Before the World Cup in Qatar, FIFA launched a social campaign called “Football Unites the World”. FIFA acknowledged “the world is divided […] with conflicts and global crises”, but promised that the World Cup will “bring people together to cross borders, unite and celebrate”.
It is a similar message to that of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which says that the Olympic Games “unite” the world of nations. Such ambitions are not just about bringing countries together to play sport according to agreed rules: these two global bodies also believe they have some capacity to shape international relations.
Indeed, both the FIFA and IOC presidents were guest speakers at the recent G20 summit in Bali. FIFA supremo, Gianni Infantino, drew on the legendary Olympic truce and pushed for a ceasefire against the Russian invasion of Ukraine for the duration of the men’s World Cup in Qatar.
Despite FIFA announcing unity and peace at the 2022 World Cup, the tournament has produced powerful examples of political conflict and protest as Russia’s attacks on Ukraine have intensified.
At a time when football was supposed to “unite the world”, FIFA tried to suppress unwelcome criticism from some participants and many commentators. This dissent stemmed mainly from widespread criticism of Qatar as host of the World Cup, in particular the exploitation of foreign workers, discrimination against LGBTQI+ communities and restrictions around drinking alcohol.
In response, Infantino sent a letter to football federations saying, “Please let’s focus on football now!” He urged them “not to allow football to be dragged into every ideological or political struggle that exists”.
While football teams focus on winning games, some also promote fundamental values in modern sport, such as inclusion, and rail against discrimination.
Many football teams – especially those from Western democratic cultures – have a progressive vision of what ‘unity’ in sport and society should mean.
FIFA’s 2017 human rights policy prohibits discrimination “in the world of football both on and off the pitch”, specifically protecting freedom of sexual orientation, among other things.
In line with this, seven European countries have informed FIFA that they intend to show their support for gender and gender diverse communities at the 2022 World Cup. Team captains were required to wear the “OneLove” rainbow colored armband, as the Dutch had done at the UEFA Euro 2020 championship.
But just hours before the opening game, FIFA announced that the OneLove symbols were a “breach” of the rules: no kit may contain “political, religious or personal slogans, statements or images”.
Moreover, wearing the bracelet does not only result in a fine. FIFA warned of penalties on the field in the form of yellow cards.
Although the European teams were angry, they now felt they had little choice but to pull out. But there were creative responses. The German team offered a symbolic protest before the start of their next game, covering their mouths to denounce that they had been “gagged” by FIFA. German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser wore the OneLove bracelet while sitting next to Infantino during that match.
Collision of values
FIFA, meanwhile, offered its own “solution”. FIFA’s “No Discrimination” campaign grew out of the planned quarter-finals, featuring FIFA-approved armbands that endorsed anti-discrimination, albeit without a specific focus on gender and gender diversity.
FIFA’s weak PR spin was then quickly denigrated into ambiguity. Despite banning the OneLove bracelets, FIFA announced that it also “supports” OneLove and the LGBTQI+ community, and “Football unites behind [FIFA’s] call for #NoDiscrimination”.
That message would find little resonance with the Qatari authorities, for whom homosexuality is an affront to Islam and prohibited by law. Just before the tournament, Qatar’s World Cup ambassador, former footballer Khalid Salman, told a German broadcaster that same-sex attraction is “damage to the mind”.
Two weeks later, panelists on Qatar’s Alkass Sports channel mocked the German football team’s protest gesture and reveled in their elimination from the cup. These Europeans, they said, had disrespected Qatari customs.
When FIFA awarded the World Cup to host Qatar, it was well aware of this clash of values, but adhered to local norms.
That said, FIFA stepped back from time to time, particularly to quell the anger of fans who failed to convey symbolic support for LGBTQI+ communities through their clothing. At the entrance to stadiums, Qatari security initially refused entry to people wearing clothing with rainbow decorations. However, after “urgent talks” with FIFA, that position was withdrawn. In that sense, fans ultimately had more freedom of expression than players.
But not completely. When some England fans arrived at the opening game dressed as their country’s patron saint, often clad in fake helmets, plastic swords and shields emblazoned with the St George Cross, Qatar police refused entry. This dress has a long tradition among English sports fans, but FIFA sided with Qatar in deciding that ‘crusader’ costumes can be historically offensive to Muslims.
According to FIFA, this position was in line with its commitment to “a non-discrimination environment”.
Meanwhile, Iranian spectators in Doha faced security charges for the “crime” of wearing T-shirts or holding up placards in support of the recent protest movement against the Islamic Republic and its morality police.
Persian pre-revolutionary flags and items with any or all of the words “Woman, life, liberty” were routinely confiscated, either by security forces or by pro-government agents and supporters.
FIFA eventually stepped in to assure Iranians that symbols of dissent would no longer be restricted by World Cup authorities, but this only happened after the Iranian team was eliminated from the tournament.
Elsewhere, Brazilian fans faced a very different political dilemma. In recent years, their team’s iconic yellow jersey, the canarinho, has been deployed as an unofficial emblem of former President Jair Bolsonaro’s right-wing populist movement.
Many supporters of the new leftist president, known as Lula, have come to the conclusion that the yellow jersey is still politically tainted: after all, Bolsanaro and his supporters had used the canarinho in the same way as Donald Trump’s MAGA merchandise.
The long-term goal of left-wing football fans is to reclaim and democratize the canarinho as a patriotic but non-partisan symbol. For now, they encourage wearing the lesser known blue kitworn when Brazil won the 1958 World Cup against Sweden, who wore yellow.
Promotional rhetoric, whether by FIFA or its stakeholders, routinely emphasizes the unifying and integrating “power” of football and the World Cup.
But rigid-eyed claims such as “soccer the universal ointment” and “the World Cup is breaking down cultural barriers” simply do not stand up to scrutiny.
Future World Cups will have to adhere to human rights obligations that Qatar (2022) and Russia (2018) were not required to follow.
But FIFA’s cognitive dissonance is so great that, on the eve of the Cup, Infantino fantasized about the possibility of a World Cup in North Korea.
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Daryl Adair, associate professor of sports management, Sydney University of Technology
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
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