The World Cup in Qatar has been marred by controversy ever since the small Gulf emirate was named host of the tournament despite doubts about the country's human rights record. Many of the problems related to the Championship have, apparently, nothing to do with sports, but the big international competitions are not only about sports, they are always about politics as well.
Sports as an image vector for authoritarian regimes
They say, in diplomatic circles, that the first international action of any newly established state is to submit two applications for affiliation: one to the UN, and another to FIFA. Beyond the political one, sports recognition is equivalent to obtaining the status of a nation, and the national football team becomes a people’s symbol and, at the same time, ambassador.
Today, world politics is also done at sports level, and the negotiation of economic-military partnerships is inevitably linked to sports. Throughout history, major sporting events (the Olympic Games and the World Cup) have been used by more or less autocratic regimes to win the goodwill of the international community and develop global relations. Benito Mussolini in 1934, Hitler in 1936, and more recently, Vladimir Putin in 2014 and 2018, “bought” their international sympathy through lavish ceremonies dedicated to the Olympic Games or the World Cup, and their domestic popularity reached the highest levels during the periods that followed the events as such. It should not be forgotten that the communist regimes also paid lots of attention to sports, which they almost militarized because sports offered them international prestige and also showed the superiority of the “new, communist man”, compared to that of the capitalist states.
The organization of a football World Cup, although extremely expensive and rather loss-making in economic terms, enhances or confirms the status of the host country as an important player in global strategies and represents a recognition of its economic strength. Thus, the strong political and economic rise of the BRICS states in the last 15 years, also meant the organization of major global sporting events in these countries (China - 2008 Summer Olympics and 2022 Winter Olympics, South Africa - WC 2010, Brazil - WC 2014 and 2016 Summer Olympics, Russia – 2014 Winter Olympics and WC 2018). So, although subject to challenges and controversies, Qatar hosting WC 2022 should not come as a surprise.
Qatar, a small country with big ambitions
Qatar is an important country, both economically and politically. Due to its massive reserves of natural gas and oil, it is one of the richest countries in the world, and this allows it to pursue a soft power policy at international level, under the protection of the military alliance with the USA. Its strengths are the power of the Al Jazeera media network, investments in sports and a generous foreign aid policy.
Originally just a news and current affairs TV platform from the Arab world, Al Jazeera is now one of the largest media agencies in the world, broadcasting in several languages. The TV station came to the attention of the Western public in 2001, when the Bush Jr. Administration declared war on terror. It presented the video materials provided by Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, claiming that the images of the world's most wanted terrorists enjoyed immense public interest. As a result, many criticisms were leveled at the television for providing the terrorists with a framework for free expression. At the same time, with the outbreak of fighting on the territory of Afghanistan, Al Jazeera was the only television station that broadcast live from the scene.
Over time, the Qatari media trust has been accused, including by former employees, of Islamist propaganda for the Qatari government, supporting Sunnism and criticizing Shiism. Al Jazeera was also reproached for its closeness to the Muslim Brotherhood and its actual participation in the 2011 revolution in Egypt. The television played an essential role in the ousting of the Mubarak regime, broadcasting images of the violence committed against the demonstrators, images provided by the Muslim Brotherhood, who were in the first line of street fighting. In the meantime, the Brotherhood has been declared a terrorist organization by the new regime in Cairo, and Qatar's influence in North Africa is on a slight downward trend.
Qatari investments abroad are placed in giant companies such as Deutsche Bank, Rosneft, Volkswagen, Valentino or Miramax Films, as well as in real estate in Singapore, the USA and Great Britain. A BBC investigation revealed in 2017 that the small Gulf emirate owned more land and buildings in London than the Queen of England. Obviously, football could not be missing from the portfolio. Through Qatar Sports Investments, Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani is the owner of the French club Paris Saint-Germain and has sponsored teams like FC Barcelona or AS Roma for years. Investments in sports continued with Al Jazeera's Sports TV and BeIN Sports channels, which turned the Qatari company into one of the biggest powers in terms of broadcasting sports events and programs.
Respect for human rights caught offside in Qatar
Internal political stability is maintained by an effective strategy by means of which revenues are redistributed to the local population and by a progressive system of higher education, through the branches opened by some of the most prestigious Western universities. However, the effectiveness of these tools could be undermined by the lack of a democratic culture, questionable associations and causes, and a potential shift to hard power in conflict resolution.
With the granting of the right to organize the WC 2022, FIFA also expressed its hope that the Qatari emirate would make significant progress not only in terms of diplomacy and sports, but also in respect of human rights. The idea went even further, with the assumption that other states would make similar reforms to be able to organize, in turn, events of this magnitude. Unfortunately, as the competition moves forward, free speech issues, for example, are far from resolved.
