When FIFA announced in 2010 that Qatar would host this year’s World Cup, football fans and sports pundits were left scratching their heads. Qatar, it was said again and again, had no real business hosting the tournament: The weather is too hot; there aren’t enough stadiums; the country doesn’t even have a halfway decent football team. And of course, there was the question of who would be building the sites for the games and under what conditions. As the regretful former FIFA president who had announced Qatar’s winning bid 12 years ago said recently of the country, “Football and the World Cup are too big for it.”
There was some merit to the complaints: Searing July temperatures would make a summer tournament impossible, and it’s true that the national team has never previously qualified for the World Cup. But some of the backlash seemed to be rooted in false cultural assumptions about Qatar and the Middle East more broadly, including a belief that the region lacked a history of football. When the tournament opens on Sunday, it will mark the first time that the Arab world, with its population of more than 440 million people, has hosted the World Cup since it began in 1930. Nonetheless, the region has a century-long history with the beautiful game.
The story of Arab football — like so much in the region — is tied up in the history of colonialism and the struggle against it. British and French officials introduced football as part of efforts to cultivate obedience and discipline among colonized people, through an emphasis on the physical conditioning and rule-based structure that football offers. In turn, local Arab elites frequently invoked their establishment of football clubs and organized competitions as a marker of social and cultural advancement in their struggles for independence.
In Egypt, Jordan, Palestine and Sudan, nationalist movements fighting for independence from colonial powers showcased football’s role in protests, the establishment of political parties and strengthening the sense of national identity. Algeria’s independence movement, known as the F.L.N., formed a team-in-exile in 1958 as part of its battle against French rule. The team competed against other national teams even before there was an independent Algeria. (Under pressure from France, FIFA punished teams that played matches with the F.L.N. squad.) Qatar’s national league, too, predates the country’s 1971 independence from Britain by nearly a decade.
Football remains entwined with national identity in the Middle East today. That became especially clear in December 2010. A few weeks after Qatar’s successful bid was announced, the Arab world erupted in protests, first with an uprising in Tunisia that brought down the longtime president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, then with similar mass movements in Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere.
Football’s cultural and political importance was evident throughout these uprisings: In Tahrir Square in Cairo, football fan groups, or ultras, were often on the front lines, throwing stones and choking on tear gas as state security forces cracked down on protesters. Tunisian ultras built a presence on web forums, where they shared calls to action while evading state surveillance. In Bahrain, stars including Mohamed Adnan were barred from playing for the national team after attending anti-government protests.
In the Arab world, as in many other parts of the globe, football has a way of capturing the collective imagination and certain players can become generational touchstones. One can see this in the rise to stardom of players like Riyad Mahrez, who is Algerian, and Mohamed Salah, who is Egyptian. Both are winners of the English Premier League’s Player of the Year Award, triumphing over the limits of opportunity at home and the forces of anti-immigrant discrimination abroad. Through these stories, legions of Arab fans have experienced football’s transcendental quality.
The Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish once noted that football “is the field of expression permitted by secret understanding between ruler and ruled in the prison cell of Arab democracy.” The game, he added, “represents a breathing space, allowing a splintered homeland an opportunity to join together around something shared.” In the decade since the Arab uprisings, many countries in the Middle East have become even more repressive, making the breathing space of football feel more urgent than ever.
And yet, this is a reality that few outside of the Middle East and its diaspora communities seem to understand. To the extent that the Middle East and football are discussed in the same sentence outside of the region, it is usually in the narrative around the corrupting influence of Gulf money on the game: the board members of the United Arab Emirates-owned Manchester City F.C. lobbying the British government on behalf of the Emirates’ strategic interests; the Qatari-owned Paris St.-Germain shattering transfer records in 2017 with its $263 million purchase of the star Brazilian forward Neymarto prove Qatar’s global relevance even while it was under blockade by its neighbors.
The exploitation of football for geopolitical goals has undoubtedly imperiled the game’s integrity. But here, too, it often feels that there is a willful blindness at work. Long before Gulf sovereign wealth funds turned around the fortunes of struggling clubs, Europe’s top leagues were awash with injections of cash from China, Russia and the United States. What the Gulf states have done — most recently with Saudi Arabia’s purchase of Newcastle United last year — is to intensify the transformation of the game into prestige projects for billionaire owners that has been years in the making. Whether in the astronomical player transfer fees, prohibitive ticket prices or the enormous licensing costs paid by broadcasters that are then passed on to consumers, football has become increasingly inaccessible to its fans.
Which brings us back to the main event. While fans in Europe and North America might find the journey to Doha daunting, this World Cup is poised to be more accessible to many others: people in Asia, Africa and the Middle East won’t have to contend with costly transoceanic flights or intrusive visa requirements. By contrast, one of the hosts of the next World Cup, the United States, had until recently a “Muslim ban” that would have kept Iranians from being able to watch their team compete. Up to 100,000 Iranians plan to make the short flight to attend this year’s tournament. (Troubling reports that some Yemeni fans have inexplicably seen their admission to the games revoked has undermined one of this tournament’s bright spots, though.)
The significance of the first Arab World Cup has been overshadowed by other issues, many of them legitimate. The biggest concern has been about the rights of migrant workers in Qatar. Human rights watchdogs, journalists, fans and players have all spoken out. For nearly a decade, the International Labor Organization has investigated allegations of systemic exploitation and forced labor through the “kafala” sponsorship system, which gives employers near total control over their migrant workers.
But some of this discourse plays on Orientalist tropes that treat Qatar and other Gulf countries as exceptional, rather than as one more locus in a global flow of capital and labor. Published in 2010, one critique of Qatar’s labor practices traces the kafala system to “an overly developed sense of honor.” Others depict the kafala system as a natural outgrowth of traditional Arab culture. In reality, it was a British colonial invention inherited by newly independent states in the 1970s.
While the announcement of major reforms that promise to dismantle the kafala system has been encouraging, the question of enforcement will linger long after the end of the World Cup and the global spotlight has turned elsewhere. One would hope that future World Cup hosts — and their labor practices — are given the same kind of scrutiny.
On one level, the Qatar World Cup represents all that is wrong in hypercommodified megaevents: global consultancies, multinational corporations, government agencies, FIFA itself. And yet this year’s tournament also makes clear that the game is no longer the exclusive domain of European states and their erstwhile Latin American colonies.
Football is a cultural force like no other. Its intricate history has transcended boundaries and captured the hearts of millions in the Middle East and beyond. It is something on which to project hopes and fears, anxieties and aspirations. As the teams representing 32 nations take to the field in the month ahead, those aspirations will take center stage.
Abdullah Al-Arian (@anhistorian) is a history professor at Georgetown University in Qatar and the editor, most recently, of “Football in the Middle East: State, Society and the Beautiful Game.”
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