The politics of the FIFA World Cup in Qatar
Nov 22, 2022 | AIJAC staff
The FIFA World Cup kicked off on Sunday, Nov. 20, but while the world soccer federation FIFA insists the globally-watched tournament is only about soccer, the controversial choice of Qatar to host it has given the event major political implications. This Update looks at numerous ways in which this is the case.
First up is American columnist Ben Cohen, who looks at both the implications of the tournament for the Iranian protest movement, and the major political problems that flowed from making Qatar the host. He suggests a key hero of the tournament will be retired Iranian soccer legend Ali Daei – who will not be there because he is publicly backing the protest movement in Iran, at considerable personal risk. Cohen also reveals evidence that Qatar is helping the Iranian regime, with which Doha is loosely allied, to suppress protest activity against Iran – as well as discussing other reasons why Qatar is a grossly unsuitable host for the event. For his full argument, CLICK HERE.
For more on Qatar’s unsuitability, AIJAC’s Tzvi Fleischer had an article on this subject published in the Herald Sun and Courier Mail last week.
Next up is Washington-based analyst Hussain Abdul-Hussain, who looks at why a small nation like Qatar would spend up to US$300 billion (~A$454 billion) to host the World Cup. He says it is basically about image – and recalls a long history of dictators using sporting events to bolster their power and reputation, from Mussolini and Hitler, to Putin more recently. Abdul-Hussain also notes that former FIFA head Sepp Blatter has said awarding the World Cup to Qatar was a “mistake”, and Qatar “too small a country” – and discusses why Blatter is clearly right. For all the details, CLICK HERE.
Finally, Washington Institute for Near East Policy expert Omer Carmi looks specifically at the implications of the World Cup for Iran. Carmi notes that the regime had hoped to benefit from the World Cup in two ways – by using the Iranian national team to build nationalism and cause Iranians to rally round the flag (especially following a game against the USA scheduled for Nov. 29), and via tourism and economic cooperation flowing from neighbouring Qatar. However, both hopes have been severely dented by the protest movement, scaring away any potential tourists, even as Iranian soccer players and fans have been finding ways to use the tournament to support the protests and defy the regime. For the rest of Carmi’s analysis, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in…
- Washington Institute expert Simon Henderson looks at the tensions and rivalry among Gulf Arab states that are accompanying the World Cup.
- An article arguing that the World Cup amounts to a kick in the face for Palestinians, who could desperately use some of the massive amounts of money spent on the World Cup for humanitarian aid.
- Israeli journalist Khaled Abu Toameh arguing Qatar plays a double game, pretending to be a US ally, while funding Islamist extremists, including Hamas. He also notes that Qatar aid to Gaza mainly helps Hamas, not the needy.
- Iranians in Qatar have repeatedly been filmed protesting against the regime.
- Israelis are able to attend the World Cup, despite having no diplomatic relations with Qatar. However, there has been controversy after Qatar appeared to renege on promises to supply hot kosher food, and allow organised Jewish prayer.
- There are also reports of Israeli journalists being harassed by Qataris and visiting fans from other Arab nations.
- Meanwhile, the World Cup has forced players to nix plans to wear pro-LGBTIQ armbands to protest Qatari persecution of that community.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- Oved Lobel argued that Australia’s ongoing inaction on Iran is sending a dangerous message to China, in a piece published on news.com.au.
- Three short videos from AIJAC’s webinar with top Israeli journalist Ehud Yaari discussing the post-election situation in Israel: One on why incoming Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu would prefer to form a broad government rather than a narrow right-wing one; One offering Yaari’s insights into the Iranian protest movement; And one on why Israel must still keep the possibility of the two-state solution alive, even though the current Palestinian leadership is making it impossible in the short term.
Qatar’s Farcical World Cup Begins
JNS.org, Nov. 20, 2022
Ali Daei – the most important soccer superstar who won’t be at the World Cup. The former Iranian champion and national captain is boycotting the World Cup out of solidarity with Iran’s protest movement (Image: : Wikimedia Commons | Licence details).
Even before the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar kicked off, the tournament already had a hero: the former captain of the Iranian national team, Ali Daei.
Now retired and working as a coach, Daei is without question the greatest footballer Iran has ever produced, playing at senior level both in his home country and in Germany. Daei was even the world’s top international goal scorer until last year, when his haul of 109 goals was pipped by a certain Cristiano Ronaldo. Adored in Iran, he made 149 appearances for the men’s national team, including the World Cup tournaments of 1998 and 2006.
Daei is also a devout Muslim who once turned down a lucrative offer to appear in a beer ad in Germany on the grounds that the consumption of alcohol is proscribed by his faith. But as with many Iranians, in Daei’s case, belief in the religious tenets of Islam does not necessarily translate into support for the Islamic Republic that has ruled with an iron fist since 1979.
