Football fans around the world have had the chance to witness some historic upsets so far in this year’s Football World Cup in Qatar, as a lot of the heavy hitters have already seen an early exit from the tournament.
However, the sporting aspect has not been the only theme of this year’s event. The hosting of the tournament in the Gulf has been an ongoing talking point, even as it approaches its halfway point.
The key feature of this year’s global spectacle that comes around every four years has been the political undertones that have sometimes almost outweighed the action on the pitch. One Western commentator told Al-Ahram Weekly that even before the event started it could easily be described as the “world cup of politics.”
The controversy began when Qatar won the bid to host the event in 2010. Some of the Gulf state’s regional rivals and Western capitals were not happy and started digging for reasons to strip the small energy-rich country of the honour.
Like many similar international bodies, the international football federation FIFA has not been free of allegations of corruption. According to commentators, Qatar may have spent hundreds of millions of Euros 12 years ago to secure the bid to host the tournament.
Many FIFA officials have been investigated since the bid and even in some cases indicted. There have also been significant criticisms of Qatar’s human rights record. But neither of these things has halted Doha’s hosting of the World Cup this year.
The “politicisation” of the event did not end there, however. With some Arab teams programmed to play in the first round, many Arab fans continued to support them even against the European national teams they would traditionally support.
When the Saudi team won its match against Argentina early in the first round, this was celebrated in a manner never seen before for a group stage game. The same thing happened when the Moroccan team advanced to the knockout stages and managed to finish ahead of Belgium and Croatia, both teams outranking it in FIFA rankings.
When Iran faced the US, the headlines had nothing to do with the match and everything to do with players in the Iranian team deciding not to sing the country’s national anthem before the match. Posts on social media portrayed the VAR room for the game as being like the United Nations.
Socio-political matters have also been echoed by supporters inside and outside of Qatar. Those hostile to Qatar for its support of various Islamist movements were not able to ignore this or cheer on the first World Cup to be held in the region. Others magnified measures like the banning of alcohol in the World Cup stadiums as a huge triumph, though many European countries also ban alcohol in their stadiums for fear of violence.
Apart from the humiliation of being knocked out of the World Cup in the first round, Germany also stirred a lot of political controversy this year and left Doha bearing criticisms that go beyond football. The four-time champion was expected to reach at least the final stages of the tournament, but it was politics that overshadowed its participation.
Even before the German team’s first game against Japan, which they lost, German officials had antagonised the host country with politically charged statements.
Even though Germany has been trying to reach a deal with Qatar to import its natural gas to make up for the loss of Russian gas, German Energy Minister Robert Habeck did not hesitate to bluntly attack the country.
He said that awarding Doha the tournament had been a “stupid idea and one that can’t really be explained except by corruption”. Some analysts suggested that Germany was using criticism of the tournament as a bargaining chip to improve its gas deal with Doha.
Before that, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser, also responsible for sport, criticised the FIFA ban on wearing OneLove armbands during the tournament. The rainbow armbands have been viewed as a symbolic protest against the law in Qatar that makes homosexuality illegal.
Before their first match, the German team covered their mouths with their hands as a protest against what they considered to be a human rights violation against LGBT activism in Qatar.
The Qatari foreign minister described the protest as German “double standards,” something that was also echoed by Arab fans. When Germany exited the competition, it felt like a victory for those fans and not because of football but because of politics.
Other symbols of activism have also been banned at this year’s World Cup. No player has been allowed to wear a shirt supporting Gaza, for example. But even so Israeli reporters covering the event wrote that it proved that “Arab nationalism is still alive,” according to the Jerusalem Post.
But Uzi Rabi, director of the Moshe Dayan Centre for Middle East and African Studies at Tel Aviv University in Israel, said that Arab nationalism is a “kind of slogan that is a recipe for a unified political entity that is not there. Of course, there is Arab sentiment, Arab history, Arab heritage and language, however.”
Reporters from Israeli newspapers and TV channels shared videos on social media showing fans walking away when they discovered they were being interviewed by the Israeli media. Even fans not from the Arab states that have normalised relations with Israel said that “there is no Israel. It is Palestine.”
Two Israeli reporters wrote in the daily Yediot Ahronot about their experience in Doha. “Whenever we were reporting, we were followed by Palestinians, Iranians, Qataris, Moroccans, Jordanians, Syrians, Egyptians and Lebanese, all giving us looks full of hate… After a while, we decided to claim we were Ecuadorian when someone asked us where we were from,” they wrote.
But the social media hype about the “intimidation” of Israelis at the World Cup in fact served a political purpose. One journalist in Qatar told the Weekly that he saw Arabs talking to Israeli journalists, even after they had told them who they were.
He did not deny that incidents of Arab young men raising Palestinian flags and shunning Israeli reporters had taken place, but he said their significance had been exaggerated. “Maybe it is part of their ‘victim mentality’ that made these reporters talk about “hatred” on their TV channels. Of course, many people in the Arab world cannot reconcile themselves with the occupiers of Palestinian land, but there was no sweeping rejection of Israelis in Doha as some reports on social media have claimed.”
The Qatar World Cup may well be unique for its political tinge, providing a different flavour to the largest sporting event in the world. Ultimately, what took place off the pitch will likely be remembered as much as what occurred on it in Qatar this year.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 December, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.