As the biggest show on earth reaches fever pitch in Qatar, fans are being treated to thrilling sideshows that have little to do with the tournament, but with far-reaching implications for the participating countries.
Since kicking off on Nov. 21 at the Khalifa International Stadium, the 2022 FIFA World Cup has been abuzz with news, videos and images of fans, players and teams using the world’s biggest stage to make a political statement, specifically to protest human rights abuses in countries like Iran and, in other cases, FIFA’s ban on rainbow armbands and “offensive” costumes.
From Day One of the 22nd edition of the quadrennial tournament, FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) has made it clear: Focus on football and stay out of world affairs.
But this has done little to dampen passions in Qatar, where protests are uncommon and domestic dissent is not allowed.
The United States’ 1-0 victory over Iran on Tuesday, for example, was “overshadowed by political tension,” according to Reuters. After the game, Reuters reported, stadium security guards chased and pinned to the ground a man who was wearing a T-shirt bearing the words “women, life, freedom”—the battle cry galvanizing the raging protest movement in Iran. An eyewitness was quoted as saying that the scuffle began when guards demanded that the man remove his T-shirt.
Muted but loud
Some of the protests have been deliberately muted, with players either staying silent or covering their mouth during the national anthem, or with fans simply displaying messages on T-shirts. But the images have been so clear and the message so loud that these have generated public debate—and backlash.
Amid civil unrest at home over the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old woman arrested for “improper hijab,” Iran’s players refused to sing their national anthem ahead of their opener against England.
“They should know that we sympathize with them,’’ the team captain, Ehsan Hajsafi, said of the antigovernment protesters demanding regime change, hundreds of whom have been killed in clashes with Tehran’s security forces.
The team, under intense pressure to show unequivocal support for the protests at the World Cup at a cost of earning the Iranian regime’s ire, has since found itself between a rock and a hard place.
After getting criticized by Iranian officials for their behavior in their opener and fearing retribution, the players half-heartedly sang their anthem in their next match against Wales, eliciting jeers from other Iranians in the stadium.
In contrast, Welsh players sang their anthem with vigor along with thousands of fans watching from the stands.
Iranian women have reported being “spied on” by persons snapping pictures and using binoculars at the stadium since Qatari security men accosted fans holding up a shirt bearing the name of Amini, who was detained by police for allegedly violating rules on head coverings and later died in custody, sparking the continuing mass protests in Iran.
Tehran’s security forces have also arrested celebrities backing the protests.
In and out of the tournament, there’s more than meets the eye for Iran and its people.
And as the spectacle unfolded, with fans gasping in awe at national teams scoring their first World Cup goal or mounting come-from-behind thrillers, certain teams were kicking off a different campaign and chasing other goals on the field.
Teams from England, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland and Wales had something up their sleeve before the games began: Wear rainbow “OneLove” armbands in support of LGBTQ+ communities.
But they scrapped the plan after FIFA threatened them with sanctions, including a yellow card for any player wearing the armband that was seen as a rebuke to Qatar, which has passed a law criminalizing homosexuality.
Germany’s national team responded with a silent protest. Its players covered their mouth with their right hand during a team photo ahead of their match against Japan, and wore warm-up tops with rainbow-colored sleeve stripes.
“It was a sign from the team, from us, that FIFA is muzzling us,” Germany coach Hansi Flick said.
In a statement, the German soccer team said: “It wasn’t about making a political statement—human rights are nonnegotiable. That should be taken for granted, but it still isn’t the case. That’s why this message is so important to us. Denying us the armband is the same as denying us a voice.”
Wales, calling the armband rule a “terrible decision,” prominently displayed a rainbow flag at its training base in Qatar.
Fans were just as riled by FIFA’s regulation forcing them to remove rainbow bucket hats, wristbands and shoelaces before entering the stadium.
Football Association of Wales chief Noel Mooney commented: “We were told this was going to be a really inclusive, welcoming, warm World Cup. That is not what I have seen, I have to say.’’
And as soon as images of England supporters clad in Crusader costumes in their team’s opener against Iran emerged, FIFA banned the wearing of imitation outfits consisting of chain-mail, shields and swords in the stadium.
The goal was to foster a “discrimination-free environment” and promote diversity across the organization, the soccer governing body explained.
“Crusader costumes in the Arab or Middle East context can be offensive to Muslims. That is why antidiscrimination colleagues asked fans to wear things inside out or change dress,” it said.
Between 1095 and 1291 AD, European Christian powers waged a series of military campaigns to check the spread of Islam and, ultimately, conquer Jerusalem and the Holy Land from the Muslims. It was called the “crusades.”
Since its inception in 1930, the World Cup has been used as a stage for political statements.
In the 1938 tournament held in France, members of Italy’s national team set off a political storm when they wore an all-black outfit with fascist colors and made a fascist salute before kickoff, in an attempt to showcase their country’s supremacy under dictator Benito Mussolini. They took home their second trophy that year.