Politics and Sport Continue to Clash in Qatar

Politics and Sport Continue to Clash in Qatar

By Meinhardt Rentrup '23; Image by Al-Ansari & Associates

Qatar, the small, energy-rich nation located on a peninsula of the Persian Gulf, is
currently hosting the 2022 World Cup. Originally selected by the FIFA organization in 2010, the
country built brand new stadiums, accommodations, and even a city in preparation for the
world’s largest sporting event. Qatar spent over 200 billion USD to host the World Cup,
showcasing its wealth and influence and raising its global profile. Hosting the event is part of the
nation’s broader goal to position itself as a significant regional actor, as the country looks to
distinguish itself amongst its neighbors Saudi Arabia and Iran. Qatar faced many criticisms
throughout the past decade from the international community. Many believe the small country
was not equipped to host the event, claiming it only won the bid to host through bribery within
the FIFA organization. Soaring temperatures in the region forced the tournament to take place in
the winter for the first time in its history, and saw massive air conditioning systems installed in
the new stadiums. Allegations of human rights violations, an intolerance towards the LGBTQI+
community, and the autocratic government led by the ruling emir, Sheikh Tamim, have been
continuous points of political criticism leading up to the World Cup.

While much of the focus now is on the daily matches taking place around the city’s
capital, Doha, politics continue to shine through at the competition. Some European teams
planned to use LGBTQI+ armbands at the World Cup to promote diversity and inclusion, but
were met with threats by the FIFA organization. FIFA released a statement that players would
receive yellow cards for wearing the bands. Same-sex relationships are illegal in Qatar and can
be punishable by death, making the use of a rainbow armband a sensitive and controversial
topic. “We were prepared to pay fines that would normally apply to breaches of kit regulations
and had a strong commitment to wearing the armband. However, we cannot put our players in
the situation where they might be booked or even forced to leave the field of play,” the soccer
associations of England, Wales, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland
responded in a joint statement.

One political demonstration that has taken the stage at the World Cup came from the
Iranian men’s national soccer players. The players stayed mute during Iran’s national anthem on
November 21 before their game against England. The players were protesting their own
government and standing in solidarity with the uprising unfolding in Iran. The team captain
spoke to the media explicitly stating the team is in support of the protests, which began in
September after a young woman died in police custody. This message supported the
anti-government protesters who have been faced with a deadly crackdown by the government.
After the players stood in silence, another prominent Iranian soccer player and prior member of
the national team, Voria Ghafouri, was arrested the following Thursday. Ghafouri has been a
frequent critic of the Iraninan government, and some speculate this act to be a warning towards
the Iranian national team currently competing in Qatar. Following the arrest, the Iranian players
reluctantly sang their national anthem the next day in their game against Wales.

The Qatar hosted World Cup became a political controversy from the moment it was
announced. The past decade saw political strife, confusion, and criticism of the decision to
award the wealthy Arab country the privilege of hosting the tournament. It is clear that the
presence of politics in soccer has continued with the commencement of the tournament, as
different actors use the World Cup as an arena to voice their concerns. These cases are part of
a broader trend of using sports to take political action, and this trend is creating increasing
complexity in the role sports play in the international community. As competitions become more
politicized there is greater coverage and thus there may be a greater interest in a sport.
Furthermore, the presence of politics in sport does not decrease the value of the competitions
themselves. However, as we have seen in the case of Qatar thus far, the influence that politics
carry can have a direct impact on the players at the event, which can take away from their
experience and could impact their ability to perform as an athlete at the event. Politics should
have a place in international sporting events as an arena for protest and action, but should not
directly influence the athletes participating at the tournament.

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