“It’s the most controversial World Cup in history and a ball hasn’t even been kicked.”
Ever since FIFA chose Qatar back in 2010, the smallest nation to have hosted football’s greatest competition has faced some big questions. From accusations of corruption in the bidding process to the treatment of migrant workers who built the stadiums, where many lost their lives. Homosexuality is illegal here. Women’s rights and freedom of expression are in the spotlight. Also, the decision six years ago to switch the World Cup from summer to winter.
Against that backdrop, there’s a tournament to be played, one that will be watched and enjoyed around the world. “Stick to football,” say FIFA. Well, we will – for a couple of minutes at least.”
Those were the sober words of former England striker Gary Lineker as he opened the BBC’s coverage of the Qatar World Cup. Thereafter, instead of the opening ceremony, there followed a frank discussion among the football pundits on human rights and FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) corruption. For eager football fans this was certainly the strangest ever opening to a World Cup programme, though, by all accounts, not an unwelcome one. In the main, the BBC’s approach has been widely praised as an indicator that the sports media do not intend to dodge or mask the contentious issues that have so marred the build-up to what is, arguably, the biggest sporting event in the world.
Since then, there have been political controversies galore, from FIFA threatening to penalise players who wear any non-sanctioned captain’s armband on the pitch, to England fans being ordered by Qatari officials to remove their medieval crusader costumes before entering the stadium, to whether the Iran team would or would not sing their own national anthem.
The debates surrounding this World Cup all serve to highlight the politicisation of sport. But can sport at a global level ever successfully remain detached from wider political issues, and should it?
The easy question?
Ask any football pundit or fan whether the World Cup should ever have been awarded to Qatar and the answer will be a resounding “No”. People have been rightly appalled by Qatar’s heinous treatment of migrant workers and discrimination against women and LGBTQ+ communities. How can it be morally right to hold a football tournament in a country with laws against being gay, and where, in the words of Qatari World Cup ambassador Khalid Salman, homosexuality is considered “damage in the mind”?
However, a similar accusation could be launched against the decision to hold the World Cup in Russia in 2018, a country in which LGBTQ+ rights are also severely infringed, and likewise the 2008 Summer Olympic Games and 2021 Winter Olympics in China, a de-facto authoritarian state. Before Qatar, the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics took place in Brazil – a country with a record of police brutality and ill-treatment of its indigenous communities. The next World Cup will be hosted jointly by Canada (infringement of indigenous rights), Mexico (endemic violence against women), and the United States (race relations, police brutality, abortion rights) … enough said. In all honesty, is it possible to find any squeaky-clean country to host a sports tournament? Although there are degrees of human rights’ violations, no nation on earth is totally benign or beyond criticism at some level.
On the other hand, one could argue that human enlightenment or progress has never occurred through the long-term isolation of protagonists that have broken accepted norms. Engagement in the international community, albeit at arms-length, has always been the most logical route to improving relations and effecting meaningful change. It is why the victors helped to rebuild the defeated powers post-WW2 and why eventual re-engagement with Russia at some future point in time will be indispensable for long-term global stability. So, in this sense, does allowing countries that have progress to make on human rights and other issues form part of that same approach, namely offering the rewards of strategic engagement with a view to encouraging the adoption of common values?
Furthermore, are we in danger of seeing this issue through a western-centric lens? Qatar is the first Islamic country ever to have hosted a major sporting tournament. Football has a huge following in the Middle East, but up to now it was the only region never to have been awarded a World Cup. Many maintain that, in the interests of levelling up, a World Cup in a Muslim nation was long overdue and that failure to do so was the result of western imperialist disdain. Indeed, considering the other options in the region, Qatar was probably the least bad option.
Another potential positive might be that the issue of discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community in Qatar, in addition to other countries with a strict enforcement of Sharia law, has now reached a global audience – despite the best efforts of Qatar and FIFA. The football authorities and players of many national teams competing in Qatar have expressed their support for LGBTQ+ people in the weeks before the tournament began, as well as during the competition itself: the controversy surrounding FIFA’s threats of sanctions against players who wore a rainbow ‘One Love’ armband during games succeeded only in raising the profile of the LGBTQ+ issue, rather than subduing it. Indeed, in a widely reported act of protest against their perceived silencing by FIFA, the German national team, who had been due to wear the rainbow armband, defiantly covered their mouths with their hands during their team photo on the pitch before their opening match. No doubt due to bad press, FIFA have also had to retreat on their initial ban of fans wearing rainbow bucket hats in stadia.
Perhaps the lesson to take away is that, in an age of global news and readily accessible social media, no amount of bans or sanctions can prevent people from raising awareness of issues they feel strongly about. Self-expression finds a way. And, in time, the people of Qatar and other similarly restrictive societies may take confidence from the promotion of LGBTQ+ rights during this World Cup, and the seeds of change will have been planted.
One thing is for sure: whatever one’s views on the fitness of Qatar to host this World Cup, this is certainly not the moral cut-and-dry question it at first appears.
