One of the ironies of modern football is that national teams whip up passions in a kind of carnivalesque performance of patriotic partisanship. But the players are mostly colleagues in club teams, speak several languages, and are often close friends off the field, making them unsuitable avatars for this type of chauvinism.
Count on the International Federation of Association Football, better known as FIFA, to come up with a fatuous slogan for the World Cup in Qatar: “Football Unites the World.” An official promotional video has Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Brazil’s Neymar mouthing the words in Spanish and Portuguese, respectively. Is it true? Does football really unite the world?
Of course not. It does not even unite nations. Back home in Brazil, the team’s yellow and green colors have been coopted by supporters of the recently ousted president, Jair Bolsonaro (backed by Neymar), which has annoyed supporters of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, backed by the team coach, Tite, and the dyed-blond striker, Richarlison.
The idea that sporting events unite the peoples of the world is an old obsession, going back to Baron Pierre de Coubertin’s invention of the modern Olympic Games in 1896. Sports, in the baron’s mind, and that of an endless succession of sporting officials, ought to transcend politics, international tensions, and any other discord. FIFA, too, subscribes to the fantasy of a world without politics, where conflict is confined to the playing fields.
In fact, the choice to hold this year’s tournament in Qatar, a tiny oil-rich sheikdom with no footballing history or evidence of robust local interest in the game, is itself political. The country’s ruling emir craved the prestige of a global event, and Qatar had the money to buy it. Thick envelopes are said to have been slipped into the pockets of voting FIFA officials. And FIFA was richly rewarded for giving broadcasting rights to Al Jazeera, Qatar’s state-funded TV channel.
FIFA evidently was not bothered much by Qatar’s poor human-rights record, abuse of immigrant workers, and laws that punish homosexuality – certainly no more than even dodgier venues bothered the international sporting officials in the past. After all, the last World Cup tournament was held in Russia, which was already under international sanctions. And the 1936 Olympics took place in Hitler’s Berlin.
But the fact that tiny Qatar, the first Arab country to host the World Cup tournament, wields such clout shows how much power has shifted in recent times. And FIFA, like the International Olympic Committee, always bends to the power of money, making it clear that neither the players nor visiting European dignitaries should wear armbands with the words “OneLove.” That expression of support for people’s right to love who and how they want was seen as a political statement, and FIFA cannot allow sports and politics to mix.
Only the German team protested openly against the ban on expressing support for sexual freedom, covering their mouths in a group picture. They were quickly told by FIFA to stop or face serious consequences. Any criticism of human-rights violations in Qatar was swiftly met with accusations of racism, backed by FIFA’s Swiss chief, Gianni Infantino, who reminded fellow Europeans of the “3,000 years” of Western imperialism. T-shirts bearing the words “woman” and “freedom” were prohibited as well, lest they irritate the Iranian theocracy, which is being challenged with those slogans at home.
So much for international unity. Just as notable is the lack of national unity. It was interesting to see how many Iranian women without headscarves were in the stands watching their national team. Even more remarkable was that demonstrators in Tehran and other Iranian cities, protesting the regime’s efforts to bask in the glow of football victories, cheered when their team lost to the United States, of all countries.
Most remarkable of all was the refusal of the Iranian players themselves to sing the national anthem before their opening match against England. They were warned by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps not to repeat this brave act of defiance in support of the demonstrations at home.
Then there was the extraordinary defeat of the young German team, which had tried to stand up for its sympathies. Like most national teams, the German side is multiethnic. One of their players, İlkay Gündoğan, has a Turkish background. Jamal Musiala, their best midfielder, has a Nigerian father. And the top German defender, Antonio Rüdiger, is a Muslim whose mother is from Sierra Leone.
When the team failed to proceed to the knock-out stage, only because Spain lost to Japan, conservative pundits in Germany blamed a lack of the traditional German fighting spirit. Members of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party even said that lack of spirit was due to the team’s desire to wear “woke” “OneLove” armbands. Even before this World Cup, the mixed national team was attacked in certain right-wing circles for not being truly German.
One of the ironies of modern football is that national teams whip up passions in a kind of carnivalesque performance of patriotic partisanship. That is why national rulers like to drape themselves in their country’s footballing colors. But the players themselves are mostly colleagues in club teams all over Europe, speak several languages, and are often close friends off the field, making them unsuitable avatars for this type of chauvinism. They are members of an extremely wealthy, truly cosmopolitan, elite – just the type right-wing populists like to hate.
So, the football stars are, in a sense, united, even if the World Cup unites no one else. Still, one can understand why FIFA chose its slogan. “Money makes the world go round” would have been a little too honest.
Ian Buruma is the author of numerous books, including Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance, Year Zero: A History of 1945, A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir, and, most recently, The Churchill Complex: The Curse of Being Special, From Winston and FDR to Trump and Brexit (Penguin, 2020).