Soccer — or football, to most of the global billions watching the World Cup this month — is not human society itself, with all its thorny issues. But at times, the game is a reflection of the entire planet — of nations, their disputes, their aspirations and those of a multitude of minority communities.
In early November, just weeks before the most heavily scrutinized World Cup in the tournament’s history kicked off in Qatar, top FIFA officials sent a letter urging teams to “let football take center stage.”
FIFA president Gianni Infantino followed this up on the eve of the opening match with a one-hour diatribe against all who had criticized the host nation’s human rights record, the conditions that led to thousands of migrant workers dying building the nation’s glittering new stadiums and its stance on LGBTQ issues.
Fans from around the world have a different idea of what that “center stage” should show. Many, but not all, Iranians attending matches in Qatar have wanted to express their support for protesters at home. And they’ve wanted the team to do the same.
Other political issues have been erupting fast and furious on a near-daily basis. And outside the World Cup bubble, the world itself has kept turning in some of its most fractious events, both unsurprising and surprising: Russia’s war in Ukraine, mass shootings in the United States and the sudden eruption of protests in China.
Of the sporting spirit, George Orwell wrote: “I am always amazed when I hear people saying that sport creates goodwill between the nations, and that if only the common peoples of the world could meet one another at football or cricket, they would have no inclination to meet on the battlefield.”
His point stands. Russia was banned from this World Cup after hosting the previous one in 2018, mirroring the isolation the country and its leaders face for the Ukraine invasion. Ukraine itself fell at the last hurdle for qualification, with fans at home likely more concerned about bombardment and survival amid electricity and water shortages than watching matches in Qatar.
Decades of enmity between the United Sates and Iran have been seeping into the buildup before the two nations play a critical World Cup match Tuesday that could see one of the countries progress to the knockout stages. The U.S. Soccer Federation briefly displayed Iran’s national flag on social media without the emblem of the Islamic Republic, saying the move supported protesters inside Iran. The Tehran government reacted by accusing America of removing the name of God from its national flag.
The century-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including Israel’s occupation of lands Palestinians want for a future state, has also featured in Qatar, though neither national team is competing. The Palestinian flag and pro-Palestinian fans have been prominent, while Israeli media and fans have been less welcome in an Arab nation that has not normalized relations with Israel.
As Morocco completed a famous victory over the highly-ranked stars of Belgium Sunday, unrest broke out in Belgian cities and also in the Netherlands, where the immigrant North African community has long been marginalized. “Those are not fans; they are rioters. Moroccan fans are there to celebrate,” the mayor of Brussels said.
LGBTQ rights have been at the fore in Qatar as well, with the country under the microscope for its human rights record and laws criminalizing homosexuality.
Germany’s players covered their mouths for the team photo before their opening match to protest against FIFA following the governing body’s clampdown on the “One Love” armband. Sporting rainbow colors, a symbol of LGBTQ rights, has been a key contentious issue. Some European officials have brought those colors to the stands.
Qatari soccer fans responded to Germany’s protest by holding pictures of former Germany playmaker Mesut Özil while covering their mouths. This referenced Ozil, a German-born descendant of Turkish immigrants, quitting the national team after becoming a target of racist abuse and a scapegoat for Germany’s early World Cup exit in 2018. “I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose,” Özil said at the time.
Keeping the world out of sport, as this tournament and many World Cups and Olympics before have shown, is well nigh impossible. This is especially true in a hyperconnected world, with each word, each gesture, each celebration or outpouring of dismay magnified for a global audience.
Football may indeed claim center stage when these matches are watched and nations’ nervous systems go through the wringer. But day-to-day complex issues are never far from the surface, always ready to burst through and dominate. The rest of the world, it turns out, doesn’t end where the soccer pitch begins.
—Tamer Fakahany, The Associated Press