Disruptive and Deconstructing - How The Qatar World Cup Has Transformed our View of Football
Riddled with criticism from the day their bid to host the World Cup was won, lots of questions have been asked of host nation Qatar, a country smaller than the US state of Connecticut, North of the Arabian peninsula.
Qatar has been dubbed a “non-footballing nation” and heavily criticised for its human rights record, notably regarding LGBTQIA+ rights and treatment of migrant workers. Although these are legitimate concerns, the level of scrutiny surrounding the hosting decision was higher than ever seen before - with many questioning why Russia did not face the same level of inspection in 2018 or China who hosted the olympics just last year.
Divisions and differences kicked off at the start of the tournament
Individuals were singled out for attending or supporting the tournament and performative acts rippled through social media. We were led to believe this World Cup would be “dry” in every sense of the word. In a poorly delivered speech, FIFA president Gianni Infantino accused the West of hypocrisy in taking the moral high ground when it comes to human rights after our history in colonialism.
As with so many world events today, it felt like there were two sides presented: the West with a progressive and activist stance, and FIFA along with Arab nations with a defensive and stringent stance. As inclusion professionals, we know that there is always a “grey” area, something in the middle, often unseen, that can be worked on to unite people.
This started to emerge once football actually got started.
A human centred approach united people
Fast forward to the last couple of days and you will see “greatest World Cup ever” trending on Twitter. Many within football are hailing the final as the “best ever”, including US football pundit and former footballer Alex Lalas. Argentina became the first team in 20 years to end European dominance of world football - and although star player Messi shone, they worked as a unit to defy proven world champions France.
Morocco, the team that took to everyone’s hearts, became the first African and Arabic country to get to the semi finals on the world stage, beating some of the best countries in the world along the way. In fact, the success of Arabic and Muslim teams in this World Cup stands out - there were famous wins for Saudi Arabia and Iran as well as Morocco’s well-documented success.
The backdrop had a lot to do with this, although unusual and unfamiliar to the West; it seemed to give others a chance, a sense of freedom to perform. Structures and policies are vital to inclusion and key decisions such as the alcohol ban during games led to female fans feeling safer in stadiums, a group often marginalised in men’s football. Original plans were altered to allow Souq Waqif to become the unofficial fan park where different nations and different fans would meet to wave flags and sing, symbolising that the human element is important. There was trial, error and learning - and this mindset is vital for creating inclusive environments.
The standout heart-gripping moment was courtesy of Morocco's Soufiane Boufal and his mother dancing on the pitch after reaching the semi-finals, illustrating that women in hijabs can have fun.
These moments on the world stage have done much to bust harmful and inaccurate stereotypes about Muslim and Arab communities that are rife in Western countries. The fact that these moments were given headlines shows the shifts that were made in people’s attitudes and that football can be for everyone. Western pundits and commentators are starting to lean in, making an effort to pronounce Arabic names, acknowledging the progress these nations have been making and how much it means to football. This is a shift that was absolutely necessary and would not have been possible if the World Cup was hosted anywhere else. The recent debate around Argentina captain Messi’s wearing of the traditional Arab bisht reminds us that there is still work to be done to create understanding of cultural differences. This is an ongoing journey.
Risks need to be taken to break through existing power systems
The subplot to exclusion is often power and control which can show itself in many guises, sometimes more overtly but many times covertly. What we have witnessed is a disruption of the usual order, a disturbance of normal patterns and perhaps a deconstruction of who we thought football is for. Maybe this is what the FIFA President Infantino meant all along in his controversial speech. Human rights violations can never be downplayed; however we should strive to go deeper to address the root causes of inequality through conversation and curiosity rather than focusing on performative acts. Sometimes we need to step back and look at the bigger picture.
This is football at its best and society at its best when we give others a chance, try different ways of doing things and come from a place of understanding, raising the platforms for those otherwise overlooked. As EDI professionals we can get drawn into characteristic wars and “othering” - when in reality we should be looking for those levers that will help shift the balance of power, which can ultimately unlock the potential of those who are overlooked as they too deserve to thrive.