Qatar imposed several filming restrictions for foreign broadcasters, and spectators wearing symbols of LGBTQ inclusion were banned from stadiums. Another issue that still seems unresolved is that of compensation for the workers killed or injured during the construction of the stadiums. Although official figures say that some 6500 migrant workers died in Qatar between 2010-2020 , the number is believed to be much higher. At the same time, we cannot help but notice the large number of immigrants present in the stadium at the World Cup matches, a privilege that few people can enjoy. Some might say that this is also, perhaps, a way in which the Qatari authorities are repaying those who contributed fully, with great sacrifices, to the construction of the stadiums and the entire infrastructure needed for the competition. Others, however, commented that the fans were actually “bought” as the hosts wanted to make sure that the stadiums would not remain empty.
Persian Gulf rivalries and the World Cup
Just earlier this month, news that an Iranian attack on Saudi Arabia was imminent caused panic and concern in the Middle East. The competition between the two states, with deep, religious but also economic roots, has over time caused numerous victims in armed conflicts in the Muslim world. The Sunni monarchies of the Gulf have tended to side with the position of Saudi Arabia, a Sunni monarchy itself. On the other hand, the smaller of these states have been careful not to upset Iran too much. Qatar is probably the closest Sunni monarchy to Tehran.
This rapprochement has been a source of irritation for Riyadh, just as the support of the Muslim Brotherhood irritated the Arab country with the largest population and the most powerful army - Egypt. A third cause of discontent for Arab states was Qatar's refusal to censor Al Jazeera's reporting on them.
All these grievances boiled over in 2017, when Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain severed diplomatic relations with Doha and imposed an air, naval and land blockade; at the time there was even talk of a potential military operation.
The crisis was only resolved in 2021, and at the official opening ceremony of the World Cup, the emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, and the president of FIFA, Gianni Infantino, sat near the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman - himself interested in promoting his image, still affected by the scandals in which he was involved, especially the one related to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi - with whom they had a more than friendly conversation.
This warming of relations with its Sunni neighbors in the Gulf does not mean that Doha is no longer careful with Iran: at the match between Iran and Wales, security kicked out of the stadium an Iranian fan wearing a T-shirt with Mahsei Amini’s name written on it, the young woman whose death, after being detained and beaten by the moral police, sparked the current wave of protests against the regime in Tehran.
Football and propaganda
FIFA has a written rule based on which it tries to avoid matches between countries in conflict as much as possible: Israel and Palestine, Serbia and Kosovo, Armenia and Azerbaijan or, more recently, Ukraine and Russia, etc. Unfortunately, when it comes to final tournaments, the rule can no longer be put into practice, so at this World Cup we will have a USA-Iran duel, already preceded by the England-Iran confrontation, a game noted not so much due to the score, but rather due to the protest of the Iranian team, which refused to sing the national anthem. .
If in 1998, in the previous duel, the victory of the Iranians against the USA led to large demonstrations of joy on the streets of Tehran, and the victory was quickly seized ideologically by the Islamist regime and transformed into a victory over the “Great Satan”, now we are witnessing a completely different socio-political context. 24 years ago, the statements of the Iranian delegation in France referred to the “holy war” that their country was waging with America. Today, the footballers’ statements highlight the serious problems facing the Iranian people, who have been subjected to unprecedented repression following anti-government protests that have now entered their third month.
In the American camp, statements regarding the match are more reserved, but we cannot ignore President Joe Biden’s recent statement that “we will free Iran soon”. The game will be played in a tense environment and fans of both teams are expected to take a political stand. It will be interesting to see how these public demonstrations on the ground will be handled through the lens of the Qatar-Iran relationship. With an estimated audience of several hundred million viewers, the USA-Iran match is sure to have an impact off the soccer field as well, in a world where the lines between sports, politics and money get thinner by the day.
As usual, Romania is slightly in the red
Romania is present in Qatar with three referees. The fate of a revolution may depend on their performance, who knows?! But that is no excuse for the fact that, for the umpteenth time?!, the Romanian team is absent from the biggest sporting event on the planet.
This absence is actually the result of an incoherent sports diplomacy policy based on momentary results, not lasting strategies. Only last summer, the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in partnership with the Romanian Olympic Committee and the Romanian Sports Institute, organized a sports diplomacy course with the aim of adding a new dimension to domestic sport, that of a political and economic negotiation tool. Essentially, in 2021, Romania was discovering and timidly trying to implement what other states had been doing for decades.
Obviously, we can cite various reasons for the lack of a coherent strategy of sport diplomacy, from lack of money to conspiracies involving Western elites. But none of that should have stopped us from trying. There is still time to get on the field, the game is still being played.