FIFA World Cup: Football unites despite controversy


 NOV 24, 2022 – DAILY SABAH

A girl waves a Qatari flag at a fan zone during the opening ceremony for the World Cup, prior to the group A soccer match between Qatar and Ecuador, in Doha, Qatar, Nov. 20, 2022. (AP Photo)

A girl waves a Qatari flag at a fan zone during the opening ceremony for the World Cup, prior to the group A soccer match between Qatar and Ecuador, in Doha, Qatar, Nov. 20, 2022. (AP Photo)

The World Cup is a ‘festival of humanity’ that brings together millions of fans to momentarily forget depressing real-world issues, wars, famine, intolerance, inflation and economic struggles

It’s been three days since the world’s eyes turned to Doha in Qatar, a tiny country on the northeastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula. Every four years and for a whole month, much of the planet’s population experience the joy of the FIFA World Cup, the biggest global sporting event and football festival. Twenty-two players and four referees perform as if they were artists at glorious stadia as tens of thousands of fans cheer and billions in their living rooms appreciate the magical passes, beautiful goals, incredible technique and high level of professionalism and the spirit of fair play.

The World Cup festival is a gathering of humanity with millions of fans forgetting the worries of their depressed real-world affairs, wars, famine, intolerance, inflation and economical struggles. This sporting event gives birth to a dream that might prove true for millions of boys in the streets of Sao Paolo, Buenos Aires, Accra, Rabat and in the so-called banlieues in Marseille and Paris: one day they might become another Kylian Mbappe, Léonel Messi, Neymar or the legend Zinedine Zidane.

The 2022 FIFA World Cup edition is hosted by Qatar. It is the first time such a worldwide social and economic event has been organized in the Middle East, and in the fall. Despite the monopoly of the heavyweights such as Brazil (La Seleçao), Germany (Die Mannschaft), Argentina (L’Albiceleste), France (Les Bleus) world champions, Holland (De Oranjes) and even England (Three Lions), those countries over the decades have produced for the foot-ballistic world the most valuable players: Pele, Franz Beckenbauer (also known as “Der Kaiser,” which means “Emperor”), Argentine great Diego Armando Maradona, Roberto Baggio, Johan Cruyff and Kevin Keegan. But other countries also are becoming a reservoir of the most valuable players (MVPs) for the European leagues, like Senegal, Ghana, Cameroon and France. National teams bring their nations together, leaving their ethnic and religious parameters behind after a big win in the world championship. As was the case with Qatar in 2021 during the mini-World Cup drill, hosting the Football Arab Nations Cup, it sent a ray of hope to millions of Arabs, like Argentina did in 1978, and France in 1998 with the “Black, Blanc, Beur” motto, which respectively referred to the three significant ethnicities in the country: black people, white people and Maghrebiens – North African immigrants like the footballing great Zidane himself.

120 minutes in newsrooms

Despite the severe criticism by journalists, politicians and athletes like Eric Cantona, the Manchester United legend who, before the start of the 22 FIFA World Cup edition, attempted to undermine the efforts and the savoir-faire of the Arab and Muslim country in a criticism that said the country lacked experience in organization and that it is not a “traditional” nation of football. Furthermore, Cantona also expressed concern for the security of the fans and the teams, and human rights issues, urging FIFA to move the tournament to another traditional nation of football like Brazil, as it happened in 1986 when FIFA handed the tournament to Mexico as a result of security fears in Colombia. Nevertheless, Qatar retained its rights to host the FIFA 2022 World Cup.

Fans, however, do find refuge in the World Cup to get forget real-world concerns. After the tournament ends, fans will get back to the herculean struggle of their daily life, again talking about crises, job insecurity and intolerance. The day of the World Cup final will mark the 11th month of the ongoing war in Ukraine and its earth-shattering consequences with regard to the economy and global politics. Maybe some fans are not interested in world affairs, but the country they are staying in and watching the 2022 FIFA World Cup from is full of symbolism, as Qatar has already presented a modern World Cup with its gorgeous stadiums.

Amid corruption allegations with regard to the awarding process, denial of human rights and environmental questions, one question has been dominating the talk of the town in France and French media’s headlines, leaving football fans to wonder: Should we give up watching the World Cup to show our disapproval? As Les Bleus prepare to defend their title in Qatar, major cities in France including Paris, Lille, Lyon, Bordeaux and Marseille, have decided to not broadcast the games in giant screens in the cities’ public squares. The same decision has been made in other European cities, including Berlin. Several bars in Germany are opting not to show the games either, using the hashtag #keinkatarinmeinerkneipe (“No Qatar in my bar”).

It’s a nuanced view. The Qataris did know well that sports are no longer a social hobby but indeed a solid economic tool and contain geo-economics and geo-politics imperatives that would shape the country’s foreign policy. Football diplomacy has become a valid determinant of Qatar’s public diplomacy; a soft power element that is putting the country in the world affairs’ spotlight with the Al-Jazeera network that is today Qatar’s voice and image in the world. Therefore, the scrutiny of human rights in Qatar is, nonetheless, raised by Western media and politicians, one that might also be considered a form of arrogance and racism toward the Arab and Muslim countries.

Globalism vs. communitarianism

The World Cup heals wounds, at least temporarily. The competition has become a kind of United Nations General Assembly, with a complicated web of relations among the players. Each player has a dual identity, belonging to his nation’s national team and a team in a league that doesn’t need to be anywhere near his home country.

Coaches for national teams can be from any nation. This creates an amazing interdependency and social phenomenon with all its human dimensions that provide a mission of peace and hope to millions of children and adults around the globe.

Nevertheless, in the past, some European leagues (Italy, Spain, Holland and France) have seen regrettable behavior from fans, bribery scandals and teams bribing referees for favorable decisions. Also, money becomes the engine that drives this popular sport – teams transfer players and coaches offer them astronomical sums as yearly salaries. As a result, this creates a sense for the fans that the team owners are turning players into modern gladiators, in particular when countries’ governments are in a deep economic crisis, and their governments are imposing austerities on the people.

The fans need some entertainment, but when they hear about the salary of Qatar-owned Paris Saint Germain’s (PSG) star Mbappe’s new salary, they might regret that they did not choose his path. Indeed, such financial disparities hurt the message and the spirit of football and its festival. Likely, fans do not care about these unvirtuous characteristics. They still want to enjoy watching the game with passion, amazed by the performance of their favorite players and teams.

The World Cup festival shows the rest of us how fans from all over the globe get along with their differences, race, religion and languages around a football. Even leaders at odds set their political differences aside and sat down for a cordial chat and shook hands like President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Egyptian counterpart Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in the opening ceremony.

The fans share the beauty of our wonderful world, letting the triumph of tolerance win over intolerance, and intelligence over arrogance. What a beautiful sporting event: let’s all be crazy about football this month and forget about the problems in this crazy world! Good luck to all the teams and may the best of them win.

*North Africa expert at the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM)


North Africa expert at the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM)


Categories: Arab World, Qatar, Saudi Arabia

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