Politicising the players
In recent years, we have seen sports people become increasingly involved in social and political movements. ‘Taking the knee’ in protest at racial discrimination and police brutality inflicted on people of colour began when Black American football player Colin Kaepernick knelt on one knee during the pre-match playing of the Star-Spangled Banner in September 2016. It has since been widely adopted around the world as a gesture of anti-racism protest and solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement by sports and non-sports people alike. During the 2020–21 football season, taking the knee was regularly practised by football teams in England and was endorsed by the English FA. Moreover, Gareth Southgate’s England team decided that they would continue to take the knee before kick-off of their games in Qatar. The gesture by footballers has played a powerful role in raising the issue of racial inequality within and outside of football, but has not been without controversy, with teams at times subjected to booing from the certain elements of the crowd and criticism from right-wing politicians.
Part of what made taking the knee such an effective symbol of protest was that it was initiated and led voluntarily by sports people themselves, and continues to be so by those teams that still practise it. And because high profile sportsmen and women attract significant public attention, this brings an even greater spotlight on any issue they choose to become involved with. Many feel that people in the public eye are in a privileged position and have a duty to take a stand on the great moral issues of the day. But the question arises as to how far famous people, and sports players in particular, should be expected to conform to the ideals of campaigners and become public spokespersons for different social and political causes. Are campaigners in danger of exploiting them for their own political ends? And if sports players are steamrollered into public demonstrations of protest, for example by their governing bodies, does the lack of choice make the public display an empty gesture?
One example of this is the relatively benign motif armband that footballers are asked to wear during matches, representing causes from environmental protection to anti-racism. In the run-up to the Qatar World Cup, many football associations endorsed the captains of their national team to wear the ‘One Love’ armband in support of LGBTQ+ rights, a community that is known to be heavily discriminated against in Qatar, as in other strict Islamic countries. When FIFA declared that the wearing of such an armband broke their rules and would lead to ‘unlimited sanctions’ against players, including automatic yellow cards and the possible deduction of points, football bodies and national teams felt they had no choice but to back down, or else risk jeopardising their team’s chances in the competition.
Yet, despite the obvious intransigence of the FIFA officials on this issue, it was the footballers themselves who bore much of the criticism of the decision for captains not to wear the ‘One Love’ armband. Even former England footballer Ian Wright said on ITV’s coverage of the Japan–Germany match that Harry Kane should have stuck to his guns and worn the armband, taking the consequences, because there is “no protest without risk”. Perhaps this is easy to say, however, when you don’t personally have to take the consequences.
In addition, during press conferences at the Qatar World Cup, footballers from certain countries have faced searching questions about social and political issues, which have strayed well beyond quizzing the western teams on the ‘One Love’ armband controversy. This has been the case for the Iran team in the wake of the death in custody of 22-year-old woman Mahsa Amini at the hands of the Iranian Morality Police in September. At the start of the tournament, Iran player Alireza Jahanbakhsh was questioned by western media about the political unrest in his country, and this was followed by captain of the Iran national team, Mehdi Taremi, being asked about the team not singing the national anthem at the pre-Wales match press conference. Both players, who might have been at considerable risk at home had they taken a public political stance, declined to answer.
The political line of questioning caused Iran team manager Carlos Queiroz to lose his temper at BBC journalist Shaimaa Khalil after the Wales match press conference, asking her whether it was fair that players and coaches from other national teams are not asked similar political questions – for example, why Gareth Southgate isn’t asked about the US and UK retreat from Afghanistan. Prior to this, the Iran players had been booed by certain pro-government Iranian fans for not singing their national anthem at the England match. In choosing to show support for the protesters against the murderous Iranian regime, the players had been understandably alarmed by the fierce reaction it had provoked, particularly from Iranian politicians, with chairman of Tehran city council Mehdi Chamran publicly stating: “We will never allow anyone to insult our anthem and flag.”
This is a timely reminder that political gestures can have consequences far more serious than loss of popularity or points in a competition. In the words of Queiroz: “You don’t even imagine, or know, what these kids have been living through in the past few days – and just because they want to play football. Whatever they do, whatever they say, they want to kill them.” Journalists who choose to score political points by questioning sports players from authoritarian regimes on political issues would do well to remember this.
The diplomatic power of sport
Ironically, Iran was not the only national team on the end of aggressive political questioning by the media. Before their fixture against Iran, USA head coach Gregg Berhalter and player Tyler Adams were given a rough ride by Iranian journalists with questions ranging from discrimination against Black people in the United States, to the continued presence of the US fleet in the Persian Gulf. They even queried the American pronunciation of ‘Aye-ran’, calling it a mispronunciation of ‘Iran’. I don’t know enough about politics, I’m a soccer coach,” commented Berhalter in obvious frustration.
However, one comment made by an Iranian journalist at this press conference should give us pause for thought. He prefaced his question on the US fleet in the Persian Gulf with the words: “Sport is something that should bring nations closer together and you are a sportsperson.” Avoiding the political question, Berhalter responded: “I agree, sport is something that should bring countries together … you get to compete as brothers”. He was referring to the love of the game that can unite people from all countries over and above political ideology.
