Politicising Sports at the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022

From being a pure diplomatic tool to being a driver of power, the role of sports in the political arena is ever-shifting on the spectrum of friendliness to hostility. As much as some fans and athletes insist that politics be kept out of sports, it is nearly impossible to separate the two. There have been countless moments in sports history which have exhibited that sports events are influenced by social and political contexts. Whether it is discrimination towards a former German Footballer, Mesut Ozil, because of his Turkish origin at the individual level or the United States (US) boycott from the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics at the state level, sports are almost always used to make a political statement. Hence, the matter of debate is “what kind” of political statements can or cannot be made at a sports event. The list of “dos and don’ts” is subjective and depends upon various elements, with the host nation being one of the major factors. This article takes the case of the FIFA World Cup, Qatar 2022, which generated substantial controversies and backlash from the West, to analyse the debate of sports and politics, and whether it is worth hoping to generate significant political outcomes from sports.

As extravagant as it may have been, the FIFA World Cup, Qatar 2022, will go down as one of the most controversial ones in history. It began from the very basic political statement that BBC, and stealthily the United Kingdom (UK), made by not broadcasting the opening ceremony of FIFA 2022, implying their reservations towards Qatar hosting the event. This reflected double standards as BBC broadcasted the 2018 FIFA World Cup’s opening ceremony with full zeal and zest even after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and occupation of eastern Ukraine. The idea of an Arab nation hosting a global sports event for the first time in history seems rather unusual for the West. The West blatantly sheds light on Qatar’s alleged human rights abuses while completely shutting its consciousness towards Islamophobia and racism. Racism is quite evident in the West today; as per a report, about half of Americans find “a lot” of discrimination against Blacks; 30% detect major discrimination against Hispanics, while 27% see major discriminatory attitudes towards Asians in the US. According to another report, around 7000 hate crimes were committed in the US alone in 2021.

If sports cannot promote coexistence, which also includes respecting a state’s culture, it will become another tool of polarisation between people.

Such behaviour even confirms the frailty of the West choosing to counter Qatar at a sporting event while Qatar is the tenth largest land-owner in Britain. Not only this, Qatar has millions of dollars worth of arms and energy deals with Western nations. It is not to imply that one is superior to another or that one’s “wrongs” are better than the other. However, the purpose is to highlight how complicated and perplexing the realities are and how easy it is to seize an opportunity such as the World Cup to construct public opinion against a state or entity by presenting only one side of the picture to the masses. A picture that the Western fans who themselves visited and experienced the World Cup in Qatar would also counter. For example, when FIFA announced the ban on alcohol in the World Cup, one of the earliest reactions came from the official beer sponsor of FIFA, i.e., Budweiser, which invests $75 m per year to sustain its sponsorship. True football fans could not care less about alcohol. However, Budweiser tweeted, “Well, this is awkward”, and immediately deleted the tweet, depicting where the criticism of Qatar’s regulations originates.

Nevertheless, from the Iranian Football team refusing to sing their national anthem in protest to Israeli reporters being bashed by Arab football fans, to the German Football team’s protest in their team group photo before the match, to the Moroccan football team waving the Palestinian flag after each game, all have reasserted Briana Scurry’s statement. Scurry, a former US football player, maintained that when a country is chosen for hosting the World Cup, so are the consequences. Besides, the president of FIFA, an Italian-Swiss football administrator, Gianni Infantino, has also been accused of having close ties with the Qatari leadership. Such allegations and narrative building during a global sporting event produce counterproductive results, as they did in this year’s FIFA World Cup. For example, when Arabs refused to talk to Israeli reporters in hopes of making a political statement and standing up for Palestinians, it was dubbed in Israel as anti-Semitism to gather sympathies from the West.

Coming back towards the debate of whether or not sports should be politicised, it is implausible to prevent the politicisation of sports. But there are harmful as well as positive implications. As long as sports are used as a diplomatic tool, i.e., to promote friendship, cultural tolerance and peaceful coexistence – they can be proved to be a very productive asset. But, if sports cannot promote coexistence, which also includes respecting a state’s culture, in this case, Qatar’s, it will become another tool of polarisation between people. Not just football but even cricket has always been a great example of the politicisation of sports. For example, when the Board of Control for Cricket in India signalled that the Indian cricket team would not visit Pakistan for the Asia Cup 2023, it brought great disappointment and dejection among cricket fans and athletes. Such realities depict that as traditional diplomacy has its limits, so does modern diplomacy. So far, there does not exist any universal mechanism or international law about regulating global sporting events such as football and cricket world cups, despite the political significance they hold. There must be a cooperative regulation mechanism to prevent unpleasantness in the form of political controversies, the cost of which is paid by the athletes and the true spirit of sports is lost somewhere in the political chaos.

Ana Arooj

Ana Arooj studied International Relations from National Defence University, Pakistan. She is currently working as Research Assistant at CSCR.

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