FIFA World Cup 2022 ends but opens off-field debate and controversy

Good or Wasteful? Football or Sports-Washing? Three academics analyse reactions

FIFA 2022 had more than its share of controversies and criticisms (FIFA Website Collage)

Tim Elcombe, Alanna Harman and Alun Hardman
Ontario (Canada) and Cardiff (UK), December 21, 2022

After a month of Football, the 2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup in Qatar has concluded with Argentina beating France 4-2 in a penalty shootout after drawing 3-3.

Record numbers of fans were expected to watch the nail-biting final match at the Lusail Stadium just outside of the Qatari capital Doha. The tournament featured a highly competitive group stage, increased global representation in the knockout rounds, dramatic upsets and outstanding individual performances, highlighted by Argentina’s great Lionel Messi and emerging superstar Kylian Mbappé of France.

Non-Sporting controversy

From the moment FIFA announced Qatar as the 2022 World Cup host in 2010, non-sporting controversy has plagued the event. In addition to bribery charges against FIFA officials, questions were raised about the suitability of a small nation with limited football history or infrastructure to host the World Cup.

Complicating the choice of Qatar further was the desert nation’s hot summers which made scheduling the event in its normal June-July timeframe impractical, necessitating the move to November-December, which European football associations viewed as disrupting their regular schedules.

Argentina’s Lionel Messi kisses the World Cup that his team won (FIFA Website)

Politics and Sport

Beyond the logistical issues, the 2022 World Cup will also be remembered as one of the most politically scrutinised sporting events in recent times.

A sampling of global politics intersecting with the World Cup include (a) FIFA threatening to give yellow cards to team captains who wear One Love armbands in support of LGBTQ+ Rights (b) German players covering their mouths during the pre-game photo to protest the Qatari government’s human rights violations (c) Some Morocco fans rioted in Belgium after the North African nation defeated the Belgians (d) Serbian players displayed a map of their home nation in their locker room that included Kosovo with the words “No Surrender.” Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008 (e) Iranian State officials called for the US to be kicked out of the Tournament after the US Soccer Federation displayed an image of the Iranian flag on social media without the Islamic Republic emblem (f) There were tensions between pro-government and protest-supporting Iranian fans (g) Fans refused to be interviewed by Israeli media outlets (h) The Palestinian flag was waved by teams and fans and (i) Tensions escalated on the field and in the stands during Serbia’s match with Switzerland who featured players of Albanian descent.

Human Rights criticisms

Human rights groups criticised Qatar’s laws banning homosexuality and its poor treatment of migrant workers. Millions of migrant workers live in Qatar, with an estimated one million employed in the construction industry.

According to a report by The Guardian, 6500 of these migrant workers, mostly from South Asia, died in Qatar in the years since FIFA’s decision to award the country the World Cup.

Qatari authorities have challenged The Guardian’s report, claiming that the number of migrant worker deaths was in line with expected mortality rates. And officials also highlighted the legacy that the World Cup will provide Qatar, including modernised infrastructure for a diversified economy and social progress, including labour reforms, to better protect vulnerable migrant workers.

During the Event’s Opening Ceremony, American actor Morgan Freeman appeared on the field with Ghanim Al Muftah, a young Qatari social media celebrity born with a lower spine impairment, to emphasise that the world is “one big tribe.”

Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani welcomed the world to his nation and asked for people to “put aside what divides them” and engage in “human and civilised communications.”

The gentle tone of Qatar’s leader contrasted with FIFA President Gianni Infantino’s angry hour-long speech the previous day calling out the West’s hypocrisy and demanding Europe apologise for the next 3000 years for its human rights abuses.

After losing to Argentina, Kylian Mbappé has pledged that France will return (FIFA Website)

Throughout the Tournament, our project has been highlighting this intersection of global politics and the World Cup. Every match tells a story about international affairs, sometimes directly through Football, other times tangentially.

But the reality is that sport always happens in times and places and the political dimension cannot be ignored or set aside despite pleas from gatekeepers such as FIFA who want to better the world while appearing to stay on the political sidelines.

Diverging opinions

As the Tournament concluded, assessments will begin: was it a success beyond the sport? The answer is it is complicated.

Defenders of Qatar as host will point to the nation’s lasting infrastructure enhancements and employment of cutting-edge sustainability practices; the significance of bringing the World Cup to the Middle East and building cultural bridges through a peaceful sporting event; and the opportunity for Qatar to showcase its modern identity.

Detractors will point to the treatment of migrant workers, the estimated US$200 billion price tag and the sports-washing of Qatar’s image.

To capture these divergent ways of looking at the intersection of sport and politics, Tim Elcombe created the REI/BCI continuum. One can view Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup from a positive perspective: an opportunity for Qatar to develop meaningful resources, engage the world in productive dialogue and show the world Qatar’s identity.

At the same time, a negative view of the 2022 World Cup host would emphasise the waste of resources (and loss of life) to put on a four-week “show” to wash its image through sport.

Regardless of which view holds sway, the 2022 FIFA World Cup reminds us that sport is complex and tense, both on and off the field.

Tim Elcombe is Associate Professor of Kinesiology & Physical Education and Fellow at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, Wilfrid Laurier University, Alanna Harman is Assistant Professor, Kinesiology and Physical Education, Wilfrid Laurier University; Alun Hardman is Senior Lecturer and Associate Dean, International at Cardiff Metropolitan University. The above article has been published under Creative Commons Licence.

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