Now that the 2022 World Cup in Qatar has reached the quarter-finals, more action is guaranteed, but though the matches may claim centre stage, complex issues off the field are never far from the surface.
Tensions surrounding the match between Switzerland and Serbia always threatened to explode. No sooner had Xherdan Shaqiri of Switzerland scored against Serbia in the group stage, a 3-2 result that put his team into the last 16 of the World Cup for the third tournament in a row, than he ran straight to the opposing fans to celebrate, putting his finger to his lips after having been taunted by that section of the crowd.
Born in Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008, Shaqiri Shaqiri is of Albanian heritage. Kosovo may have declared independence from Serbia but Serbia — a traditional ally of Russia — does not recognise it as an independent country.
Serbia was fined and warned by FIFA about the “display of discriminatory banners and messages” by supporters. Serbia’s football association apparently hung a controversial flag depicting Kosovo in their dressing room prior to their World Cup defeat by Brazil. The flag showed an outline of Kosovo filled with the Serbian flag with the words “no surrender”.
When Morocco beat Spain on penalties on Tuesday to become the first Arab country to reach the quarter-finals of a World Cup, it was the biggest upset in Qatar thus far. Morocco is a former colony of Spain and their long and complex relationship was no doubt part of the game’s backdrop. The stirring of anti-colonial sentiment is fuelling the pride Arabs are taking in the Moroccan team. Morocco had hoped to follow Tunisia, a former colony of France, which managed to beat the defending champions. In fact, Morocco went one better and will face either Portugal or Switzerland in the last eight, a game not played as of writing.
As Morocco romped home to a 2-0 victory over highly-ranked Belgium in the group stage unrest broke out in Belgian cities and also in Holland where the immigrant North African community has long been marginalised.
Even the outfits being worn by fans are politically coloured. Qatar’s local population has been put off by the caped crusader costumes of English spectators. The outfits, featuring a suit of chainmail armour, plastic helmet, and shield emblazoned with an upright cross, are a thumbs-up to the Christian conquests of the Holy Land from the 11th to 13th centuries that pitted European invaders against Muslims. Qatari security has been turning away people wearing such garb which as one Qatari fan put it, “praises the glories of Crusader Europe which disgraced the honour of all Muslims”.
Not being physically in Qatar doesn’t mean not participating in the World Cup. The over 70-year-long Palestinian-Israeli conflict has featured in Qatar, though neither national team is competing. The Palestinian flag and pro-Palestinian fans have been prominent.
Although China is not in the World Cup, Chinese state TV is showing the matches but not showing the fans in stadiums, lest the Chinese get the impression that there is life outside of China in the midst of lockdowns following a resurgence of Covid. And while Egypt did not qualify for the World Cup, the balls are purportedly made in Egypt.
Neither is Turkey playing, though that did not stop Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi shaking hands on the sidelines of the opening ceremony following years of strained relations. Algeria and Jordan are also absent, but the king of Jordan launched an initiative to end tensions between Algeria and the Gulf, bringing together the president of Algeria and the crown prince of Saudi Arabia on the sidelines of the inauguration of the World Cup.
Japan and South Korea both managed to make it to the second round of the tournament at a moment when the world is consumed with the rise of Asian powers and the US administration is adopting a pivot to Asia policy.
Iran and the US game, meanwhile, was filled with geo-political symbolism against the backdrop of political ping-pong between the two countries over a new nuclear deal and ongoing protests in Iran against the ruling regime. US President Joe Biden couldn’t wait to grab the microphone and tell a Michigan crowd that the US men’s soccer team had beaten Iran 1-0.
“The US one, Iran zero. The game’s over.” Biden said. The following game, it was over for the US, losing to Holland 3-1 and leaving Qatar.
Before their departure, the US Soccer Federation briefly gave itself the right to display Iran’s national flag on social media without the emblem of the Islamic Republic, saying the move supported protesters inside Iran. The Tehran government reacted by accusing America of removing the name of God from its flag.
Some countries should have heeded the advice given by Arsene Wenger who over the weekend said that teams that focused on football rather than “political demonstrations” fared better in the opening round at the World Cup. The former Arsenal manager, now working for FIFA as its head of global football development, knows a thing or two about football and non-related issues.
Denmark were stopped by FIFA from using training kits with slogans supporting human rights. Wearing toned down logos, they finished bottom of Group D. Australia’s players released a protest video ahead of the tournament and lost their first match against France.
Iranian players refused to sing their national anthem in the opening game against England in protests at riots back home and promptly lost 6-2. When they sang it in their second game, they beat Wales 2-0.
(Iranians back home rejoiced after the defeat of their football team by the US, the “Great Satan”, showing dismay over the failure of their players to abstain from chanting the national anthem in what would have been considered a sign of solidarity with the demonstrators).
Germany’s players covered their mouths before their opening game against Japan after FIFA threatened “unlimited” sanctions against players who wore the anti-discrimination OneLove armband. Germany lost. Ultimately, the four-time World Cup champions got knocked out of the tournament.
Speaking of loud mouths with their mouths shut, Qatari football fans responded to Germany’s silent protest by holding up pictures of former Germany playmaker Mesut Ozil while covering their mouths. Ozil, a German-born descendant of Turkish immigrants, quit the national team after becoming a target of racist abuse and a scapegoat for Germany’s early World Cup exit in 2018. Ozil’s famous one-liner at the time: “I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose.”
The world, as Ozil and others will tell you, doesn’t end when the football begins.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 December, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.