Last week, circumventing the restrictions imposed on internet access by the Iranian regime amid historic protests against its continued rule, Daei told his 10.6 million followers on Instagram that he had turned down an invitation to attend the competition from its Qatari hosts and FIFA, world soccer’s governing body.
Daei cited the protests that have convulsed Iran as the reason for his staying away from Qatar. He wanted, he told his followers, to “be by your side in my homeland and express my sympathy with all the families who have lost loved ones these days.” This was in keeping with Daei’s previous statements, such as his message to the regime declaring, “instead of suppression, violence, arrests and accusing the people of Iran of being rioters, solve their problems.” Daei also put his neck on the line last month when he publicly challenged the regime’s claim that a young female protestor in his hometown of Ardabil had died of a pre-existing medical condition, and not at the hands of police officers.
Daei’s announcement might be taken as evidence of the old observation that there are things in life more important than soccer. But in soccer-mad Iran, what happens with the national team both on and off the field frequently takes on a political significance unknown among those teams coming from democratic countries.
Iran’s World Cup appearances are invariably an opportunity for Iranians living outside their homeland to express their patriotism while loudly opposing the ayatollahs. In Qatar, they may even be joined in those protests by the players, who have been told by coach Carlos Queiroz that they are “free to protest as they would if they were from any other country as long as it conforms with the World Cup regulations and is in the spirit of the game.”
Certainly, that is a prospect which worries the Iranian regime. Speaking to the players as they were paraded in front of him before departing for Qatar, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi told them, “Some don’t want to see the success and victory of Iranian youth and wish to disturb your focus. Be very vigilant on this.” As much as that might sound like advice, it is in fact a threat – and given that the regime has murdered nearly 400 people and arrested more than 15,000 since the protests began in September, it is a threat that should be taken seriously.
The regime is taking all the measures it can to ensure that mass sessions of soccer watching don’t become the occasion for additional protests. To that end, they can count on their allies in Qatar, an obscenely wealthy Gulf emirate that thumbed its nose at the Abraham Accords with Israel some of its neighbors signed up to, and which continues to back the Hamas terrorist organization in Gaza.
At the end of last week, the Qataris announced that they had revoked the World Cup credentials of Iran International (IITV), an anti-regime broadcaster based in London with a solid following in Iran despite the regime’s various censorship mechanisms. The decision was made after Iran’s rulers classified IITV as a “terrorist organization,” with the influential conservative newspaper Kayhan reporting that Iran had pressured Qatar to comply with its wishes. IITV had intended to dispatch seven journalists to cover the World Cup, but only three were concerned with the soccer aspect; the remainder were going to cover the action off the field, which likely explains Iran’s objections.
Qatar’s censorship on behalf of its Iranian ally aligns with the sly, underhanded manner through which it used its wealth and influence for the purpose of bribing FIFA into awarding Doha the 2022 World Cup, an outcome that former FIFA President Sepp Blatter now belatedly admits was “a mistake.”
Foreign workers living in squalor in Doha. Those who tune into the games should be aware of the price workers like these, an estimated 6,000 of whom lost their lives, who constructed the World Cup’s infrastructure. (Photo: Shutterstock, Shadow of light).
Those who tune into the games should at least be aware of the context in which they take place. Over 6,000 migrant workers have lost their lives in unsafe, unsanitary conditions to build the air-conditioned stadiums where the matches will be hosted. More than 90% of the population, consisting exclusively of foreigners, lives under a form of apartheid, to the point that they are banned from entering the swish malls where Qatari citizens purchase luxury goods and eat at western food outlets. Women are second-class citizens while homosexuality is the subject of medieval repression, with gay men who are also Muslim facing the death penalty if they are apprehended.
Earlier this month, the supporters of German side Borussia Dortmund—who in normal circumstances would never pass up the opportunity to watch a soccer match—unfurled a large banner before a domestic league game that declared, “Boycott Qatar 2022.”
Amid all the spin around the competition that the Qataris have generated, along with FIFA’s insistence that we should all forget about the politics and concentrate on the soccer, that was a much needed and welcome statement. Those who choose not to heed this call are entitled to their opinion, but please do us all a favor, and don’t call the spectacle in Qatar the “beautiful game.”
Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.
World Cup 2022: What’s In It For Qatar?
1945, Nov. 17, 2022
Qatar has spent an estimated US$300 billion on the World Cup – including building eight expensive stadiums which will likely become white elephants – primarily to burnish its tattered image (Image: Shutterstock, xalien).
