Qatar Football World Cup enables so many new doors for Middle East. The Middle East and North Africa are shaped by football, and the huge investment of Gulf states in European clubs is key to their soft power strategies.
Qatar Football World Cup headline story this summer was Kylian Mbappe, a young French sensation who signed a three-year extension to his contract with Paris Saint-Germain (PSG). This came at the cost of Real Madrid, his long-cherished dream move.
PSG is owned by Qatar Sports Investments (QSI), which makes Mbappe, 23, the highest-paid player in football. Even reported that paid him a $125m sign bonus, which is a rare fee for a team looking to retain its own FIFA player.
These stories show the centrality of the Qatar Football World Cup in the Middle East, and the impact it has had on football worldwide.
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A far lesser-known story is that the Argentine national football club pulled out of a friendly match against Israel in May. This was in response to the calls from the Palestinian Al-Khader Football Club to cancel the match. Their 19-year-old FIFA player Mohammad Ali Ghoneim was killed by Israeli occupation forces in April.
The Egyptian football team has been at the center of a regional crisis in recent weeks. After the shocking defeat to Ethiopia by 2-0 in the qualifiers for the Africa Cup of Nations next year, emotions were high. Fans and officials couldn’t help but draw parallels between Egypt’s performance on the pitch and Egypt’s ongoing feud with Ethiopia over the construction of the grand Ethiopian Renaissance dam, which Egyptians regard as a threat to their access to the Nile waters.
Miguel Salgado (17-year-old son and former Real Madrid and Spain defender FIFA player Michel Salgado) was called up recently to represent his country’s Under-20 team. That country is the united Arab emirates where the elder Salgado worked since retiring from soccer a decade ago.
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These stories, together, show the centrality of the Qatar Football World Cup in the Middle East, and the impact it has had on international football. The Middle East’s most beloved sport, football, has been around for a long time. It captures the imagination of millions and inspires legions of fans.
Broader phenomena are at play.
Football is more than just a game. It has become a key indicator of the levers and economic control as well as an instrument for those who wish to challenge the existing order.
Fifa stunned fans all over the globe when it granted Qatar hosting rights to the Qatar WorldCup in 2010. Since then, journalists, academics, and political leaders from around the world, as well as lovers of the game, have tried to understand the decision and consider the implications of having a small Arab country host the most popular sporting event on Earth.
While questions about labor rights, soft power politics, and the role money plays in football are still a major topic of conversation surrounding the 2022 World Cup,
Others have also seen the value of Qatar Football World Cup in identifying larger phenomena within the region.
It is obvious that football has a long history in the Middle East, well before it was able to host a Qatar Football World Cup or leverage unrivaled oil wealth in Europe’s transfer market.
As part of their efforts to create “properly obedient subjects” from colonized subjects, European colonial officials brought football to the region more than a century ago.
Nationalist struggles led locally by elites included a belief in organized sport as a marker of cultural and civil advancement. The creation of the Egyptian football league is a prime example.
The early versions of legendary football clubs such as Al-Ahly or Zamalek show that the creation of a national league opened up new territory for questions about national identity, social class, and political power.
Failure and success on the pitch would be a reflection of fierce competition among emerging sporting institutions over resources, promising players, and the hearts and minds of Egyptian fans.
Tension in relationships during Qatar Football World Cup
So it was not surprising that football became a focal point of political struggle in Egypt after Gamal Abdel Nasser’s rise to power in postcolonial Egypt. This time, the conflict was between Egyptian citizens and an authoritarian regime seeking to take control of the lives of millions.
His popularity grew and he was made honorary president by Al-Ahly. He then appointed a respected military official as the head of the Egyptian Football Association.
In 1957, Nasser was the leader of the Confederation of African Football. He also inaugurated the Africa Cup of Nations. This took place at a time Egypt was in international isolation due to its standoff with former colonial powers France and Britain. Egypt won the first tournament’s trophy and has won seven African cups.
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Over time, states will project more of their political agendas onto national football teams. The 1998 World Cup featured a match between Iran, and the United States, in which the two countries played out years of hostility dating back to 1979, as well as a group stage match.
In the build-up to the match, Iran won 2-1. The atmosphere was intense and both sides were vocal in their political opinions. Both the American and Iranian heads tried to take advantage of the opportunity to make conciliatory gestures amid tensions.
