The World Cup Controversies Are Nothing New in the Realm of Sports

December 5, 2022

   It was the spring of 1971. Representatives from the United States National Table Tennis Team accepted the invitation to square off in a series of matches against China, an eight-day spectacle that engrossed the American public and ushered in a periodic thaw in U.S.-Chinese relations amid Cold War tensions. Ping-pong diplomacy, as it came to be known, underscored the virtues of sportsmanship and goodwill on the international stage — unlike other sporting events like the 1972 World Chess Championship and the 1980 Winter Olympics that amplified competition between ideological rivals, the sporting exhibition was instead an effort at friendship and détente — the easing of strained relations.

   Just like any other major sporting event, the good-natured ethos of athletic competition is often an overture to social, cultural, even political undertones. While the meticulously choreographed matches between the U.S. and China captivated audiences in 1971, it was the humanizing of a Communist regime and a commitment to reconciliation during the Cold War that outlived the matches themselves.  

   The 2022 FIFA World Cup is no exception to the social, cultural, and political scrutiny surrounding the event. Kicking off on November 20 in Qatar’s capital, the month-long tournament, which is held every four years, has been marred in controversy. From allegations of bribery during the bidding process in 2010, to hazardous working conditions when constructing the facilities, to Qatar’s patchy record on human rights, it seems the host country has been riddled with scandals since the outset.

    To better understand the many controversies surrounding the World Cup, it is crucial to reflect on Qatar’s initial bidding process in 2010. Twelve years ago, it seemed that the United States, Japan, and Australia were likely contenders for hosting the tournament in 2022. However, in a confounding move, FIFA awarded the title to Qatar, a relatively obscure country in the Persian Gulf whose team had never previously qualified for the tournament. Speculation swirled that Qatar had bribed FIFA officials; suspicion only grew when FIFA “suspended two members of its 24-person executive committee — the entity tasked with choosing the host nations — who had been accused of offering to sell their votes,” per a Vox report.

   Secondly, Qatar has been accused of mistreating — and potentially exploiting —  those who built tournament infrastructure. The gulf country accelerated construction of the facilities for the event, spending an estimated total of $220 billion on new infrastructure. However, Qatar has faced backlash for its labor system that employs predominantly migrant workers. Comprising 94% of the labor force, The Guardian reported in 2021 that 6,500 migrant workers, most of whom hailed from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, lost their lives since construction for the World Cup ramped up.

   A third controversy rocking the soccer world is Qatar’s checker boarded record on human rights, particularly its curtailing of LGBTQ rights. Like other Islamic countries in the Middle East, Qatar exercises an interpretation of Sharia Law. Under these provisions, same-sex marriage is illegal and homosexuality is subject to stringent repercussions. According to TIME, captains from seven teams agreed to sport the “OneLove” armband during matches to condemn “all forms of discrimination,” while Qatari officials charged that the rainbow-colored apparel was an implicit reference to and tacit allegiance with the LGBTQ community, sending a “very divisive message” to the Islamic and Arab world. FIFA subsequently warned that players found sporting the unauthorized apparel would be issued yellow cards.

   A final controversy that has turned many heads is Qatar’s request that tourists abide by its modesty laws. The decision drew equivocal reactions from students at West High. Unlike previous allegations, which would demonstrate an egregious breach of justice, there is more nuance and ambiguity when it comes to cultural clashes. Jonathan Valot (11), a player on West High’s soccer team, contended that Qatar should “have the authority to say ‘we’re not going to let you in if you’re not following our laws and rules,’” providing an analogy that “[it is] just like you’re visiting their household: You’re following their rules under their household, not your own,” such as taking one’s shoes off. However, with Qatar reporting the highest-ever attendance in World Cup history, Valot conceded that “since it is such a global event all over the world with different customs, cultures, and traditions, I think that there can be some leeway.” Indeed, with temperatures rounding off to at least 80 F, it may be impractical for fans to dress excessively. In fact, the World Cup is typically held during the summer, but FIFA agreed to push back the tournament to the winter to avoid the desert country’s blistering triple-digit heat.

   Aaron Hui (11), another West High student who has been following the World Cup, pitched the idea that while “respect should be given to the country that holds it, these restrictions [on attire] should have a boundary.” Hui argued that the modesty laws in Qatar are not as simple as ‘for or against.’ Instead, Hui suggested that these rules apply only to properties outside of the main venue that attract many tourists, “such as residential areas that have already been accustomed to the culture and beliefs of Qatar.” But within the premises of the official stadiums, “the blend of cultures should be allowed,” Hui concluded. 

   As much as the World Cup strives “to unite the world into a game that is meant to bring patriotism to one’s team,” to quote Hui, international sporting events of this magnitude are not impervious to the social, cultural, and political implications surrounding the competition. Hui believes that “it is important to cover more than just the sport” because “if one country that hosts [these] events ends up being a country of bad morals and beliefs, then it probably is not a good reflection of the people who [organized it].” 

   From ping-pong diplomacy, to the Olympics, to the World Cup, international tournaments are more than just entertainment. It is an opportunity to hold up a mirror to ourselves, to confront our shortcomings as a global community. We can experience both the joy and comradery of an intense soccer match, but also recognize the less savory realities that belie the World Cup. Just as we are united in our passion for the game, calling out injustices at the appropriate times means we are united in the commitment to human progress. There is a right time and place for everything, protest or contest.

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