Participation in sport as a political statement is an accepted practice. The use of sport as an exercise of soft and not coercive power, especially in international relations, is one of the tools available to nations who want to influence and even control the world order. The promotion of one’s art, literary genius, music, language, and culture in another country is a way to get that country or the rest of the world to think like you, to like what you like, and to accept your idea of what is the best way to live.
Over the last several days, we have seen the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Doha, Qatar — one of the most conservative societies in the world — serve as the venue for making political statements in a sport event.
The very first World Cup-related political statement was made by Qatar when the country decided to bid for the right to host the Cup and worked hard to accomplish that goal. Hosting the World Cup would send a signal to the world that, indeed, Qatar had arrived and had the financial and organizational muscle to manage an event of such magnitude. It would position Doha as a tourist destination, much in the same way that Dubai and Abu Dhabi have successfully positioned themselves as tourist attractions, and thus shedding or deemphasizing its image of conservatism and rigidity. Hosting the Cup would also help diversify revenues of the one-product country, from its natural gas exports to something more exciting and glamorous: tourism.
Winning the right in 2010 to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup turned out just to be the beginning of the controversies that would engulf the country. Rumors of payoffs and payola filled the air as holding the Cup in Qatar would mean revising the European football calendar and traditional schedules: World Cups are usually held in July-August. But there was an immediate realization that temperatures running up to more than 100° Fahrenheit at that time of the year in the country would be most unfriendly to athletes, spectators, and everyone else, including the thousands of migrant workers brought into Doha to build seven new stadiums and the transportation infrastructure leading to the eight public assembly facilities where 32 countries would play 64 matches over one month up to Dec. 18.
All these issues, plus the ban on the sale and consumption of beer (a standard drink in most sporting competitions in most parts of the world) within the stadium; and questions on the rights of the LGBTQ, and other controversies prompted the former president of FIFA to say that granting the hosting rights to Qatar was a “mistake,” and finally saw a member of the royal family of Qatar lashing out at critics.
But the games did go on, with FIFA having no choice but to accept the responsibility of cleaning up the developing mess and assuming the de facto role of Qatar spokesman. As a FIFA official remarked matter-of-factly: “We have more than 200 members and only a few members are concerned with what’s going on inside Qatar.”
So, that was it and the attention of the world was guided towards the games and not to those “distractions” — never mind if thousands of migrant workers’ rights may have been abused and lives lost.
As of this writing, England, Argentina, France, Brazil, South Korea, Japan, Spain, Croatia, Portugal, Senegal, and the Netherlands, were among those who made it to the knockout phase of the quadrennial tournament.
But other distractions simply would not go away — because they were not distractions but real matters of life and death, freedom and liberty.
Iran qualified for Qatar 2022 long before a 22-year hijab-less Kurdish woman died in September while in the custody of the morality police. The latter have become as feared as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Iran’s revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, created the IRGC as a separate force from the Arny.
The death of Mahsa Amini on Sept. 16 triggered protests, the ferocity of which has perhaps not been known in Iran since the fall of the monarchy led by the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. For the past three months, various sectors of Iranian society have joined in solidarity with the protesters. And the protests have gone beyond the issue of the hijab (head scarf) law and its implementation. The hijab was made obligatory for all women in 1983, four years after the overthrowing of the Shah. He and his family had ruled the Imperial State of Iran from 1941 to 1979. The Shah reigned for 38 years while Iran’s current clerical rulers are on their 43rd year.
The sectors of the opposition include students, professionals, artists, ordinary citizens, exiled Iranians, and athletes. The Iranian national team to Qatar 2022 refused to sing the national anthem at its opening game to express support for the protesters back home. Its team captain even publicly grieved the death of his best friend, who was killed by government security forces during one of the latter’s violent operations. The same squad captain expressed support for the anti-government activities of his buddy. One can therefore see the intensity of the opposition to the clerical rulers — and Qatar 2022 was an effective platform for a political statement. One is reminded of the Black Power protest of US relay runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos upon being awarded the gold medal during the 1968 Mexico Olympics, an early expression of a political statement in sport.
The act of the Iranian football team, seen presumably by billions on TV and online, is regarded as what is now known as the “Olympic effect” in China. It is clear, however, that the pressure exerted in the world stage has had, surprisingly, some impact on the clerics of Iran. There is talk that the Iranian Attorney General has called for a review of the hijab law. The pressure on the clerics can be largely credited to the extraordinary courage of the Iranians, particularly the women who have removed their hijab and are cutting their hair publicly.
It is clear, as we stated earlier, that the hijab was just the trigger. What is now at question is the iron-fisted rule of the clerics and the lack of freedom in Iran. This contrast was made more obvious during Qatar 22 when Iranians opposed to the government spoke openly against the clerics. There were, however, reports of Iranian security agents shadowing the anti-government sympathizers even in Qatar, a country friendly to the clerics.
Meanwhile, Chinese from about two dozen cities have expressed their opposition and frustration publicly over Xi Jinping’s “zero COVID policy.” This display of frustration and violent resistance has long been in the making, and the tipping point could have been the FIFA World Cup. The Chinese, mainly its 500 million male football fans, realized that while other people — maskless at that — from different parts of the world were having fun enjoying the best football in the world, they were all locked up for years, unable to care for ailing parents and children, in some cases. Reports, however, stated that images of big crowds were censored when shown on Chinese TV.
One is led to reflect on these two situations (and other autocracies) and be tempted to simplistically say that there are structural defects in these autocratic systems, mainly the lack of accountability, consultation, balance of power, legal processes for change in leadership, discussion and choice of alternatives, and all other elements of democracy.
Of course, democracy is not the answer to all of the world’s problems — far from it. CNN’s Fareed Zakaria quoted the great British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to balance our expectations of democracy: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
Philip Ella Juico’s areas of interest include the protection and promotion of democracy, free markets, sustainable development, social responsibility and sports as a tool for social development. He obtained his doctorate in business at De La Salle University. Dr. Juico served as secretary of Agrarian Reform during the Corazon C. Aquino administration.