By Mark Hann, Programme Manager at Human Security Collective
As the world’s gaze descends on Qatar for the 2022 Men’s Football World Cup, Western commentators have been falling over themselves to condemn the event as the embodiment of everything that is wrong in the world. Twelve years have passed since FIFA sold the hosting rights to the small Gulf petrostate, giving journalists and activists plenty of time to sharpen their pitchforks and select their angle of moral outrage. There has been plenty to choose from, with the most popular being (in no particular order): the transparently corrupt awarding of the tournament to a country with no discernible connection to football, the environmental impact of hosting a sporting mega-event in a desert region, the well-documented exploitation of migrant labourers, many of whom died building the necessary infrastructure for the tournament, and Qatar’s conservative stance on LGBTQI+ rights and other social liberties. To be clear: these are all legitimate criticisms which very much deserve to be given attention. So why is it that the barrage of criticism towards this edition of the World Cup has left me feeling a little uneasy?
I have spent much of the past decade exploring how sports intersect with social issues, initially advocating on behalf of civil society organizations to promote a greater sense of social responsibility within the football industry, later as an anthropologist of sport conducting research on the career dreams of aspiring Senegalese migrant athletes. In short, I have spent years trying to convince people that sport – and football in particular – is more than a mere game, but a space in which important social, economic, and political questions can be raised and discussed, and even a space in which genuine social change can be created. I should be thrilled that the world finally seems to agree with me and has decided that the main focus of this World Cup should be not what is happening on the pitch, but what is taking place around it. But for some reason, I am not. When I read the countless opinion pieces, or engaged in conversations with friends and fellow football fans who are boycotting or protesting the event, I started to feel an internal resistance. The greater the outrage, the stronger the moral certainty behind it, the more unanimous the disapproval and condemnation, the more that resistance intensified.
Anthropologists are generally not too favourable towards certainty, especially not when it comes to sensitive moral issues. We are often charged with obscuring bad behaviours behind cultural relativism, although I would suggest that anthropology should be about being able to see the world from different perspectives. This is perhaps why I was pleasantly surprised when I heard FIFA president Gianni Infantino’s now infamous speech given on the eve of the opening ceremony, in which he criticized Western commentators for a hypocritical and condescending attitude in their reporting. His rhetoric even (somewhat clumsily) adopted the language of millennial leftist academia, first employing identity politics to claim that he felt gay, African, and disabled, before going on to evoke concepts of decoloniality in claiming that Europeans “…should be apologising for the next 3,000 years before starting to give moral lessons to people.” His speech was roundly condemned and even ridiculed, largely because he is the president of a massively corrupt global cartel which maintains a vice-like grip on the world’s most popular pastime and monetizes it for private profits. But, ignoring for one moment the identity of the speaker, I found myself in absolute agreement with most of what he was saying. Like a broken clock telling the correct time twice a day, even the most cartoonish kleptocrat can occasionally speak truth to power – albeit largely for the wrong reasons. Let that sink in for a moment – I agree with Gianni Infantino!
Because who are we to take the moral high ground? What is behind our fervent desire to lecture our Qatari hosts? An anthropologist often starts by exploring their own positionality, so here goes: I was born in England, a country whose main claim to fame in football was hosting and winning the World Cup in 1966. One of the primary concerns of the British media around this World Cup surrounds the One Love armband and the visibility of signs showing support to LGBTQI+ communities such as rainbow flags. Given that same-sex sexuality between men was only legalized in England in 1967, one might expect this new fervour for LGBTQI+ rights to be accompanied by a campaign to strip England of the title and hand it to, say, Uruguay or Hungary (the highest ranked nations in that tournament in which same-sex activity was legal at the time). To avoid any misunderstanding, I should once again make clear that I fully support the shift in attitudes which now sees my country leading the crusade to spread a message of acceptance and tolerance around the world. Or at least I would, if it were not totally disingenuous. Speaking of crusades: do we really believe that Knights Templar-clad England fans, some of whom have caused violent disturbances at past tournaments, and have links to the far-right, are motivated by a sincere desire to promote LGBTQI+ rights? I have been around men’s football for all my life, in many different parts of the world, as a player, as a fan, and as a scholar. One thing which unites football globally is the continuing presence of a latently homophobic culture which, while there have certainly been advances made recently, persists to the extent that barely a single high profile male footballer has come out as gay. Even at the amateur level in the enlightened West, it seems that gay or non-binary men generally prefer to play football in the safe space offered by specialized LGBTQI+ clubs and leagues. The existence of these structures may be lauded as progress by liberals, but it actually reveals that men’s football culture, on the whole, remains unwelcoming to those who do not present themselves as heterosexual – and all the virtue signalling around rainbow flags and armbands will do little to change that. Instead, it might be pertinent to approach the sudden and generally superficial embrace of LGBTQI+ rights by football fans as a form of ‘homonationalism’ – or the co-opting of minority rights discourse for the purpose of demonizing migrants or foreigners – especially Muslims. The related lens of ‘femonationalism’ may also be applied to the way in which women’s rights in Qatar have also emerged as a battleground for Western moral superiority.
