Following the publication of a report by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) titled “Sharp Power: Rising Authoritarian Influence” in December, many outlets – from The Economist and Real Clear Politics to Breitbart – have picked up on the term ‘Sharp Power’ to describe many of the activities of Russia and China over the last decade.

The report outlines that “as memory of the Cold War era receded, analysts, journalists, and policymakers in the democracies came to see authoritarian influence efforts through the familiar lens of ‘soft power’”, but that in the more recent future, these efforts have ceased to be ‘soft’ efforts to win hearts and mind, but rather ‘sharp’ efforts to “pierce, penetrate or perforate the political and information environments in targeted countries”.

At this juncture the notion of perforating the political and information environment of a targeted country is likely conjuring images of Putin, Trump, Cambridge Analytica and targeted fake news. However, the use of traditionally ‘soft power’ battlegrounds being used for more coercive means will be a much-discussed topic in 2018 with the looming Russian World Cup and its perceived success or failure likely to generate enormous global media coverage.

The Olympics has traditionally been the sporting event of choice for projecting national images on a global scale as in Berlin in 1936, and Moscow and Los Angeles in the 1980s, but in the next decade we can expect to see the World Cup – set for Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022 – used as a platform with which to shape the global image of authoritarian governments.

We have written before about the difficulties of decision-making in business in such politically polarised times, and sport is no exception. With every business action – or often inaction – increasingly scrutinised for its politics, businesses can perhaps ill afford to align themselves with such obviously politicised events.

FIFA has been dogged by allegations of corruption both in the allocation of the 2018 & 2022 tournaments, and in relation to broadcast rights for these and other tournaments, and more damagingly, reports of hundreds or even thousands of deaths of migrant workers involved in the construction of the 2022 tournament in Qatar. The allegations of the deaths of migrant workers have drawn wide coverage, and the widely shared image below created by the Washington Post’s Wonkblog places sponsors front and centre of the issue, and makes a compelling argument for why brands may be better off looking elsewhere for sponsorship opportunities.

Ultimately, many brands have chosen to stand by FIFA – perhaps due to the cost of breaking lucrative contractual agreements – but others have chosen to no longer associate themselves with football’s governing body. Brands like Castrol, Continental, and Johnson & Johnson decided not to renew their contracts in 2015, while the only newcomers to FIFA’s top tier of sponsorship ahead of Russia 2018 are Wanda Group – a Chinese property firm, Gazprom – an energy company majority owned by the Russian government, and Qatar Airways – the state-owned carrier of Qatar.

The desertion of many of FIFA’s sponsors, and the difficulties of the federation in finding new businesses to sponsor what will go down as some of the most viewed events in human history is telling. Increased political scrutiny of business decisions means brands have never had to be more careful, weighing up exposure to potential customers, against exposure to a whole host of undesirable associations like never before.