For twelve years, critics have argued that the 2022 FIFA World Cup shouldn’t be held in Qatar, but that has not stopped the country from spending $200+ billion on the sport’s most treasured venue. On the eve of the tournament, many television networks and newspapers protested the host nation’s contentious preparation for the contest and internal human rights concerns, but the tournament kicked off with smooth success. The World Cup is supposed to be a uniting event, but it has turned out to be divisive; washed in controversies, the beautiful game has been unfortunately entwined with corruption and tactless commercialization.
The 2010 World Cup bid marked a transition in the football landscape. Against all odds, Qatar had won the right to host the tournament. Despite the country’s underdeveloped football infrastructure, unbearable summer heat, and human rights violations, it had overcome the United States to obtain the lucrative prize. But behind that incredible achievement was a motley crew of corrupt figures in FIFA, football’s governing association. Through a series of private meetings, Qatar bribed influential members of FIFA’s elite to change their host nation’s votes. With the immediate victory of securing the tournament, Qatar faced the long-term challenge of preparing for the World Cup. At the time, it had only one major stadium and lacked accommodation for the countless fans that would flock to the tiny country, so Qatar expedited building projects by recruiting workers from neighboring countries. However, the country abused its workers, condemning them under the compulsory kafala system and forcing them to work under 110+ degrees Fahrenheit weather conditions. Some news sources reported that thousands of workers have died from work-related issues. Qatar’s treatment of women and LGBTQ members has also been a point of contention.
Qatar insists its condemnation stems from the unfair temerity of the West against the Middle East. While it acknowledges some criticisms are valid (pointing out that they addressed some, like improving worker conditions by raising wages and preventing work hours during extreme heat), Qatar has sought to extirpate most admonishments. They insist that the country is a passionate football nation, that “only” 400-500 workers died, and that it welcomes fans of all identities.
Against the backdrop of the World Cup, there was an uneasy relationship between the sport and politics. From Qatar’s wheedling FIFA into hosting the tournament to the country’s perceived hostile environment, many competing countries were uncomfortable with the tournament’s host. Against these concerns, countries have publicly opposed the host nation and had planned to protest during the tournament. Eight European countries organized their captains to wear One Love armbands to bring awareness to Qatar’s situation concerning the LGBTQ community. Denmark would wear dull and monochromatic jerseys to be less visible in a competition associated with many migrant worker deaths. In this war of politics, FIFA backfired. They warned that captains who wore One Love armbands would be immediately given a yellow card at the start of a match. In their first match, the German national team, one of those eight countries, covered their mouths in their pregame team photo. Qatar and its fans then called attention to Germany’s moral hypocrisy when they covered their own mouths while carrying pictures of Mesut Ozil, a former national player and racially-motivated scapegoat for Germany’s 2018 World Cup failure. Qatar believes much criticism has been motivated by bias against Middle Eastern cultures. It deflects concerns by stating that all countries have faults, but it uses the World Cup’s spotlight to improve itself. It also points to the lack of attacks against other host nations of prestigious competitions, like Russia in the 2018 World Cup or China in the recent Olympics. Regardless of the validity of either side, this divisive debate is an unfortunate consequence of football’s power becoming more coercive than soft.
The 2022 World Cup is the first to have an Arab host country, but some argue that it doesn’t belong in the Middle East. They will point to the money-hungry nature of the area and the lack of a strong football community and teams, but doing so disconnects genuine fans of the game. Despite Qatar’s recruitment of non-native fans to pose as Qatari ultra-fans, the Middle East does have a passionate fanbase and a growing football presence, as shown by regional fan attendance and team performances. The sport belongs to everyone and should be a source of inspiration; Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup could have been seen as an avenue for more people in the area to be introduced to the sport, but the competition’s unfortunate ties have created a bitter atmosphere instead of a celebratory one.
The purpose of the World Cup is to unite people across the world for a common passion and to create a stage of memorable stories. This World Cup will most likely be the final one for legends Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. It provides upsets that will uplift nations, like Saudi Arabia’s win over Argentina, Korea’s over Portugal, Japan’s group stage win over Spain and Germany, and Morocco’s topping Belgium and Croatia. It will showcase countries’ triumphant progress and determination, like Senegal’s qualification into the knockout stages after experiencing heartbreak in the 2018 World Cup and rejoicing in the 2021 AFCON. It gives hope through redemption stories, like Marcus Rashford and his comeback to the top of the game.
One of the greatest concerns of World Cup geopolitics was the matchup between Iran and the USA. Along with the contentious political past between the two nations, Iran is still embroiled in mass human rights protests. Reporters targeted Iran’s manager and his team, trying to instill guilt for representing a country ruled by a brutal regime. The players themselves were caught in the crossfire between allegiance to the people or to their government. The team’s behavior during the playing of Iran’s national anthem was closely scrutinized. The US soccer team federation posted a doctored Iranian flag to protest the nation’s strife on social media. In response, Iran slammed the US team for disrespect, and Iranian reporters questioned how players could proudly represent a country with deep racism. In an awkward pregame media conference, US captain and coach, Tyler Adams and Greg Berhalter, were bombarded with questions that had nothing to do with football. Berhalter apologized for the social media post, saying that the players and staff had no influence on it. The attachment of politics to football had produced an unwanted animosity between the two teams and shifted focus from the competition to elsewhere.
When FIFA’s president Gianni Infantino told countries to detract from political messages and to respect the diversity of nations, it was hard to ignore his insincerity. While it is ideal to only “stick to football,” the ever-growing connection between the sport to corruption and avarice is making it harder to do so. This generation of football’s top club teams, like Manchester City, PSG, and recently Newcastle, has provided enticing matches between star-studded teams but has been fueled by the unimpeded purchases of suspect Middle Eastern governments (there was also the long-term ownership of Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich with Chelsea). Other top clubs like Manchester United have been marred by corporate greed. The top-performing teams in major football leagues are all held by wealthy conglomerates, and these owners detract from the fervent and intimate aspect of football. Shots at creating the European Super League are examples of attempts to undermine the tradition and values of football.
The embrace of American and Iranian players after the game was uplifting and showed what the World Cup can do. The US had advanced to the next stage while taking Iran’s spot and eliminating them. Despite the intense buildup to the match, the players embraced each other, and US teammates consoled their Iranian counterparts with compassion, connected by the game.