It’s only a game — except when it’s not. That has become clear once again as soccer’s World Cup showcases political as well as athletic competition. This is the world’s premier sporting event, having long since surpassed the Olympic Games in global popularity. Billions are watching. Because of the World Cup’s scale, it is inevitably shadowed by politics. This year is no exception.
Outcomes at the World Cup, fairly or not, are often seen as reflecting geopolitical realities. When Saudi Arabia surprisingly won its first game, over Argentina, did that mean Saudi Arabia has now arrived in the global big leagues? When Germany lost its opener, did that signify national decline? Brazil has elected a new president and has ambitions for more power and influence — would winning it all in Qatar show its muscle on the world stage?
In an event as sprawling as the month-long World Cup, there are countless small stories. My favorite came out of the match in which Switzerland beat Cameroon 1-0. The Swiss goal was scored by a naturalized Swiss citizen, Breel Embolo, who was born in Cameroon. Good luck to him on his next trip home.
Then there are the bigger stories. This year, none was more poignant than the saga of Iran’s team. The first dilemma was for the players. Before leaving Tehran, they posed for the obligatory photo with their country’s president. That outraged some fans, because Iran’s government is now fiercely repressing female-led protesters in Iranian cities. Then, after arriving in Qatar, the Iranian team captain, Ehsan Hajsafi, signaled support for the protests in a carefully worded statement: “I would like to express my condolences to all bereaved families in Iran. They should know that we are with them. We support them and we sympathize with them.” Hours later, at Iran’s first match, security guards forced a fan to wash off names of murdered Iranians that she had written on her arms and chest.
In a fantasy world, Iran’s face-off with the United States might be played for real-life stakes. If the US team won, Iran would give up its nuclear program; if Iran won, the United States would lift economic sanctions. Instead, the American victory was just about sport. Or was it? Some back home could take it as a sign that although plenty of countries are challenging American primacy these days, we can still slap them down.
This World Cup was supposed to be a coming-out party for Qatar, a tiny country — half the size of Massachusetts — that has vast economic power but is not well known to potential tourists. It hasn’t worked out that way. Trouble began during the first game, when thirsty Ecuadoran fans erupted in chants of “We want beer!” Over the following days, fans with message-bearing armbands, T-shirts, or banners were forced to surrender them: no statements in favor of gay rights or Iranian protesters, please. One high point for the security guards was denying entrance to two English fans dressed as Crusaders, a bit indelicate considering the Crusaders’ history of plundering the Middle East. Meanwhile, readers and viewers around the world have now heard for the first time about Qatar’s intolerance of gays, its ban on alcohol, its exploitation of foreign labor, its influence-buying operations in Washington, and the spectacular corruption that is said to have brought the tournament to this oil-rich desert sheikhdom. Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, said his country was being subjected to “an unprecedented campaign” of criticism based on “fabrications and double standards.”
Even the question of which journalists should cover the World Cup was fraught with controversy. Responding to an appeal from Iran, the Qatari authorities refused to accredit a Saudi-sponsored TV channel that it says foments rebellion in Iran. On a BBC broadcast, a former coach of both the German and US teams, Jurgen Klinsmann, stirred outrage by asserting that Iran wins games only because its team uses sleazy tricks that are “part of their culture.”
Israeli correspondents expected a warm welcome because their government and Qatar’s have recently normalized relations. The opposite happened. Israeli newspapers have been filled with reports of Arabs refusing to speak with Israeli reporters, shouting at them, or refusing them service in taxis and restaurants. “I always thought the problem was governments,” the Israeli journalist Raz Shechnik tweeted. “But in Qatar, I saw how much hatred there was among people in the street, how interested they are in erasing us from the earth, how everything connected to Israel arouses hatred in them.” So much for using this World Cup as a springboard toward Middle East peace.
Besides the 32 countries represented in Qatar, spare a thought for those that failed to qualify. Among them are six of the world’s eight most populous nations: China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Bangladesh. Some might plead that these are not soccer-focused countries. Nonetheless their absence from this biggest of all world stages represents a loss of opportunity and perhaps glory. A team’s performance at the World Cup should not affect people’s opinion of the country it represents. For many, though, it does. That’s why this quadrennial festival is about geopolitics as well as sport.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.