Football is often called the beautiful game yet this year we witnessed its extremely ugly side during the Winter World Cup in Qatar. From the onset, ironically during Islamophobia Awareness Month in the UK, we had front and centre seats to the hypocrisy and white centric analysis of Qatar, a tiny oil rich state in the Gulf, by ex-footballers and commentators, trashing the country. The BBC, proving itself to be a long arm of British Imperialism, decided without any consultation with its taxpaying funders (us), to boycott the ceremony. Instead, we got to hear the likes of Gary Linaker and Alan Shearer, both ex footballers preach to the world about migrant workers, LGBTQI issues and lectures on Qatar’s carbon footprint. I’m all for vigorous debates and deep dives into problematic structures and institutions, but the fact that this is the first time a major sporting tournament has been held in a Muslim country and the BBC decided to completely ignore the opening ceremony, and instead have footballers preach morality to me, was deeply offensive. On that very same day, we had reports of a refugee dying in a UK migrant detention centre in Kent, The UK has had a hostile attitude to refugees, with its government desperately trying to fly those seeking refuge in these shores to countries like Rwanda. 39 migrants died in the back of a truck in the UK in 2019. In May this year The Guardian reported that migrant workers were being exploited, beaten, facing racism and sexual abuse whilst working 20 hour shifts on UK fishing boats for £3.50 an hour. Just this week, four migrants died after their boat capsized off the English coast, and whilst the PM offered his deepest condolences, Interior Minister Suella Braverman, has been referring to migrants as an “invasion” and at this years Conservative Party Conference, she shared her dream of seeing that plane take off to Rwanda. The British do not have clean hands when it comes to migrants. Of course that doesn’t deny them the right to highlight abuses elsewhere, but it is interesting that countries with similar human rights records have not been censored in the same way.
The 2018 World Cup was held in Russia, which has an awful record on homosexuality and where same sex marriages are still illegal. This year, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is the big news story, but Russia has a long history of human rights abuses as outlined by Human Rights Watch in this 2017 report, yet the opening ceremony was still aired on the BBC. Earlier this year China hosted the Winter Olympics, the opening ceremony for which was again aired on the BBC. China, which has internment camps for Uyghur Muslims in which women have been systematically raped, sexually abused and tortured. Amnesty published a gruelling report on the many human rights abuses of China in 2021, but maybe the BBC didn’t get around to reading it! China is also the largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world! And then there is the BBC’s own love child, The Eurovision Song contest, which it hosts lovingly every year. Most if not all the countries in Europe are problematic, but the worst of them all is a settler colonial state, surprisingly not part of Europe at all, Israel. Israel has hosted the Eurovison Song Contest three times, 1979, 1999 and 2019 and each time it has been broadcasted live on the BBC. Israel is a settler colonial state, occupying Palestine since 1948. Palestinians have had their land forcefully taken from them, have been killed and imprisoned and live as second class citizens in open air prisons, with little access to medical care, education and safe drinking water. Yet there was no debate or sanctimonious lecturing of this during the Eurovision live show nor any mention of the carpet bombing of Gaza that very year. But more about Palestine later. The next World Cup is due to be held in three North American Countries: Canada, Mexico, and the United States. I wonder if the Opening Ceremony will be broadcasted on the BBC given that the US for example is trying to control women’s reproductive rights, that migrant children have been locked in cages and separated from their parents and that the US continues to have the death penalty and as we have seen over the past few years, Black People are systemically killed by the authorities and over represented in its prison population. The United States is also the worlds second largest polluter. Surely these are enough reason for a boycott to be considered?
Given how prominently LGBTQI issues have been raised during this world cup, and how they have been used to shut down debate on Qatar, I thought it would be interesting to see how many openly gay male footballers there are in the UK, because we know football is historically homophobic. It turns out that there is only one openly gay player in England’s top four men’s divisions, Jake Daniels, a forward for Blackpool F.C. Footballers making a show of rainbow armbands and £500,000 rainbow Rolex watches during this world cup is performative politics at best and insulting, culturally insensitive and part of the “white is always right” politics the global North like to impose on the rest of the world. During the World Cup in Qatar there was a grand total of ZERO gay footballers playing in the tournament. If FIFA, or indeed any of the footballers, truly cared about LGBTQI rights, maybe the thing to do would be to boycott the tournament. After all, we are responsible for our own actions and leading by example, rather than expecting a Muslim country to change its laws to suit us. Why didn’t these clubs and players, just accept the fines, or donate the vast sums of money they make from partaking in the World Cup to relevant charities? Protesting by buying yourself a watch that costs more than the average home in the UK seems a little off key. Condemning other countries whilst avoiding any conversations on our own homophobia, and the British history of importing intolerance during its rampart global colonialism, which included Qatar (who declared independence in 1971) is disingenuous and lets be honest, rooted in racism, as we have seen different standards applied to different countries. Addressing homophobia at home, particularly in our own football grounds where men clearly feel scared of coming out, is probably a better starting place and a more pertinent discussion for these football commentators.
