Life Imitates Ball Geopolitics, Qatar and the FIFA World Cup

International football games like the FIFA World Cup can no longer be separated from international politics. Increasingly, viewers will have to watch as gaffes from a trained footballer or even goal celebrations are interpreted through different political lenses.   

The 2022 FIFA World Cup kicked off in Qatar on 20 November, with the host country playing against Ecuador. Though it may have calmed down, at the start of the tournament, the surrounding discourse arguably superseded the football games. The global community saw the posturing, punditry and protestations that occurred during the ongoing tournament, but it is far from the first time that sports has been a theatre of ongoing diplomatic and political conflicts.  

Democratic administrations and dictatorial regimes have, historically, been accused of ‘sports-washing’—using the fervour and patriotic sentiment associated with sports to try and launder their image. Previous World Cup tournaments, such as in Benito Mussolini’s Italy (1934) and Juan Peron’s Argentina (1978), were held under dictatorial regimes. The last tournament hosted by democratic Russia (2018), was a masterclass in deflecting attention from the host nation’s human rights issues. In the recent tournament, however, these controversies appear to have reached new heights. 

MORE THAN JUST A GAME 

As with every international interaction, sport is simply another space where geopolitical rivalry manifests. Contests between neighbouring countries become ‘derbies’, when there are similar cultures and languages, and these matches take on a much more significant role in relations between such countries. Hegemons, acknowledged and aspiring, typically seek to host well-known tournaments to establish their dominance in an aspect other than economic or military prowess.  

Before Qatar in 2022, the last host nations were Russia (2018), Brazil (2014) and South Africa (2010). These nations are member states of BRICS—a bloc of aspiring global powers alongside India and China—a pointer to the value attached to hosting the biggest sports tournament in the world. If there was any indication that this value would be diminishing anytime soon, the United States will joint-host the next tournament, with Canada and Mexico, in 2026.  

The negative press from the reports that Qatar ‘bought’ the world cup did not help the initial reception to their unlikely bid victory. These tensions have been exacerbated by further cultural clashes, such as laws against LGBTQ+ rights, and alcohol consumption. These clashes have also raised questions concerning how inoculated football can be from ongoing societal conversations.  

Unsurprisingly, the discourse around the World Cup has turned into a polar contest, with Eastern allies denouncing the West for its hypocrisy in its response to other conflicts. In March 2022, The global and European football governing bodies were swift to suspend Russia and its allies from its tournaments and promote pro-Ukrainian messaging. It is also why at this world cup—the first in the Arab world—the support for Palestine and its allies is noticeable. Support for the contested state has been very visible and Israeli attendees have had to reconcile with a scenario they are unlikely to have experienced at any other tournament.  

The ongoing world cup has seen a range of controversies. From captains of six European teams being told by FIFA not to wear the rainbow armband in solidarity with the LGBT+ community to the German team covering their mouths to protest the armband ban.  

Ahead of the tournament, Qatar had released rules of engagement for queer fans coming to watch the games live. Qatar 2022 chief executive, Nasser al Khater, maintained that Qatar’s government will not change its laws on homosexuality but asked visitors to ‘respect our culture.’ In 2010, when Qatar was announced as the host, FIFA’s then-president, Sepp Blatter, was quizzed about the safety of gay tourists interested in attending. Blatter suggested that they refrain from having sex while attending the World Cup.  

Coaches and players have been increasingly asked questions about their domestic politics and the impact that their team’s performance might have on issues happening at home. In November 2022, Iran’s manager, Carlos Queiroz, was asked about his take on the anti-hijab protests in Iran and he retorted by asking why England’s manager was not asked about England’s controversial military interventions in Afghanistan. In 2026, 48 countries will participate in the World Cup—compared to 32 countries that the tournament had this year, and in editions since 1998. Football’s increasingly global footprint, including the expansion of the World Cup, means the increased participation from non-Western countries and the likely heterogeneity in perspectives from those taking part. 

