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Football and Politics: The Nuances of Moral High Ground

Updated: Mar 28, 2023

Football and Politics: The Nuances of Moral High Ground

4 weeks. 29 days. 696 hours. That’s all the time we heard the collective singing of football chants, saw the flag of every country raised by their fans, and witnessed the passion of each player who kicked to try and score a goal. Despite the FIFA mantra of “no politics'', the 2022 World Cup inevitably served as a gateway for making political statements. Beyond this football-centric event, the perimeters of the World Cup lenses also showcased the Palestinian flags borne by different groups as they marched toward the stadiums. Similarly, campaigns promoting inclusivity, such as OneLove, were supported by players, particularly from European teams, by attempting to wear rainbow-themed armbands. The multifaceted response to these campaigns, however, possesses confusing partisanship.

A canting déjà vu

In 2019, Mesut Özil of the German national football team plunged himself into a political storm after expressing support for the Uyghur community who have been detained in concentration camps in China.

Driven by overriding business interests, the German team and media were quick to divert the limelight away from freedom of speech and pivotal human rights concerns. Because there exists an ultimatum of ‘no politics, just football’, Arsenal’s apolitical stance refused to back Özil.

Fast forward to 2022, the German team, in their match against Japan, held a denunciation of Qatar’s alleged human rights violations. With hands in front of their mouths, the gesture is an attempted protest in response to FIFA’s decision of banning the OneLove armbands that European teams wished to wear, including Germany's team captain, Manuel Neuer.

As flattering as it may seem, the inconsistencies of their past do not reflect their stances of today; ergo, inciting a rather flawed message. Yet, this doesn’t mean that there is insincerity. What is present, however, is the German team’s advocacy in Qatar that suggests a formulated intelligent response to politicize and disparage the host country.

Inadequacy vs Inconsistency

In almost every match, there was at least one Palestine flag and the occasional “Free Palestine'' banner waving on the benches. Fans were also seen wearing activist shirts against the Iranian regime, portraying the photo of Mahsa Amini alongside a phrase that reads ‘Women. Life. Freedom’. At the same time, rainbow-themed paraphernalia was brought and sported by a few in support of the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community.

Credit: Twitter/Timesofgaza

No matter which angles you look at, all of these demonstrations are interpreted as political statements – an outcry towards certain groups within a backdrop of various human rights issues. In theory, every sentiment counts; but in practice, there’s still an elephant in the room that is yet to be answered: Which political message is allowed?

Ahead of the Morocco v Canada match, fans draped in clothing showing support for Palestine were guided by questioning security. In a match between Iran and the United States, Iranian protesters were coerced to remove their T-shirts and had their political paraphernalia confiscated, conveying anti-Iran sentiment. If that wasn’t enough, fans who are part of the LGBT+ community were consistently under the radar for merely expressing their identities.

Now, the problem arises not because there is not enough representation but because there is a lack of consistency in implementing policies.

Is Qatar to blame?

Ahead of the 2022 World Cup, FIFA President Gianni Infantino symbolized unity and hospitality by saying, “everyone will be welcomed to the tournament regardless of origin, background, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or nationality.” Surely, Qatar did its best to uphold these words and this has been fairly evident.

This was already a complex hurdle, considering that Qatar is a small nation with diplomatic tie-ins from all over the globe. So, to put all the pressure on them seems fairly unreasonable. Ultimately, having to unite the world just within a 28-day major football event is a strenuous, almost impossible task.

Selective politicizing

At this time, one thing’s for sure: football is political – it always has been, and it always will be. Having to satisfy the agenda of every group and organization out there is the loophole Qatar didn’t sign up for; and as a country with its own traditions, culture, and religion, they could not possibly cater to everyone around them, especially when a man is fickle.

At the conclusion of the World Cup, the world witnessed how FIFA remains an opportunity for voices to be heard and issues to be discussed. Yet the manner and nuances in doing so still require clarity and a leap of faith. To put all the burden on the host country alone or the rest of the world alone is inexpedient – it leads nowhere.

Insofar as progress is concerned, relying on a communal discussion within either of these dichotomies only creates tension, a narrative filled with endless finger-pointing, and a system where there is selective policing of certain agendas over the other. Essentially, this highlights a novel and fundamental stalemate: the discussion for development, human rights, and political feuds during this World Cup is no longer for the sake of progression and peacekeeping; but rather gratifying specific agendas that never actually satisfy anyone.


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