In a related development, Iran and the US will meet at Qatar’s Al Thumama Stadium for a second group stage showdown later in the year. The match will be more important than the final result due to the escalating regional rivalry as well as the failure to restart the Iran nuclear agreement.
Popular mobilization has included more than just attempts to support authoritarian rulers and challenge rival states. It also includes the invocation of passion for football.
Al-Ahlawy Ultras in Cairo, a group of football fans, played a significant role during the Arab uprisings of 2011. They brought a wealth of experience to the fight against security forces and challenged state power.
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Al-Ahlawy Ultras in Cairo, a football fan group, played a significant role during the Arab uprisings of 2011.
The boycott divestment and sanctions movement, which was started by Palestinian civil society, has also been launched. It calls on football’s worldwide appeal to ask fans, clubs, national team sponsors, and others to observe the cultural boycott against Israel as a response to Israel’s continued occupation of Palestinian land, and other human rights violations against Palestinians.
The BDS movement, which was inspired by the South African sports boycott, has been able to highlight the suffering of Palestinians through campaigns like the cancellation of the Argentina-Israel match. It also calls for fans and teams to boycott puma until the company ceases its sponsorship of illegal Israeli settlements.
Many scholars argue that Qatar Football World Cup and the Middle East can be used as a lens to look at deeper issues affecting people, rather than just football players.
After Israel’s 1948 expulsion, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and refugees fled to Lebanon. They now live in stateless conditions and are denied access to many specified professions.
These discriminatory practices have been institutionalized by Lebanon’s football league, which imposes quotas on Palestinian players at each club and denies them the chance to play as goalkeepers.
Gender discrimination during Qatar Football World Cup
Football can also be used to challenge and expose gender discrimination. Turkey is an example of the unequal treatment of women in football. Female players have been subjected to high wages, insufficient medical care, restricted access to facilities, and greater career insecurity than their male counterparts.
In Iran, the ban on female pictures in stadiums was challenged by FIFA and other international human rights organizations, as well as by the spectators in a series of tense confrontations.
The 2022 World Cup lead-up has also helped to shed light on some issues that are of particular importance to the Gulf region. The Qatari national team will be led by full Qatari citizens, as well as long-term residents of Qatar and naturalized citizens from other countries.
However, squad members’ performance of national identity often challenges preconceived notions about citizenship and identity in the Gulf states, whether it is in media interviews or social media posts.
Concerning migraine labor rights: Preparations for the Qatar Football World Cup have exposed a worldwide audience to the abuses inherent within the kafala system, which governs labor relations in Gulf.
International pressure campaigns urged Qatar to improve its labor practices as state officials, global construction companies, and recruitment agencies supervised major projects. These included stadiums, training facilities, hotels, and a metro system that covered the entire city.
In 2017, the government announced a number of reforms. The International Labour Organization (ILO), which opened a Doha office the next year, reported on the changes in the working conditions of migrant workers.
Qatar Football World Cup plays a vital role in the Rise of the Gulf States
The 2022 Qatar Football World Cup is a symbol of the pivotal role that money-rich countries play in shifting the center of gravity in the football world. The sport has seen significant changes over the past 20 years, thanks to increased globalization, and commodification.
An Emirati royal investment group purchased Manchester City FC in 2008, and soon afterward QSI acquired PSG. This marked a new era for Gulf states, which have become major players in Europe’s top leagues. These states have used their prestigious holdings to pursue soft power diplomacy and geopolitical and other interests beyond the game.
For example, in 2015, Guardian reported Man City’s front offices had lobbied the British government for an investigation into Muslim Brotherhood to extend the Emirati government’s regional crackdown on the movement. The recent purchase of Newcastle united from the Saudi Public Investment Fund led to claims that the regime engaged in sports washing in light of recent human rights abuses at home and abroad.
The future of football in the Middle East will likely be more closely linked to wider political, cultural, and socioeconomic developments. As the game grows in popularity and is more closely linked to corporate and state interests, it will raise new questions about consumerism and sustainability, national and worker rights, regime stability, and political freedoms.
It becomes evident to everyone that football is much more than a game.
These views are solely the author’s and do not reflect the editorial policies of Middle East Eye.