As the world draws curtains on the 2022 edition of the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, mixed emotion lingers at the end of one of the greatest sporting events in the world. The tournament in Qatar started amid a host of controversies regarding Qatar’s human rights violations and accusations of sportswashing. This world cup however proved to be one that will be remembered for ages, not just because of the controversies, but because of the moments of solidarity and support, moments of subtle protests and so much more. This was a tournament that showcased how sports, sporting events, and the biggest platforms can be used to raise your voice against injustice and take a stand.
Let’s take a deeper dive into some of those moments and what they represented in the global socio-political context.
1. The rise and rise of Morocco
One of the key highlights of this year’s FIFA world cup was the incredible rise of Morocco. The Moroccans created history by becoming the first African/Arab team to make it to the semi-final, and they did it in style. The team exceeded all expectations and went on to defeat three erstwhile colonial nations- Belgium, Spain, and Portugal respectively, in its dream run to the semi-final. Morocco’s tremendous run was not just relegated to the sports, or to the team. It was a loud message to the world that gatekeeping of football by the Europeans will no longer be allowed. Each and every player in the team rose through trials growing up and fought twice as hard to be at the center stage. In the players, the African and Arab world, the migrants, the minorities, saw an image of themselves.
For the Middle East and North Africa, against the backdrop of civil strifes and counterrevolutionary campaigns, for those 90 minutes when Morocco took to the field, all eyes looked the same way. Even though they could not progress to the final lap, Morocco’s story is the story of shared language, and identity, the story of community and solidarity and the story of this World Cup.
2. The mothers have arrived
Some of the key moments in this world cup belonged to the Moroccan team. And they shared the spotlight with their mothers. One of the pictures of this world cup was midfielder Sofiane Boufal’s impromptu dance with his mother after Morocco’s quarter-final victory over Portugal. “The joy of mothers means the world,” were the words of Boufal, when asked about his dance. Organised sports have for long been some of the most hypermasculine spaces to exist in. The image of the mother-son duo dancing it out was therefore a much-needed break from the toxic masculinity associated with sports. In a world where men and boys are constantly told to keep their emotions in check and to ‘be a man’, the pictures displayed love, compassion, and affection, making the players more humane.
What this moment, these images of the Moroccan players with their mothers also did was smash the western stereotype of the Arab world, that paints all Muslims as the ‘conservative other’ pitting them against the so-called ‘liberal West’.
3. Support for Palestine
Although Lionel Messi and Argentina lifted the World Cup trophy, many might argue that Palestine was the bigger winner. Not because their team participated in the tournament, but because of the heartwarming support that the Free Palestine movement received from both players and fans at Qatar 2022. Not just as a political gesture, but a sign of Palestinian solidarity, many football fans snubbed Israeli reporters, and refused to engage with them when approached. The world cup also saw a huge group of fans from Palestine being part of almost all games.
Their message was simple – unity, love, and freedom. People in fan zones, inside the stadiums, expressed support for Palestine, flying the Palestinian flag and shouting pro-Palestinian slogans, chants, and songs. The support for Palestine was not just off the field but on it as well, when the Morocco national football team raised the Palestinian flag after their World Cup victories. The support across the tournament once again highlighted that politics and sports can come together to stand in support of what is fair.
4. Iranian football team refusing to sing the national anthem
In their first game of the tournament against England, the Iranian football team stood in solidarity with the protesters back home and remained silent during the national anthem refusing to sing it. On a global stage like the FIFA World Cup, the gesture in the wake of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini’s death in the custody of the morality police, and the nationwide protest and crackdown in Iran, spoke volumes. The team had earlier also opted to wear black jackets to cover the country’s colours in their friendly against Senegal in September.
The match saw Iranian fans in Qatar bringing their cause onto a global stage, as they wore T-shirts saying, ‘Women, life, freedom’ and chanted slogans in support of the protesters. It warrants noting that all of this did put considerable pressure on the government in Iran which suspended the morality police this month.
5. German players cover their mouth
In yet another show of solidarity this time against the discriminatory policy against LGBTQ+ individuals, the German national team posed for their pre-match photo with their hands covering their mouths. This was a message directed at FIFA and the Qatar administration for curtailing their freedom of expression, as FIFA banned the rainbow OneLove armbands – a gesture for anti-discrimination.
The captains of Germany, England, Wales, Belgium, Netherlands, Switzerland, and Denmark had decided to wear the bands before FIFA threatened sanctions for any team whose captain wore it on the pitch. Germany’s interior minister Nancy Faeser who was present in Qatar, sitting next to FIFA President Gianni Infantino, sported the ‘OneLove’ armband, as a strong statement. “In today’s times, it is incomprehensible that FIFA does not want people to openly stand for tolerance and against discrimination“, said Faeser in an event before the game. Qatar’s anti-LGBTQ+ policies and criminalisation of same-sex relations had been at the center of controversies in the build-up to the world cup.
6. It was not just the World Cup that Messi lifted, but the hearts of many
It is strange when people from the remotest parts of the world are asked about Messi, a smile lights up their face. Countries that have never participated in the World Cup came out in full strength, their hopes and eyes glued to Messi. When Messi lifted the golden trophy, a million of those eyes lit up, not because he is the GOAT, not because they have anything to do with Argentina. It is because this young boy from the streets of Rosario, rising to the pinnacle of sports is the most relatable person, whose story is the story of million youngsters coming from the margins, across the world. For those young and old, watching Messi climb to the top gives them hope, and makes them believe that if he can, they can!
One might think that there is an exhaustive list of these moments that stood out at the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup that concluded. But there indeed cannot be a list that would have it all.
In a tournament of such massive proportions and with such a huge global outreach, these moments of solidarity, political gestures, love, and compassion is proof that deciding to break the autonomy, smash the stereotypes, speak up and take a stand is powerful and will always be.