To host soccer’s top international competition, held once every four years, Qatar had to spend $300 billion — the equivalent of 170 percent of its GDP — buying not only a brand new infrastructure and seven stadiums, but also a national soccer team of naturalized foreign players, and even spectators. But hosting a global event has also renewed scrutiny of Qatar’s human rights abuses and its repressive Islamic laws , raising the question: Why would autocrats — Russia in 2018 and Qatar this month — spend all this money to host a tournament that trains a spotlight on their flaws?
The short answer is image.
When billions of soccer fans associate their favorite sport with a place or a brand, their perception of it will be generally positive. Only a fraction of those who watch the games will check out media reports on global calls to boycott the tournament because of Doha’s abuses.
The reason why Qatar bribed its way to host the World Cup is the same reason Budweiser has been one of the primary sources of income for the global soccer federation, FIFA. Both want to benefit from the good feelings that come from association with a beloved event. Qatar’s tough restrictions on the consumption of alcohol have led to some tensions with one of the world’s most renowned beer brands, but fans should still be able to buy a cold one.
Another source of tension was the admission by Sepp Blatter, the former FIFA official who awarded Qatar hosting privileges in 2010, that allowing Qatar to host the World Cup was “a mistake” and that “the choice was bad,” reasoning that Qatar was “too small a country” and that soccer “and the World Cup [were] too big for it.”
Qatar is 100 miles, north to south, and 50 miles, east to west. To put such numbers in perspective, consider that during his decades in the Senate, President Joe Biden commuted 100 miles daily between his house in Wilmington, Delaware, and Washington, DC.
World cups are usually hosted in a dozen cities, but Qatar has only one, its capital Doha. During the last three editions of the tournament, over three million fans watched the games in stadiums. Qatar’s population is 2.8 million, only 300,000 of which are citizens.
Qatar’s numbers made the global soccer organization FIFA fear that Doha was biting off more than it could chew. Qatar, however, promised to build 12 stadiums, a new airport, seaport, and metro, and tens of thousands of hotel rooms.
But even a country as rich as Qatar has spending limits. Doha eventually told FIFA that it would build only seven stadiums, and that games will take place in five cities, three of them Doha suburbs. The only town to host games, outside metro Doha, will be Al-Khor, 32 miles to the north. Still, most fans—especially the vast majority who watch on television—are unlikely to learn about Qatar’s struggles to prepare for the Cup.
The Italian team gives a fascist salute during the 1934 World Cup in Italy. Dictatorships have a long history of using sporting events to bolster their power and reputation.
There is a long history of autocrats hosting major athletic events to burnish their image. In his 1936 essay in Foreign Affairs, “The Dictators Discover Sports,” the journalist John Tunis wrote that European dictators “have cleverly used sports as propaganda.”
The 1934 World Cup was held in Fascist Italy, and through a combination of buying referees and naturalizing foreign players for Italy’s team, Mussolini snatched the trophy for his country. (Qatar is unlikely to be so audacious. Its squad has 12 naturalized players, but multiple victories would be suspicious for such an undistinguished team.)
In 1936, Hitler hosted the Olympics in Berlin. A boycott movement failed, and “Germany had its propaganda coup: The 49 nations who sent teams to the Games legitimized the Hitler regime both in the eyes of the world and of German domestic audiences,” according to the Holocaust Memorial Museum.
At the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014 and the World Cup in 2018, Vladimir Putin basked in the limelight of hosting world leaders. (A state-run doping program at Sochi became a major embarrassment, however.)
Some of the scrutiny directed at Qatar has clearly gotten under its leader’s skin. Emir Tamim bin Hamad denounced alleged “fabrications and double standards that were so ferocious.” He also questioned “the real reasons behind the (criticism) campaign,” hinting that negative press was a political hit job.
But once the World Cup kicks off on Sunday, the world’s most popular athletes will be competing and entertaining their fans, who will remember Qatar for hosting the event, not for the moral and ethical compromises that brought the event to Doha.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. Follow Hussain on Twitter @hahussain.
A Politically Challenging World Cup for Iran
Washington Institute Policy Analysis, Nov 18, 2022
The Iranian national soccer team. The regime has been using the team to attempt to build nationalism and patriotism – but the mass protest movement in Iran, and sympathy of many athletes for it, has deflated their plans (Photo: Wikimedia Commons | Licence details)
Instead of attracting tourists, boosting the economy, and rallying Iranians around the flag, this year’s tournament could turn into a Pyrrhic victory for the regime given its dire political situation at home.
On paper, the Qatar World Cup should be an occasion for much celebration and opportunity in Iran. After qualifying for three tournaments in a row, the talented squad representing this football-obsessed nation is looking to pass the initial group stage for the first time ever. The fact that the matches will be held in Iran’s backyard likely convinced the regime that it could simultaneously attract tourists and boost the economy via joint projects with Doha. Yet weeks of mass protests have drastically changed Tehran’s plans on this front.