Sport tournaments are never simply just about the demonstration of sporting prowess, but also about the growing or reducing stature of the nations in play. Prospective host countries invest considerable funds to ensure that tourism, hospitality and infrastructure are well placed to improve their economies and drive investment. Such countries also devote some attention in making sure their teams are competitive, too. Few countries are able to run the gamut of improving their stature and also emerging triumphant. Qatar has already been eliminated from the World Cup, a fate that also befell the 2010 host, South Africa, while the last host nation to win the tournament was France in 1998. However, hosts without established sporting pedigree, going further than expected—such as Russia’s quarterfinal exit in 2018 and South Korea reaching the semi-finals in 2002—also hint at a considerable improvement in the host nation’s sporting capacity. 

MORE THAN JUST A TOURNAMENT

Every World Cup assumes a position as ‘patient zero’ for the debates around the future of football. However, this time around, there are concerns around the expanding nature of the presiding organization, FIFA, and what that means for the world cup’s future.  

The first concern is the growing cost of hosting such a tournament. Increased investment, sponsor interest and the need to appease member nations who are influential in selecting its leadership has seen FIFA increase the number of participating nations from the original 16 to 24 in 1982, 32 in 1998 and will see another expansion to 48 in 2026. As a result, the number of countries with the financial and infrastructural capacity to host the tournament continue to reduce. 

During the bidding for the 2002 edition, the fraught nature of the contest between South Korea and Japan led to the unusual solution of a joint hosting arrangement. Despite FIFA’s attempts to deter joint bids following that tournament, it might become the new status quo. The 2026 tournament will be hosted across three nations, while most of the bids for the 2030 and 2034 editions are across multiple nations.  

The sole alternative will be from countries able to devote significant financial resources to such an undertaking, predominantly petro-dollar states. Qatar is estimated to have spent $200 billion on the world cup, an amount that few states will be able to commit to in the future without skipping on necessary domestic development considerations. 

Such restrictions are already present in other large tournaments, a prominent example being the 2024 and 2028 Olympiads, in Los Angeles and Paris respectively, awarded after all the other contesting cities withdrew from the bidding process. Increased participation in the World Cup might mean higher investment costs and better representation, but the party can get boring when the same hosts handle it. 

The second consideration is around the added scrutiny that future hosts will receive. After the bribery accusations that followed the 2018 and 2022 world cup bidding process, FIFA moved the power to vote on the world cup hosts from its executive team to its entire membership. Ordinarily, this should prove to be more democratic and reduce the undue influence that a small group can have on the process. 

However, it only provides more of a platform for increased and concerted diplomatic lobbying. In the May 2020 vote to select the 2026 world cup hosts, the United bid (United States, Mexico and Canada) received 134 votes to beat Morocco, which polled 65 votes. While this contest was not contentious, there are no guarantees that future decisions will not see much more close-run votes. In an era of more fractious relationships within states over political and diplomatic priorities, or a world that United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has described as ‘never more divided’, the likelihood of football administrators being immune from this reality when voting for world cup hosts is very low. 

IS IT EVER JUST FOOTBALL?

From racial and identity undertones to political overtones, will we ever see global football for just the sport? FIFA appears wary of football being subsumed by ongoing political discourse and made that clear ahead of this year’s tournament. In a letter issued by its president, Gianni Infantino, and secretary-general, Fatma Samoura, FIFA said:  

We know football does not live in a vacuum and we are equally aware that there are many challenges and difficulties of a political nature all around the world. But please do not allow football to be dragged into every ideological or political battle that exists. At FIFA, we try to respect all opinions and beliefs, without handing out moral lessons to the rest of the world. No one people or culture or nation is “better” than any other. This principle is the very foundation stone of mutual respect and non-discrimination. And this is also one of the core values of football. So, please let’s all remember that and let football take centre stage. 

Ultimately, the argument of how football is interpreted, comes down to a debate between ‘purists’ who believe the focus should simply be on the amazing gathering of stars representing their country and the ‘realists’ who believe that football can no longer be immune to the raging debates of the day. It means the possibility that incredible skills and otherworldly goals will have to be digested alongside the implication of a PR gaffe from an untrained footballer or even a goal celebration interpreted through different political lenses.  

The reality is that sports and politics cannot be separated, but the disappointment is that most reporting fails to identify that both stories can exist alongside each other

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