The World Cup in Qatar Has Deepened Divisions

Once the first ball is kicked, it’s all about the football. This is what many a host nation has hoped for and this is how hosts Russia made the 2018 World Cup into a big party. But things turned out differently at the World Cup in Qatar: Political issues and background noise flickered across our smartphones and TV screens.

First, some European captains wanted to wear the “One-Love” armband but then balked due to threatened punishment by FIFAGermany made a statement by covering their mouths in the team photo before their first match. Celebrated in the European press, this was misunderstood in the Middle East.

There’s been hostility against Israeli reporters, and the flag of the Palestinian territories has been everywhere to be seen — in the streets, in stadiums and even on the pitch, proudly presented by Moroccan team members. Some Qataris and Arab fans also wore it on their arms in reference to the Europeans’ scuppered One Love statement.

FIFA flip-flops on rainbow symbols

Iranian players refused to sing the national anthem before the first game. Protests escalated. Western-oriented Iranian exiles clashed with Qatar’s security forces and Iranian regime supporters. Again and again, there were discussions about rainbow colors — forbidden in the stadiums at first, then allowed in after all.

Germany’s exit, Messi’s last dance and Morocco’s rousing successes made sporting headlines. But the World Cup in Qatar was more politically charged than any other tournament before it, more of a clash of civilisations than an event that brought people together.

And FIFA failed to adequately address all these issues. As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict became more visible in Qatar, FIFA looked the other way. The world governing body lost even more of its credibility at this World Cup.

An armband as an affront 

Europe stood accused of double standards and lacking credibility. As the tournament progressed, the tone in the Qatari media and among officials became increasingly aggressive, including toward Germany. Criticism from Western media was exaggerated and unjustified. The One Love armband, eventually worn by German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser in the stands at a game, was seen as an affront.

This also became clear in conversations I had here with Qataris and fans from other Arab countries. Some looked askance at us when my colleague and I said we were from Germany. In one case, we were even refused an on-camera interview.

This is harmless compared to the experiences of members of the Israeli media. A TV reporter from Israel told me that a colleague had been thrown out of a cab by a Palestinian driver, and another time a group had invaded the TV studio.

But I had to admire his optimism, as he carried on despite such negative experiences: “The World Cup helps bring people closer together. We have to respect each other and try to understand the other side,” he told me.

Western coverage too negative?

Do we also need to question ourselves? Were Western media too inaccurate in their reporting? Yes. Some figures on migrant workers who died in Qatar were at best misleading or have been misreported in this age of clickbait journalism.

Did the strictly controlled sale of alcoholic beverages perhaps even have a positive effect and keep hooligans away? Probably.

Muslim women told us that they felt especially safe in Doha, under the gaze of the world’s media. Thus, women dared to enter stadiums — not yet the norm everywhere in the Arab world — because they had less to fear in terms of sexual harassment.

Presumably, this World Cup in Doha, as a global hub between Europe, Africa and Southeast Asia — only a plane ride away — was as diverse and international as hardly any previous tournament.

European party poopers

But European fans were underrepresented — and party poopers. The Dutch, otherwise fond of traveling and partying in big numbers, made up just a small orange patch in the stands during their quarterfinal against Argentina; the number of supporters appeared not even number the thousands. The TV ratings in Germany were also relatively low.

This certainly had something to do with the critical reporting in the run-up. Especially in Europe, football purists have a hard time with the commercialisation of the game, “sports washing” through sovereign wealth funds — and human rights are a particular focus.

Much of the criticism is justified, and close scrutiny goes along with hosting a World Cup. The situation of migrant workers in Qatar is still precarious despite reforms. Telling, cynical and inhumane was the reaction of World Cup chief organiser Nasser Al-Khater when a guest worker died in an accident in Saudi Arabia’s World Cup quarters during the tournament.

“Death is a natural part of life,” he said.

Moreover, many of the Qataris’ promises of supposed “openness and tolerance ” only amounted to lip service. Many fans from the LGBTQ community refrained from traveling to the event — a travesty for FIFA.

Saudi Arabia in the starting blocks

The Arab-Muslim world, on the other hand, has welded together the first “own” World Cup despite political tensions. And not just because of Morocco’s historic semifinal appearance. On the Arabian Peninsula and far beyond, in the Middle East and North Africa, many are proud of this tournament. So, it will come as no surprise if countries in the region look to bring the World Cup back to the neighbourhood. There are reports that Greece, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are planning a bid to jointly host the 2030 World Cup. Football won’t be freeing itself from politics anytime soon — Qatar was just the beginning.

Featured image: Reuters/Pawel Kopczynski