The other principal charge levelled at Qatar regards the exploitation of migrant workers in the construction of stadiums and other infrastructure. It is without doubt shocking to know that the spectacle we are viewing is taking place in arenas built on the blood of migrants. It is deeply uncomfortable, because the presence of death is so directly connected to the entertainment which we are consuming. It is perhaps too visible. In general, in the Western world, we prefer to have a few steps as a buffer in between other people’s suffering and our entertainment. We usually try to obscure exploitation in complex supply chains which connect Congolese mines to Chinese factories to Amazon warehouses, and eventually to our doorsteps. We don’t actually want to acknowledge that our own consumption habits are the main driver behind this suffering. Criticizing Qatar for its awful treatment of migrant labour is a convenient way to direct our righteous anger, but it ignores the wider context. How much money are the garments industry workers who make the World Cup shirts for each team earning? What kind of protections are they entitled to? Come to think of it, why are there so many people living in poverty in formerly colonized nations willing to do backbreaking construction work for a pittance? As for indentured labour and the much maligned kafala system which was only recently abolished by Qatar, we would do well to recall its origins as a legacy of the British Empire. Such claims are often dismissed as ‘whataboutery’ – a phrase designed to discredit argumentative strategies which justify one evil based on the fact that other evils also exist. But in this case, the whole point is that these different questions are all bound up within each other, interconnected in a broader entanglement of colonialism and capitalism. Focusing only on labour exploitation at the World Cup is profoundly hypocritical, as it ignores the ongoing relentless horrors which we are all a part of. Incidentally, a better example of ‘whataboutery’ would be to wonder at the lack of outrage over who built the stadium which hosted the 2006 World Cup final. In case you don’t know, it was built by Hitler with the purpose of demonstrating to the world the superiority of the Aryan race. Just saying...
So how do we explain the display of selective outrage being directed towards Qatar? It is evidently inconsistent with anything seen at past World Cups, which have included editions hosted by the regimes of Putin, Mussolini, the Argentinian military dictatorship, and the United States of America. A first explanation is, quite simply, a crude manifestation of Islamophobia, in which Western commentators seek to hold certain members of the global community to a different standard than the rest. This is present in the obsessive and othering coverage of Qatari culture and society in our media; it is also present when we hold entire national and religious communities accountable for the actions of a few idiots, as happened recently in Belgium and the Netherlands when a handful of Moroccan fans rioted after winning their group stage match against Belgium.
A second, related, explanation is captured perfectly in an article by the World Cup winning former Germany captain Philipp Lahm, in which he attacks FIFA’s handling of the event as ‘Europhobia’. Let that sink in for a moment. This absurd concept perhaps reveals what is truly behind the demonization of Qatar. It is the loss of power and influence, coupled with the reality that the world is no longer our playground, and that football no longer belongs exclusively to the established elites in Europe. Qatar are the ultimate noisy neighbours, the nouveau riche new kids on the block who we wish we didn’t have to deal with, but upon whom we depend. Where do we draw the line in our engagement with them? Not with selling them our weapons or our real estate or even our football teams, as we need the money. We also need their gas to fuel our decadent consumer lifestyles. So instead, the line is drawn in the guise of a culture war, fought on the battlefield of the football pitch. Football, perhaps the last bastion of European global supremacy, is under threat from FIFA – and we can’t stand it. I am not for one second claiming that FIFA are a force for democracy, decoloniality, or even anything vaguely positive. FIFA is a business, which long ago sold the soul of football to the highest bidder. But this has always been the case, in every dirty crevice of the game. Why is it only unacceptable at this point?
Today I no longer work in the sports world, and my claims of being a “sports anthropologist” are little more than a side project or a hobby. Perhaps that is why I can freely express ideas such as these! My professional life regularly takes me to the Far North region of Cameroon, where I work on peace building programmes in an area affected by the Boko Haram insurgency. People there are very passionate about football – and when Cameroon qualified for the World Cup, they were ecstatic. When I mention Western critiques of the World Cup to them, they are shrugged off with weary smiles as a ‘white man’s story’. To my Cameroonian colleagues, our moralizing about Qatar cannot be taken seriously in light of the continued misery which Western nations and policies continue to inflict upon African nations.
We would do well to carry on the spirit of moralizing which we apply to Qatar and continue to look at all of football through that lens. Instead of sanctimoniously preaching at Qatar, let us look at our own leagues, our own clubs, our own consumption habits. Do we like what we see? Are we morally pure? And to those who boycott Qatar and insist on subjecting it to such extreme scrutiny – I can respect that decision if it is consistent with future action. Among the hosts of the next World Cup is the USA – a country which has no shortage of human rights issues of its own. If you are serious about purging football of the evils of corruption, greed, exploitation, and intolerance, then there is plenty to work on, and you might as well get started now! However, if you think that Qatar is uniquely bad, and 2026 will be a welcome return to business as usual, then perhaps it is time to critically examine your own biases.
So, Philipp Lahm: stop preaching and let the rest of the world play football. I stand with Vincent Aboubakar, scorer of a delightful lob for Cameroon against Serbia, which finally allowed me to see past the media frenzy and enjoy the World Cup for what it should truly be about:
"[The] most important [thing] is to give the Cameroon people joy. What matters is the mindset and the collective spirit, and in that regard we played a great game."