. Bayern add that they were given assurances from the highest level before entering into a partnership in 2018.
"In the case of the sponsorship agreement with Qatar Airways, Bayern exchanged views with representatives of the federal government, business, culture and human rights organizations,” the club writes. "The feedback was unequivocal, nobody advised against getting involved with Qatar Airways."
Human rights researcher McGeehan calls this "a gross misrepresentation of what happened" and highlights clear warnings from Human Rights Watch and others at the time.
"They were given very clear warnings about what could happen if they got involved with Qatar Airways," McGeehan says. "The advice could not have been clearer. But they've clearly ignored that advice and have subsequently embarked on [a journey] which has made them a key component of Qatar's public relations strategy.
"And as far as the Qataris are concerned, they have fulfilled that role very effectively."
While the announcement on the conclusion of his club's deal with Qatar has pleased Ott, he, McGeehan and others will likely not be fooled in to thinking this is necessarily the end. Jan-Christian Dreesen, Bayern Munich chairman, said: "FC Bayern and Qatar Airways have worked together successfully and learned from each other. I would like to thank Akbar Al Baker, CEO of Qatar Airways, for this. We wish all Employees of Qatar Airways all the best for the future."
That future will not involve Bayern Munich but football itself certainly still seems to form a key part of the Qatari strategy.
Edited by: Jonathan Harding and Matt Pearson