Sport, arts and culture have long been acknowledged as a mechanism by which nation states can successfully disseminate their values and identity. Museums that co-host exhibitions with partner museums abroad, galleries that organise international artwork loans, and musicians and theatre groups that tour the world all play a valuable part in a country’s soft power politics.
However, sporting competitions are especially helpful in that they naturally entail the interaction of people at all levels, rather than just the organisers: sportspeople must interact on the sports field and spectators from all sides also come into contact with each other. This can be a powerful mix.
When sports players from two countries with few or poor historical, political and economic ties compete against each other, the movement of sporting personnel and fans between the countries acts as a facilitator to mutual engagement that may not otherwise have been achievable. Indeed, sporting competitions can usefully sidestep overt political negotiations between nations, which may not yet have widespread public backing, while allowing low-level, but effective, cooperation to be initiated and fostered. In time, as the sports players meet more often, this leads to economic and cultural links based on the commonality of that particular sport, which can eventually lay the foundations for wider economic ties and, potentially, political dialogue at government level.
The most famous example of sport helping to pave the way towards improved relations between estranged nations is the ‘ping-pong diplomacy’ of the Nixon–Mao era. In early 1971 Glenn Cowan, a member of the US table tennis team attending the world championships in Japan, got on the Chinese team bus because he was late from practice. There followed a stunned silence, since Chinese citizens were at that time forbidden from speaking to foreigners. However, Chinese team captain Zhuang Zedong courageously broke protocol by addressing the young, embarrassed American, shaking his hand and giving him a gift of a piece of silk cloth woven with the image of the Huangshan mountains.
This much publicised ice-breaker soon led the Chinese to issue the US team with an invitation to play a round of exhibition matches against the Chinese team in China, which the US readily accepted. The historic tour in April 1971 came at a time when the USA had no formal diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China and there was limited interaction at an economic or cultural level; indeed, few Americans had set foot in China since the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. The US team were warmly received, played several ‘friendship matches’ against their Chinese hosts and visited cultural landmarks, including the Great Wall.
It must be acknowledged that, prior to the ping-pong tour, there had already been a secret communication back channel between the Americans and Chinese in place and that pragmatism on both sides meant that the time was right for a thawing of relations. Nonetheless, the sporting engagement and camaraderie between the two table tennis teams played a significant role in changing public perceptions of the rival power in both countries. This helped lay the foundations for the acknowledgment of common interests, which, in turn, opened the door to a reduction in tensions and the pursuit of normalised USA–China relations. In July 1971 National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger held secret talks with Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai in Beijing, and this was followed by the momentous state visit of US President Nixon to China the following year. Arguably, ping-pong played a key, if largely symbolic, role in Cold War détente.
Another illustration of emblematic diplomacy through the medium of sport include occasions when the North and South Korean sports teams have marched together under the Korean Unification Flag, most notably at the 2018 Winter Olympics held in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
However, if sport can help bring countries together, it can also be used to put up barriers. In 1980 the United States, Canada, West Germany, China and others boycotted the Moscow Olympics following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; this was followed in 1984 by a tit-for-tat boycott by the USSR and its satellite states of the Los Angeles Olympic Games. The same tactic is being used today, with athletes and sports players from the Russian Federation being denied entry to various international sporting events in order to make a moral point over the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Whether such measures achieve any meaningful political gains, save for punishing the sports competitors themselves, is a point of contention.
Sport at a global level cannot be separated easily from wider political issues and is sometimes even used as a tool of international diplomacy. To complicate matters further, the leading global sporting bodies, FIFA, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and World Athletics (previously the IAAF), have themselves been at the centre of bribery and political corruption scandals over many years. But while it is true that the politicisation of sport is to a great extent unavoidable, the range of consequences that can ensue leaves open for debate the question as to whether this is for better or worse.
Returning once again to the 2022 Qatar World Cup, although there is a degree of hypocrisy in placing an international sports event in a country intolerant of many of the values that FIFA claims to embrace, the end result may yet have a more profound impact. A narrow diplomatic path has been forged by FIFA, Qatar, national football associations, players and fans that has allowed a sporting tournament to successfully go ahead in a region of the world fraught with internal and external tensions. Like all diplomacy, this is an imperfect process, demanding tolerance and compromise by all parties, but it is surely a remarkable achievement.
The polemics and politics that initially threatened to overshadow the Qatar World Cup and hamper fans’ simple enjoyment of the game have arguably led to a wider public appreciation on all sides of human rights issues in the Middle East. Moreover, sports participants and fans have been emboldened to speak out and promote equality in imaginative ways. It is often said that football is ‘the beautiful game’, with the likes of Messi, Mbappé, Ronaldo and Bellingham making match-winning play look simple. What is yet more admirable are the possibilities for social change and political engagement that international sporting tournaments present to the world. The unifying effect of sport is a powerful tool for positive international relations.