Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup has played out like a home game for the Global South, delivering a rude awakening for Western dominance both on and off the pitch.
With a calmness that belied the gravity of what would come next, Achraf Hakimi slotted his penalty down the middle of the goal on Tuesday evening, sending Morocco into the quarter-finals of the World Cup.
It was a first for Morocco; a first for an Arab-majority country, achieved in the first Arab state to host football’s top international tournament. And as Hakimi celebrated, the entire world, it seemed, was lit with elation for the Atlas Lions. With the hopes of a continent and a region on its backs, Morocco turned mashriqis into maghribis, and showed the world that this game is not merely the preserve of a European elite.
Morocco’s entry into the last eight has shaken the lineup of usual suspects that dominate the international game; a fitting development for a tournament that has de-centred European and Western dominance, both on and off the pitch. And whilst some Latin American teams have often featured on that lineup there’s no doubt that world football’s central power has forever been Europe.
Global support and celebration for Morocco’s victory appears to be an expression of affinity from millions of people who have for decades felt underrepresented or marginalised by FIFA.
Similar expressions of solidarity were demonstrated as people of the global south cheered on Saudi Arabia, Senegal and Ghana with specific undertones of African, Arab and even Muslim unity; shattering Western tabloids tales of regions irreconcilably divided.
Detractors left dumbfounded
Qatar’s hosting of the tournament has also demonstrated a previously ignored reality of what it means to enjoy football; a sober awakening for those who had sneered at the idea that millions around the world could enjoy the beautiful game without being drunk.
Foreign fans have praised the unprecedented welcoming, family-friendly atmosphere that has characterised the Qatar 2022 World Cup, with one English fan commenting how she was – for once – relieved by the absence of harassment and catcalling at the games.
The positive result has in fact exposed the false dichotomy presented by many Western media outlets about restrictions on alcohol in Qatar; the marriage between football and drink was taken as immutable, while restrictions were viewed as a cultural quirk that the Arabs wanted to impose on their visitors — an East v West issue.
To the contrary, fans have been able to enjoy alcohol in permitted areas, while fan zones and stadiums have been made safer for all to enjoy.
It’s worth noting that back in Europe, many have long campaigned against the prominence of alcohol and gambling advertising at sports events, and campaigns seeking to curb domestic violence related to football and drinking receive brief blips of attention whenever top tournaments are held.
Furthermore, one of the most prominent figures shunning alcohol at the games has been none other than Les Bleus striker Kylian Mbappe, who has consistently refused to show the name of beer company Budweiser at the tournament. What was presented as an Arab or Muslim disdain for alcohol has in fact provided universal benefit, and many will go home from the games having realised this.
Accessibility to the games has also been ensured for fans of all abilities, on a scale unseen at previous World Cups. Accessibility tickets have been made available at all games, and the stadiums themselves were built in consultation with fans with limited mobility.
This commitment to inclusivity was symbolised by the opening ceremony’s dialogue between Morgan Freeman and Ghanim Al-Muftah, the popular Qatari YouTuber who lives with Caudal Regression Syndrome.
Unfortunately, this was not the picture that the BBC and other Western broadcasters wanted their viewers to see of the Middle East’s first-ever World Cup. They instead decided to deprive fans of the experience, perhaps out of scorn for the fact that an Arab, Muslim country had finally been given the chance to host the game.
The posturing of Western teams and pundits who had travelled with the intent of teaching the Qataris a thing or two about human rights has also been flipped on its head, exposing its fickle nature. After FIFA’s decision to ban the ‘OneLove’ armbands, all seven teams who had pledged to wear the symbols dropped their protest in fear of receiving yellow cards.
To contrast, countless top-tier athletes from the Middle East have bowed out of tournaments when faced with the prospect of facing Israeli opponents, in protest against the injustices committed against the Palestinians.
Palestine – a human rights issue
On the issue of Palestine, no sporting event of this magnitude has seen the centring of the Palestinian struggle for freedom and liberation.
We’re often told to keep politics out of sport, unless of course it is to show solidarity with Ukraine, the LGBTQ+ community or causes sanctioned and championed by the west. No surprise then, that this cold assertion triggers the suspicion that we, as Arabs and Muslims, are being told to keep our politics out.
The Palestinian flag and black-and-white keffiyehs have flown high throughout the games, held by fans from all over the world. ‘Free Palestine’ has been chanted across the terraces and in the streets, including by one viral England fan who endearingly apologised for his ‘ma fee Arabiyya’.
As Western governments shouted ‘human rights’ at Qatar, people from all over the world reminded them of a human rights issue they have not only long ignored, but actively contributed to.
On the sporting front, the fact that players didn’t have to move from hotel to hotel means teams who wanted to focus on football have been able to do so, providing for an excelled level of competition in a tournament that has been described as “the best ever” for football.
A win for all
The World Cup this year has also been a win for women, many of whom have been able to enjoy the game in a family-friendly environment that has provided a safe space due to a lack of alcohol and subsequent violence and heightened male bravado.
For females watching from the stands and around the world, the historic inclusion of an all-women’s referee team who took control of the men’s World Cup for the first time ever was a moment for the books. It showed representation, it said women are a part of football too, it signifies a much needed change in the sport – and all of this happened right here in the Arab and Muslim world.
The huge success of Qatar 2022 has not only countered the years long concerted campaign against the Gulf nation, but has also reduced the entry level in football for teams like Morocco, as well as giving hope and confidence to other “small” but aspiring host nations.
Qatar 2022 has exemplified that the tide has shifted for football, and it’s clear that the elite western club of the footballing world will henceforth no longer hold a monopoly on the world’s most popular game.