From Doha With Love: World Cup reconciles people and nations
When the Italian referee Daniele Orsato blew his whistle to start the match between the host country Qatar and Ecuador at Al-Bayt Stadium last Sunday evening, the FIFA World Cup for 2022 officially kicked off. After that whistle, Qatar was a different place than I had seen it a day before.
History will mark Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup for several reasons, as it marked many firsts after 92 years of the competition. Qatar, a small peninsular country in the Gulf, becomes the first ever Arab, Muslim and Middle Eastern country to host the world’s biggest sporting event. In addition, due to Qatar’s hot climate, the traditional World Cup summer schedule was shifted to winter for the first time. Qatar’s World Cup has also been notable for the region as it highlights Arab heritage, culture and identity. The opening ceremony was symbolic and sophisticated, showcasing Arab creativity.
This mega-event is also making history as it will be the first men’s World Cup to feature female officials. Japan’s Yoshimi Yamashita, France’s Stephanie Frappart and Rwanda’s Salima Mukansanga are in line to be the first women to referee matches at the event, while three more women will accompany them as assistant referees.
Since winning the bid to host the 22nd edition of the World Cup in 2010, Qatar has been readying itself for the global showpiece for 12 years, with more than $200 billion spent on modernizing the country’s infrastructure and conditions. While this World Cup has been surrounded by controversy, largely aimed at the host nation, the meticulous and well-calculated organization at stadiums and fan zones and in terms of transportation and the airport have proved the critics wrong.
Besides material preparations, the psychological preparation for this event among the 3 million people of Qatar has been noteworthy. People in the country, including me, were waiting for this event with mixed feelings of concern and enthusiasm. They have waited for so long that they cannot believe how this big — for some impossible — dream has become a reality. The metro, streets and stadiums are filled with people carrying their national emblems and singing songs.
The leaders of the Gulf countries embraced Qatar’s efforts and threw their full support behind their neighbor
The World Cup brings together people from diverse cultures and languages. This event has also played a significant role in reconciling states and nations. One of the most interesting scenes was when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi met and had an enthusiastic handshake on the sidelines of the opening ceremony in a rare sign of the thawing ties between the two countries. The jovial photo of the two leaders was clearly the outcome of the mediation conducted by Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani. Through sports diplomacy, Qatar used the World Cup as an opportunity to act as a friendship broker between the Turkish and Egyptian leaders. Mediation has been a soft power tool in Qatar’s diplomatic inventory for years now.
The Qatari emir has described the tournament as an event that can unite people worldwide. This call was well received by the leaders of the Gulf countries, who embraced Qatar’s efforts and threw their full support behind their neighbor. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman last week directed all ministries and government agencies in the Kingdom “to provide any additional support or facilities required by Qatar” to aid its efforts to successfully host the World Cup.
The tournament has also served to significantly consolidate Gulf unity and solidarity. The crown prince wrapping a Qatari flag around himself at the Qatar-Ecuador match and Sheikh Tamim carrying a Saudi Arabian flag and draping it around his neck during the Kingdom’s match against Argentina will be among the most important scenes of the World Cup. Saudi Arabia went on to make history by beating football giants Argentina 2-1 in front of more than 80,000 fans. According to sports data group Gracenote, this ranks as the biggest upset in World Cup history.
An Arabic speaker at the match made an important statement: “This is not only the Saudis’ victory, but also the Qataris’, Bahrainis’, Emiratis’, Kuwaitis’, Omanis’ and the whole of the Arab world’s victory.” The way Qatari fans celebrated with Saudi fans outside of the Lusail Stadium was worth seeing. Hosting the World Cup is not just a Qatari success, but a success for the region; in the same vein, the Saudi victory was for all Arabs. Through this event, Qatar is trying to make the world “proud of the Middle East.” This feeling has motivated people in the Gulf to stand behind this global sporting event, despite all the Western criticisms.
Last but not least, it is noteworthy to mention the Iranian team’s stance at the World Cup. Before a ball was even kicked in their opener against England on Monday, the players made a powerful statement. The team refusing to sing the national anthem at the Khalifa International Stadium, as protests in their home country raged into their second month, was an important show of solidarity with those protesting after Mahsa Amini’s death.
As is often said, football is not just football. It is more than just a form of entertainment. The ongoing World Cup has shown this in the best possible way.
- Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkiye’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz