When sport tackles politics


With the start of the World Cup, Qatar welcomes international delegations for a month of exciting football. After an opening ceremony with Morgan Freeman and Jungkook of K‑Pop group BTS, the atmosphere at the stadium seems to have missed the mark. The 22e edition of the Football World Cup is undoubtedly the most anticipated sporting spectacle of the year 2022. This edition will take place between November 20 and December 18. However, the global attention is not only on the games. Indeed, ethical debates fill the newspapers. More than a dozen countries are expressing their opposition to this controversial choice of host. I therefore invite you to retrace, with me, the path that led to “Qatar 2022”.

A controversial host choice

Qatar is certainly not a nation with a great sporting history. In football, the country is known more for its attempts to naturalize foreign players than for the quality of its program. His selection as host may therefore seem surprising. Yet, in the past decades, the country has been awarded the hosting rights for many sporting events such as the 2006 Asian Games, the 2015 World Men’s Handball Championship and the 2024 World Swimming Championships. Qatar had notably applied for the 2020 Olympic Games (which ultimately took place in Japan), for the 2019 World Championship in Athletics and the 2022 Football World Cup, two major victories for the country. . In attempting to win the rights to host these events, the nation seeks to acquire what is called « soft power » (soft-power) », a political strategy where a country seeks to increase its global prestige with the promotion of its culture through mediums such as sports (as opposed to strong power, hard power, which relies on dominance through economic or political force) in order to be able to exert influence over other nations. The problems of this World Cup go back to the circumstances in which the choice of Qatar as host took place. Indeed, when you host the biggest sporting spectacle in the world, you have to go through ethical investigations. Investigations have reported that bribes were paid in exchange for votes before the election in 2010. Last week, Sepp Blatter, the former president of FIFA (International Federation of Football Association), even denounced the choice of Qatar as host. In his review, Blatter mentions that the country is too small and that former French President Nicolas Sarkozy has indicated to him his strong preference for Qatar’s candidacy. He questions whether there is an ethical conflict since the new president of the federation, Gianni Infantino, resides in Qatar. Corruption fills FIFA’s history. The FIFAgate affair in 2015 shook the sports world. Qatar’s choice contributes following a string of questionable FIFA picks. We observe the undeniable influence of his miserly character on his decision. It is with great sadness that I note the deterioration of the host selection process for sporting events. Host rights become an auction commodity instead of a holistic evaluation of each application submitted.

“Host rights become a commodity sold at auction instead of a holistic evaluation of each application submitted”

Qatar’s Many Violations

This World Cup is also criticized for the violations of the human rights of the workers who build the infrastructures. Qatari construction sites claimed the lives of around 6,500 workers between 2011 and 2021 according to a survey conducted by The Guardian. In addition, Amnesty International records numerous violations of workers’ rights in Qatar. All this bad publicity discredits the sport and goes against its values.

However, Qatar remains inflexible in the face of criticism and refuses to adapt. He says he won’t change his customs for the World Cup. Homosexuality in the nation is criminal and punishable by fines, prison or death. The nation urges participants and their fans to tolerate their intolerance and therefore attracts complaints from many national football federations. FIFA has just issued a letter asking teams to avoid political messages during the tournament. The message is simple: shut up and dribble. However, we must ask ourselves if we should accept the positions of another country even if these violate our personal values. The history of sport and politics dates back to the beginning of the Olympics in the days of ancient Greece. It therefore seems strange to me that FIFA wants to encourage the separation of sport and politics. If FIFA maintains its position on politics in sport, the federation should not be surprised by the criticism that comes with its choices.

The national federations feel the transgression of their values ​​and denounce Qatar for its human rights violations. The choice of Qatar divides football fans. LGBTQ+ fans find themselves in a difficult position as Qatar’s posture towards their sexuality creates an inhospitable atmosphere. Sport often plays a unifying role, and yet ethical torments are terribly detrimental to the fulfillment of this role.

“The message is simple: shut up and dribble”

Questions about football itself

Finally, while the Mondial normally takes place in summer, this edition takes place in November over a shortened period of 29 days because of the heat. Temperatures in Qatar exceed forty degrees in summer, but will still be in the high twenties in November. The seasons of the professional leagues – the Serie A, the Premier Leaguethe Liga MX – also take place in November, and align with the World Cup. So we have an enforced break from these leagues. The latter were not satisfied with this change of schedule. This edition also represents the last opportunity for glory for many generational talents – Messi, Ronaldo, Lewandowski, Suárez, Modrić – who are approaching their forties. Is it time for one of them to lift the trophy? For Messi or Ronaldo, a victory could settle the debate between the two players for the title of greatest player of all time. The victory of one of these legendary figures could serve as the theatrical end to close an exceptional career. The intrigues for this World Cup are numerous, in particular for Canada which is playing its first World Cup since 1986. The recent injury of Alphonso Davies worries many despite his availability for Canada’s first match against Belgium on November 23rd.

Final Thoughts

So we see how preparations for the tournament in Qatar are awash with human rights abuses and a corruption scandal. In sporting terms, this World Cup represents the twilight of a glorious generation of footballers. This may be the opportunity to see the revelation of the future of sport. Yet it’s hard to immerse yourself in the magical allure of football when a cloud of controversy hangs over the stadium. The criticism of Qatar is not Orientalist, it attacks human rights abuses and Qataris’ lack of passion for football. With so much talk about topics unrelated to football, will the legacy of this 2022 World Cup be something other than football? We’ll have the answer in a few years, but I suspect it will have more to do with the situation in Qatar than with football itself (unless the World Cup is sensational). From my side, I hope that FIFA will learn from this edition and approach its next host decisions with more transparency. Host rights should go to a nation passionate about the sport. I hope the tournament will still be full of memorable moments.


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