Soccer — or football, to most of the global billions watching the World Cup this month — is not human society itself, with all its thorny issues. But at times, the game is a reflection of the entire planet — of nations, their disputes, their aspirations and those of a multitude of minority communities.
Just weeks before the most intensely scrutinized, in early November World Cup in the tournament’s history kicked off in Qatar, top FIFA officials sent a letter urging teams to “let football take center stage.”
Gianni Infantino, FIFA president followed this up on the eve the opening match with an hour-long diatribe contre all who had criticized the host country’s human rights record. This included the conditions that saw thousands of migrants die while building the nation’s shiny new stadiums and its position on LGBTQ issues.
Fans from around the world have a different idea of what that “center stage” should show. Many Iranians have attended matches in Qatar to support protestors at home. And they’ve wanted the team to do the same.
Other political issues have been boiling fast on a daily basis. Outside the sphere of politics World Cup bubble: The world has been turning in some of its most fraught events, including Russia’s war with Ukraine, mass shootings at the United States, and the sudden eruption in protests in China.
Of the sporting spirit, George Orwell wrote: “I am always amazed when I hear people saying that sport creates goodwill between the nations, and that if only the common peoples of the world could meet one another at football or cricket, they would have no inclination to meet on the battlefield.”
His point is correct. Russia was outlawed in this World Cup hosting the 2018 previous cup in 2018 reflects the isolation of the country and its leaders for the invasion of Ukraine. The qualification hurdle was cleared by Ukraine, and fans back home were more worried about the survival of their country amid severe electricity and water shortages than they were about watching matches in Qatar.
The buildup between Iran and the United States has been a result of decades of animosity. World Cup match Tuesday could see one country advance to the knockout stage. The U.S. Soccer Federation briefly displayed Iran’s national flag on social media without the emblem of the Islamic Republic, saying the move supported protesters inside Iran. Iran’s government reacted by accusing America that it removed the name of God off its national flag.
The century-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including Israel’s occupation of lands Palestinians want for a future state, has also featured in Qatar, though neither national team is competing. Pro-Palestinian flag and supporters have been prominent in Qatar, whereas Israeli media and fans are less welcomed in an Arab country that has not normalized its relations with Israel.
Morocco’s famous win over Belgium’s top-ranked stars Sunday triggered unrest in Belgium, the Netherlands and elsewhere in Belgium. This is a country where the immigrant North African community has been marginalized for a long time. “Those are not fans; they are rioters. Moroccan fans are there to celebrate,” the mayor of Brussels said.
Qatar has been a hotbed for LGBTQ rights, and is currently under scrutiny for its human rights record as well as laws that criminalize homosexuality.
Germany’s players covered their mouths for the team photo before their opening match to protest against FIFA following the governing body’s clampdown on the “One Love” armband. The issue of wearing rainbow colors, which are symbols of LGBTQ rights has been a contentious one. European officials have brought the colors to the stands.
Qatari soccer fans responded to Germany’s protest by holding pictures of former Germany playmaker Mesut Özil while covering their mouths. This referenced Ozil, a German-born descendant of Turkish immigrants, quitting the national team after becoming a target of racist abuse and a scapegoat for Germany’s early World Cup exit in 2018. “I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose,” Özil said at the time.
As this tournament and many others demonstrate, it is important to keep the world from engaging in sport. World As Olympics and Cups have demonstrated, it is not possible. This is especially true when we live in a hyperconnected world where each word, every gesture, and each expression of dismay are amplified for a global audience.
These matches can be watched by millions, and football is often the main focus. However, complex day-today issues are always on the horizon and ready to take over. The rest of the globe, as it turns out is not where the soccer pitch ends.
AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
Tamer Fakahany, the deputy director of global news coordination at The Associated Press has directed international coverage for The AP for more than 20 years. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/tamerfakahany