Some of the most vile coverage from this years World Cup has come from European countries, and has included racist, Islamophobic and orientalist tropes which haven’t been challenged by any of the commentators who jumped on the bandwagon of condemning Qatar. A French newspaper, Le Canard enchaîné caricatured Qatar’s national team as angry bearded men carrying large guns and machetes. A Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant showed a cartoon of two men on a motorbike “stealing” the world cup whilst flying the Moroccan flag. A Danish TV host compared Moroccan players to monkeys for hugging and celebrating with their mothers. In Germany a TV Anchor suggested that Moroccan players raising an Index finger showed their support for ISIS(!) and elsewhere, a newspaper, Die Tageszeitung, claimed that Moroccan’s rising the Palestinian flag was akin to antisemitism. The UK press also indulged in this behaviour with The Times (owned by Rupert Murdoch) stating that Qataris were not used to seeing women in western clothing, when a quick fact fact would have shown that 87% of Qatar’s population is from other countries including the West. The caption was later removed, but the damage was done. Europe is entrenched in Islamophobia, and this is only a small sample of its ugliness during this world cup. The hijab ban i.e. the Wests attempt to “liberate” Muslim women, anti immigration/refugee rhetoric and constant criticism of Islam and its clashes with western ideals make daily appearances in our media. The establishment is deeply Islamophobic and racist coverage like the above is mostly overlooked or more insidiously, allowed. Thankfully we now have social media to challenge and speak out against these traditional and powerful tools of the status quo, but we also have people like John Barnes who’s interview on ITV’s Good Morning Britain highlighted a few of the hypocrisies the rest of us have been screaming at our screens.
As many of us have noted Palestine has been the 33rd team in this World Cup. Fans and teams alike have been showing their support and solidarity to Palestinians. In European Football, which is governed by UEFA not FIFA, we are resolutely informed that politics has no place in football. Celtic, a Scottish team was fined £15,000 for flying the Palestinian flag in 2016, however earlier this year all such rules were waived to show support for Ukraine as Russia invaded it. Furthermore both UEFA and FIFA “suspended Russia’s national and club teams from all competitions until further notice.” This level of hypocrisy on the national and international stage doesn’t go unnoticed to supporters of Human Rights. Unlike those preaching to us from their comfortable viewing suites in Qatar, funded by the BBC, we are left wondering why Russia is boycotted yet Israel continues to get a pass? Just this week two sixteen year old children were killed by the Israeli occupation forces, Jana Zakarneh and Diya Rimawi. Occupation Forces also demolished homes in the towns of Jericho and Nablus , beat up football fans waving Moroccan flags, fired tear gas at journalists reporting protests of illegal settlement expansions in the town of Beit Dajan. In the East of Hebron Israeli forces cut down 50 olive trees belonging to Palestinian farmers and Israeli settlers continue to break into Al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site for Muslims, under the protection of Israeli soldiers. That’s not even a complete and comprehensive list of all their crimes in the last seven days, yet you probably didn’t hear of any of this by Gary Linaker or on the BBC or any of the European media that has been so quick to cast stones at Qatar, or any of the organisations that have banned Russia.
As a Muslim woman and an England fan this World Cup has been riddled with complicated feelings. I know how complicit my country is in the demonising of the other and I’m still furious at the BBC and its decision to not show the opening ceremony, which I’m sure we won’t get a decent explanation for. I’m not a Arab, my parents are from Kashmir and my husbands are Bangladeshi, so my affiliations are closer to those migrants workers than the Qatari government. As a visibly Muslim woman, I know the feelings of being at a football stadium in the UK surrounded by racist chants and alcohol fuelled bravado, so the conversations around safety concerns by western media in Qatar are laughable to me, especially given how domestic violence in the UK surges after football matches end. I fell in love with Morocco during this tournament, the solidarity with Palestine, the celebrations with their mothers, and who doesn’t love an underdog, but I was glad they didn’t face England, as that wold have been too much of a test to my loyalty! As a Muslim women, I’m used to robustly defending myself and every one of my choices. I know that my existence is political so everywhere I am, politics follow, from my home to the football stadium. I’m grateful that politics took the centre stage in this World Cup, that support for Palestine was loud and proud. That the hypocrisy of Europe was laid bare for all to see (or not!). I’m glad that the Muslim world got to showcase its excellence and its solidarity, because its people are from removed from its leadership. Even now, as Qatar’s stadiums empty and Argentina carries the World Cup home the news is still riddled with stories of Qatari corruption, as if secrets handshakes and money under the table is a one sided affair. Seeing Lionel Messi wearing a Bisht, a black and gold Qatari robe had the BBC pundits spiralling, wondering “what is he wearing?” and why? As if appreciating another culture that isn’t white is one of life’s greatest mysteries! Dan Walker, another BBC presenter tweeted “I bet Mbappe is delighted he manged to swerve the weird mesh cloak with gold trim” – the lack of awareness and open hostility to another culture from BBC presenters is astonishing to me, given they have a World Service. Dan Walker, who appeared in strictly come dancing dressed as a lobster, and is obviously oblivious of Mbappe’s heritage (Nigerian and Algerian parents) is unable to appreciate the gesture of the Emir of Qatar honouring the star player of the tournament with a traditional Qatari gift. In the UK, which also has a monarchy, subjects are expected to bow to the King, I guess too an ignorant white man, that makes more sense than graciously receiving a gift from the monarch of another country. Although he deleted his tweet later, there is no discussion on the BBC or elsewhere of the lack of cultural awareness amongst the white men who present BBC shows, nor has there been an apology.
Qatar 2022 has probably been one of my favourite football tournaments, for all the negativity by the usual suspects there were priceless moments by ordinary citizens. From every person who shunned Israeli media, because they are tools of an illegal occupation and should never be normalised, to the beautiful celebrations on the pitch and how well both England and Morocco performed. I loved hearing the support, from all over the world, for Palestinian liberation, and my hope if that each one of those people takes it back to wherever home is and continues to champion a Free Palestine, because kicking settler colonialism out of football, and the world, is truly a win for everyone.