LONDON (AP) — Football — or football, for most of the billions worldwide watching the World Cup this month — is not human society itself, with all its thorny issues. But sometimes the game is a reflection of the entire planet – of nations, their disputes, their aspirations and those of a myriad of minority communities.
Early November, just a few weeks before the heaviest check World Cup in the history of the tournament kicking off in Qatar, top FIFA officials sent a letter urging teams to “put football at the heart of things”.
FIFA President Gianni Infantino followed this up on the eve of the opening game with an hour-long diatribe against anyone who had criticized the host country’s human rights record, the conditions that led to thousands of migrant workers dying building the country’s glittering new stadiums, and his stance on LGBTQ issues.
Fans around the world have a different idea of what that “center stage” is supposed to show. Many, but not all, Iranians attend matches in Qatar have wanted to show their support for demonstrators in their own country. And they wanted the team to do the same.
Other political issues erupt quickly and furiously almost daily. And outside of the World Cup bubble, the world itself continued to spin in some of its trickiest events, both unsurprising and surprising: Russia’s war in Ukraine, mass shootings in the United States and the sudden outburst of protests in China.
Of the sporting spirit, George Orwell wrote: “I am always amazed when I hear people say that sport creates goodwill between nations, and that if only the common people of the world could meet at football or cricket, they would have no inclination to battlefield.”
His point stands. Russia was excluded from this World Cup after hosting the previous one in 2018, reflecting the isolation the country and its leaders face due to the invasion of Ukraine. Ukraine itself fell on the final hurdle for qualifying, with fans at home likely more concerned about bombing and surviving in the midst of it electricity and water shortages than watching matches in Qatar.
Decades of enmity between the United States and Iran seep into the build-up before the two countries play a crucial World Cup match on Tuesday in which either country can progress to the knockout stages. The American Football Association in brief showed the national flag of Iran on social media without the emblem of the Islamic Republic, saying the move was in support of protesters in Iran. The Tehran government responded by accusing America of removing the name of God from its national flag.
For the century Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including Israel’s occupation of land Palestinians want for a future state, has also been discussed in Qatar, although neither national team is competing. The Palestinian flag and pro-Palestinian fans were prominent, while the Israeli media and fans were less welcoming in an Arab nation that has not normalized relations with Israel.
As Morocco took a famous victory over Belgium’s high-ranking stars on Sunday, Unrest broke out in Belgian cities and also in the Netherlands, where the North African immigrant community has long been marginalized. “Those are not fans; they are rioters. Moroccan fans are there to celebrate,” said the mayor of Brussels.
LGBTQ rights have also been at the forefront in Qatar, with the country coming under scrutiny for its human rights record and laws criminalizing homosexuality.
Germany’s players covered their mouths for the team photo before their opening match to protest against FIFA after the governing body suppressed the “One Love” bracelet. Sporty rainbow colors, a symbol of LGBTQ rights, has been a major controversial point. Some European officials have taken those colors to the stands.
Qatari football fans responded to Germany’s protest by holding photos of former German playmaker Mesut Özil while covering their mouths. This refers to Özil, a German-born descendant of Turkish immigrants, who left the national team after becoming a target of racist abuse and a scapegoat for Germany’s early 2018 World Cup exit. we win, but I’m an immigrant if we lose,” Ozil said at the time.
Keeping the world out of the sport, like this tournament and many World Cups and Olympics have shown before is almost impossible. This is especially true in a hyper-connected world, where every word, gesture, celebration or dismay is magnified to a global audience.
Football can indeed take center stage as these matches are watched and the nations nervous system goes through the wringer. But daily complex issues are never far from the surface, always ready to break through and dominate. The rest of the world, it turns out, doesn’t stop where the football field begins.
Tamer Fakahany, deputy director of global news coordination at The Associated Press, has helped the AP lead international news coverage for 20 years. Follow him on Twitter https://twitter.com/tamerfakahany
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