The most watched sporting event in the world is underway, and the global viewers for this year’s World Cup will be watching much more than the action on the pitch in Qatar. Fans are also closely scrutinizing what unfolds on the sidelines of the controversial tournament, as concerns about Qatar’s human-rights record and FIFA’s corruption scandals have come to the fore in recent months and years.
Geopolitics are also playing out on the pitch, as players from the thirty-two teams competing in the tournament look to make a stand against human-rights abuses and discrimination. Our experts will be tracking it all—and handing out cards where they see fit.
The latest from Qatar
NOVEMBER 21, 2022 | 10:22 AM WASHINGTON | 6:55 PM QATAR
Why Iran’s subtle stance is being seen as “meaningless”
By Holly Dagres
Since antigovernment protests began in Iran on September 16 after Mahsa Jina Amini was murdered by so-called “morality police,” many Iranian athletes competing in international competitions have taken clear stances that show solidarity with the protesters. But one group of athletes that has disappointed Iranians is Team Melli, the Iranian men’s national soccer team. Except for heaving worn black jackets over their kits during a World Cup friendly with Senegal on September 27, Team Melli has not taken a notable stance.
However, what has caught the attention of many Iranians is that Team Melli met with hardline President Ebrahim Raisi last week and took celebratory photos of their World Cup entry. Photographs of both incidents have gone viral, and not for a good reason, as these events took place while protesters were being fatally beaten with batons or shot by security forces. As a result, many Iranians see Team Melli not as their team, but rather as the team of the Islamic Republic. This was best captured by a banner hanging over a bridge in Tehran that read “don’t let your foot slip on the blood,” referring to the blood of both protesters slain since September 16 and those being killed by security forces while the match between England and Iran took place. Right before the game began, Team Melli finally took a subtle stance by remaining silent during the Islamic Republic’s anthem. While their silence and stony faces may seem significant to an outsider, it’s a belated gesture that many Iranians interpret as meaningless given how little Team Melli has done to show solidarity with their international platform.
—Holly Dagres is editor of the Atlantic Council’s IranSource blog, and a nonresident senior fellow with the Middle East Programs. She also curates The Iranist newsletter. Follow her on Twitter: @hdagres.
NOVEMBER 20, 2022 | 4:15 PM WASHINGTON | NOVEMBER 21, 2022 | 12:15 AM QATAR
Focus on Qatar’s human-rights record is justified—but why have other hosts been left unscathed?
By Joze Pelayo
Despite the loud beats of FIFA anthem “Tukoh Taka,” World Cup watchers can still clearly hear the outrage against Qatar.
The significance of the first World Cup in the Arab world has been overshadowed by legitimate criticism about the country’s track record on minority rights and treatment of migrant workers. Serious abuses need to be addressed.
But Western coverage so far has been based on double standards and selective outrage; were the calls for a boycott of Russia’s World Cup in 2018 and the Beijing Olympics in 2022 this loud? The Biden administration had announced a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing event due to China’s ongoing genocide against Uyghurs. Russia used its 2018 World Cup, and also its 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, to sportswash and distract the world from Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Crimea—a prelude to today’s invasion—and the Russian leader’s increasingly imperialistic ambitions. Where was the outrage from European critics then?
Qatar is the first Arab and Muslim-majority country to host the World Cup—so one wonders whether that is the variable that makes Qatar the target of critical countries. Or, will countries critical of Qatar this year similarly scrutinize the 2026 host countries—Canada, the United States, and Mexico—regarding migrants’ rights?
Qatar’s mistreatment of predominantly South Asian workers is deplorable, and criticism is justified. But the selective outrage shown mainly from some countries in Europe is also borderline arrogant and racist.
On a brighter note, the United States’ Nicki Minaj, Colombia’s Maluma, and Lebanon’s Myriam Fares are bringing the Arab-Latin relationship and a shared passion for soccer to a new level with “Tukoh Taka,” which features English, Spanish, and Arabic lyrics. The song briefly reached number one in iTunes in the United States, making it the highest-charting FIFA World Cup song ever—and Fares the first Arab artist to reach such a spot in the United States.
—Joze Pelayo is an assistant director at the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative/Middle East Programs.