What a lead-up to the Christmas holidays! The politics behind the Qatar 2022 World Cup have proved to be as chaotic as the football results. With everything going on, Arsene Wenger, FIFA’s head of global development, just made the situation more chaotic with his media brief on Sunday: “The teams who performed well were mentally ready, they had focus on the competition and not on political demonstrations.” He wrongly drew a link between nations’ protests with their poor performances. Though much of the public are also calling players to “focus on football,” I prefer Gary Lineker’s point of view of “it is just football” which he shared live on the BBC’s coverage of Spain vs Germany.
I am a massive football fan. I’ve never missed a Premiere League match. I’ve traveled to Spain and England for the Champions League. I have every FIFA console game since the 2010 edition with Wayne Rooney on the cover blocking one of my all time favorite players, Frank Lampard.
I am also gay. I have two wonderful sisters, one of them has a disability, and a brilliant mother. The women in my life, who I work with and those who I went to school with, are so powerful and fascinate me every day. Many of my friends from university are not from first world western countries. Several of them are from India, Syria, Lebanon, China, Bangladesh, Pakistan, New Zealand, Brazil, Nigeria, and Kenya. A few of them are actually first-generation immigrants.
The World Cup made these four aspects of my identity clash. I love football, but I also love the LGBTQ+ community, support Women’s rights, and will always stand up for pro-immigration. How could I support the World Cup when so many aspects of my identity are ignored by the organizers of the tournament? Well, encouragingly, some anger has been picked up by the players and pundits who have demonstrated acts of protest against the host nation and FIFA.
Let’s not forget that seeing representation, on live TV, no matter how brief, is one the most inspirational moments for those who feel excluded from “the normal space”.
Even prior to the World Cup kickoff, Wales, Norway, Germany and Holland have spoken about the importance of human rights on and off the pitch. During the tournament itself, Germany covered their mouths before their game against Japan as backlash to FIFA stripping nations the right to protest. This was linked to FIFA warning nations to not wear the “OneLove Armband” which led many players to believe their decision to protest was taken out of their hands.
Indeed, the boundaries between football and political activism came excruciatingly close when FIFA banned the “OneLove Armband”. England, Wales, and Holland made a U-turn on wearing them for footballing reasons: a yellow card sanction for carrying it would weaken the team’s chances further in the competition. Although I find it logical, and unfair for the players to have to choose and compromise, I still believe those players have to take a hard look in the mirror: Iranian players endangered themselves by not singing their anthem, what is a yellow card really going to do to you? Put the pressure back on FIFA instead.
That is exactly what happened when Alex Scott, ex-footballer and pundit, and Nancy Feaser, the German interior Minister, wore the armbands on live TV.
In Feaser’s words: “It was not about making a political statement, human-rights are non-negotiable. We stand for diversity and mutual respect.” In Scott’s words: “No one was ever given permission to protest” and referenced Nelson Mandela on her instagram.
One successful initiative at this World Cup was the first time a woman referee took charge of a match: Stéphanni Frappart broke the glass ceiling alongside Neuza Black and Karen Díaz. It was a historic moment especially considering the fact that women are considered legal minors to men in Qatar. Some rightly wonder why it took 92 years for this to materialize, or at least 7 years since FIFA’s President announced plans to include women referees. I want to know why the managers of Germany and Costa Rica, during their press conference, were asked if they trusted the decision for Frappart to referee? She had already taken charge of the UEFA Champions League and Super Cup!
Let me take you back to Wenger’s comments on football and “being mentally ready”: clearly there is a gap in understanding of the boundaries between events and social justice. As in a business framework today: it is not the social justices that are going towards the corporate sector, it is the businesses going towards the social justices. Hence why we are seeing more businesses pouring more money into promoting diversity. Why? Collective action. Public outrage has incentivized businesses to take equality and diversity seriously which then puts more pressure on governments to do something.
Millennials are coming of age, and soon, there will no longer be a separation between everyday-life events and political activism. Football will never be just football, it will forever be a stage for inclusion.
Here, the biggest factor to the gap of understanding on what ‘inclusion’ really means is generations, again. The most successful and popular figureheads will be those who understand the values of inclusion in all areas of life. I did not realize it before, but there was definitely a reason why I looked up to Gary Lineker presenting Match of the Day every Saturday evening. He always made time to mention the inclusion side of things, no matter how brief.
I can’t wait to get back home for Christmas and hear my mother proudly say “We love Gary!” when she turns on the football.