Football, or soccer, for most of the billions watching the World Cup this month, is not human society itself, with all its thorny issues. But sometimes the game is a reflection of the entire planet, of nations, of their disputes, of their aspirations and those of a multitude of minority communities.
In early November, just weeks before the most scrutinized World Cup in the tournament’s history kicked off in Qatar, senior FIFA officials sent a letter urging teams to “let football take center stage. from the scene”.
FIFA President Gianni Infantino continued on the eve of the opening match with an hour-long rant against anyone who had criticized the host country’s human rights record, the conditions that led to the deaths of thousands of migrant workers building the country’s gleaming new stadiums and its stance on LGBTQ issues.
Fans around the world have a different idea of what this “center stage” should show. Many, but not all, Iranians attending the matches in Qatar wanted to express their support for the protesters back home. And they wanted the team to do the same.
Other political issues erupted quickly and furiously on an almost daily basis. And outside of the World Cup bubble, the world itself has been revolving in some of its most turbulent, startling and surprising events: Russia’s war in Ukraine, the shootings of mass in the United States and the sudden eruption of protests in China.
Of sportsmanship, George Orwell wrote: “I am always amazed when I hear people say that sport creates goodwill between nations and that if only the people of the world could meet in football or cricket, they wouldn’t want to meet on the battlefield.
His argument is valid. Russia was banned from this World Cup after hosting the previous one in 2018, reflecting the isolation the country and its leaders face over the invasion of Ukraine. Ukraine itself fell at the final hurdle of qualification, with home fans likely more concerned with shelling and surviving amid power and water shortages than watching games in Qatar.
Decades of enmity between the United States and Iran seeped into the build-up before the two nations played out a critical World Cup match on Tuesday that could see either country advance to the knockout stages. final. The US Soccer Federation briefly displayed the Iranian national flag on social media without the Islamic Republic emblem, saying the move supported protesters inside Iran. The Tehran government reacted by accusing America of removing God’s name from its national flag.
The century-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including Israel’s occupation of land the Palestinians want for a future state, was also featured in Qatar, although no national team is competing. The Palestinian flag and pro-Palestinian supporters were front and center, while Israeli media and supporters were less well received in an Arab nation that has not normalized relations with Israel.
As Morocco scored a famous victory over Belgium’s top stars on Sunday, unrest erupted in Belgian cities as well as in the Netherlands, where the North African immigrant community has long been marginalized. “They’re not fans; they are rioters. The Moroccan supporters are there to celebrate,” said the mayor of Brussels.
LGBTQ rights have also been at the forefront in Qatar, with the country under the microscope for its human rights record and laws criminalizing homosexuality.
The German players covered their mouths for the team photo ahead of their opening game to protest against FIFA over the governing body’s crackdown on the ‘One Love’ armband. Sporting rainbow colors, a symbol of LGBTQ rights, has been a key contentious issue. Some European officials have brought these colors into the stands.
Qatari football fans responded to Germany’s protest by holding pictures of former German playmaker Mesut Ozil while covering their mouths. This was in reference to Ozil, a descendant of Turkish immigrants of German descent, who quit the national team after becoming the target of racist abuse and a scapegoat for Germany’s early World Cup exit in 2018. “I’m German when we win, but I’m an immigrant when we lose,” Ozil said at the time.
Keeping the world out of sport, as this tournament and many World Cups and Olympics have shown, is nearly impossible. This is especially true in a hyper-connected world, with every word, every gesture, every celebration or outpouring of dismay magnified for a global audience.
Football can indeed take center stage when these games are watched and the nervous system of nations is put to the test. But everyday complex issues are never far from the surface, always ready to erupt and dominate. Turns out the rest of the world doesn’t end where the football field begins.
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