In April, Vice President Mohammad Mokhber reviewed seventy areas of potential economic cooperation during the tournament, such as hosting fans on Iran’s Persian Gulf islands and ferrying tourists back and forth to Qatar. More recently, however, the economic newspaper Donya-e-Eqtesad reported that “none of the promises made by Iranian officials have materialized,” while the reformist paper Etemad noted that 20,000 Iranian hotel rooms set aside for football tourists remained empty—a situation no doubt exacerbated by the regime’s high-profile detainment of foreigners amid the protests.
In the past, sports helped Iran’s leaders marshal some degree of nationalistic unity despite simmering public discontent. Yet the uprising has led many current and former athletes to align with the protesters. Football legends such as Ali Karimi and Ali Daei supported the demonstrations from the very beginning and recently turned down invitations to attend the World Cup. In response, hardliners have publicly threatened their assets and even their lives. Last month, Javan—a newspaper affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)—warned Daei that “whoever doesn’t know his limits will perish,” while Karimi was charged in absentia for “acting against national security.”
In another show of solidarity, the national teams for various sports have remained silent when the Islamic Republic’s anthem played during recent competitions, including basketball, water polo, and even the football squad during last week’s friendly against Nicaragua. On November 15, Coach Carlos Queiroz told reporters that his players can protest if they want so long as they respect the rules and spirit of the World Cup; two days later, top players Alireza Jahanbakhsh and Alireza Beiranvand said that singing the anthem and celebrating goals are personal decisions for each teammate. The issue has received prominent media attention, and activists are reportedly planning to protest inside and outside Iran’s matches, making the regime extra sensitive to any symbolic support from the team. One former parliamentarian warned this week that players who do not sing the anthem or celebrate goals may be removed. The regime has also reportedly sought to control in-game Persian media coverage by convincing Qatar to ban at least one network sympathetic to the protesters (the London-based Iran International).
Interestingly, in mobilizing public support against the demonstrations, the regime has focused on nationalist rather than religious themes. Many recent murals in Tehran’s famous Valiasr Square feature a spectrum of national symbols and ethnic groups, aiming to rally the people around a patriotic ethos and urging them to keep Iran from “falling into the enemy’s hands.” One mural featured the unofficial national anthem “Ey Iran,” which was first published during the Pahlavi monarchy.
The regime is using the football team for similar purposes. On November 13, it unveiled a mural showing players accompanied by ancient and pre-Islamic heroes. The squad has also occupied the front pages of most major newspapers all week. When they met with President Ebrahim Raisi, the encounter was headlined “For the Iranian Flag,” and Raisi was given an honorary “Twelfth Player” jersey. Yet efforts to celebrate the team and lighten the atmosphere have rankled many young Iranians, with activists criticizing the squad for posting playful photos while other youths are being beaten and killed across the country.
Young protesters at Teheran’s Amir Kabir University. Iranian activists have criticised the soccer squad for posting playful photos while other youths are being beaten and killed across the country (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Darafsh).
As for the competition itself, Iran’s initial four-team round-robin group notably includes the United States, England, and Wales, with only the top two squads advancing to the tournament’s knockout stages. Its first match is against England on November 21, followed by Wales on November 25 and the United States on November 29.
The latter match holds especially potent political implications. The two countries famously squared off at the 1998 World Cup in France, with Iran’s victory sparking days of nationwide festivals back home. Minutes after the match, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei congratulated the nation on defeating its “arrogant” opponents, comparing the game with “past victories” against “the Great Satan.”
Today’s context is even more ripe for nationalist exploitation and anti-American sentiment. In truth, the 1998 match was a rather friendly encounter on the field, with new reformist president Mohammad Khatami using football diplomacy to foster wider bilateral rapprochement. Players followed the World Cup custom of exchanging jerseys after the win and posed for a joint pregame photo. Yet Raisi is not Khatami, and current relations are far from detente. The regime is more eager than ever to rally Iranians around the “football flag” with a win against the United States, both to serve its propaganda aims and to counter any further momentum the protests may gain during the tournament.
This may be easier said than done, however. In April, Raisi’s spokesman jokingly tweeted that football star Sardar Azmoun should meet with the IRGC air force chief to brainstorm ahead of the U.S. match, playing off the fact that “Sardar” can be translated as “General.” By September, however, Azmoun had posted his support for the protests on Instagram. He deleted the post a few hours later and was ultimately included on the national roster, but the incident highlighted the precarious state of Tehran’s profit-risk balance at Qatar 2022.
Omer Carmi is a former visiting fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.