The Qatar World Cup defied anti-Arab prejudice

Coverage around the time of Sunday's final was at points racist

Argentina's Lionel Messi lifts the World Cup trophy. Reuters
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There is a reason the football World Cup changes host country every four years. The sport may have been born in Europe, but it has since grown into one of the most popular pastimes in the world. All deserve to enjoy it, and all deserve to contribute to its story and development.

Nations that organise World Cups, the supreme footballing event, have a massive responsibility to guard a historic brand. They also have the right to leave their own mark on it. If a host is overseeing the tournament’s first presence in a region of the world, it is a particularly important and rewarding duty. For example, when South Africa hosted the first African World Cup, the Vuvuzela, a local, trumpet-like instrument, became an internationally recognised symbol of the games. It can still be heard at matches today, a constant reminder of the love Africa has for football and all that the continent has done for the game.

In Qatar’s case, the 2022 World Cup did a service to the entire Gulf, Middle East and North Africa. It was a platform to show the world the depth of Arab and Gulf culture, when too many view the region with prejudice.

Sunday’s match between Argentina and France has been widely called one of the best World Cup finals of all time, and the culmination of the career of the once-in-a-generation footballing hero Lionel Messi. And by the time it finished, millions, whether attending in person or watching from abroad, had gained a more positive, informed and rounded impression of the region as a result of Qatar’s action-packed, family-friendly tournament. They saw Messi lift the World Cup trophy into the air. They also saw the Emir of Qatar courteously cloaking him in a bisht, a traditional men’s garment worn on formal occasions. It was an image that combined the footballing heritage and triumph of Argentina, Arab culture and the global appeal of the sport.

But throughout the tournament, in western commentary the role of the local culture in making for a more inviting World Cup was rarely mentioned. After the final, one UK newspaper, The Telegraph, used the moment of Messi’s victory celebrations to cast Arab culture in a cynical light, writing that Messi was “made” to wear the bisht, even though he was being adorned with it, as a high honour bestowed by the head of state of the host nation.

The tournament has also been the target of blatant and deliberate anti-Arab racism. Morocco, a hero of this World Cup, was the first Arab and African team ever to reach the semi-finals. Commentators on TV2, a Danish broadcaster, used particularly insulting and racist language to describe Moroccan players hugging their mothers. Morocco, a country that has both an Arab and an African identity, should never be subjected to such tropes in 2022, particularly at a time where it deserved to celebrate so much. And Qatar should be praised for hosting a World Cup at a time of severe global upheaval and in the wake of a terrible pandemic.

For the vast majority, this was a tournament to remember for the ages. That was not only because of the quality of the games, but also because of the astonishing setting in which they took place, and for all it did to push forward the longer journey of turning football into a truly global game. Prejudiced commentary should have no place as the world celebrates the beautiful game.

Published: December 20, 2022, 3:00 AM
Updated: December 27, 2022, 9:13 AM