Written by Daryl Adair, Associate Professor of Sport Management, University of Technology Sydney
Before the Qatar World Cup began, FIFA launched a social campaign called “Football Unites the World”. FIFA acknowledged “the world is divided […] with conflicts and global crises”, but promised the World Cup “will bring people together to cross borders, unite and celebrate”.
It’s a similar message to that of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), in which the Olympic Games are said to “unify” the world of nations. Such aspirations aren’t simply about bringing countries together to play sport under agreed rules: these two global bodies also believe they have some capacity to shape international relations.
Indeed, both the FIFA and IOC presidents were invited speakers at the recent G20 Summit in Bali. The FIFA supremo, Gianni Infantino, drew upon the fabled Olympic truce, urging for a ceasefire to the Russian invasion of Ukraine for the length of the men’s World Cup in Qatar.
Yet, despite FIFA heralding unity and peace during the 2022 World Cup, the tournament has featured potent examples of political conflict and protest, while Russian attacks against Ukraine have intensified.
At the very time football was supposed to be “uniting the world”, FIFA was scrambling to quell what it saw as unwelcome criticism from some participants and many commentators. This dissent stemmed principally from widespread criticism about Qatar as World Cup host, notably the exploitation of foreign labourers, discrimination against LGBTQI+ communities, and constraints around drinking alcohol.
In response, Infantino sent a letter to football federations saying: “Please, let’s now focus on the football!” He urged them to “not allow football to be dragged into every ideological or political battle that exists”.
However, while football teams concentrate on winning games, some also promote bedrock values in modern sport such as inclusion, and rail against discrimination.
Many football teams – especially those from Western democratic cultures – have a progressive vision of what “unity” in sport and society should mean.
FIFA’s 2017 Human Rights Policy prohibits discrimination “in the world of football both on and off the pitch”, with freedom of sexual orientation specifically protected, among other attributes.
In keeping with this, seven European countries informed FIFA they intended to showcase their support for sex and gender diverse communities at the 2022 World Cup. Team captains were to wear the “OneLove” rainbow-coloured armband, as had been done by the Dutch at the UEFA Euro 2020 championship.
But just hours before the opening game, FIFA announced the OneLove symbols were a “breach” of its rules: no kit should feature “any political, religious or personal slogans, statements or images”.
What’s more, wearing the armband would not merely attract a fine. FIFA warned of on-field punishment in the form of yellow cards.
The European teams, while angry, now felt they had little choice other than to back down. But there were creative responses. The German team offered a symbolic protest before the start of their next match, covering their mouths to denounce being “gagged” by FIFA. Germany’s Interior Minister, Nancy Faeser, sported the OneLove armband while setting next to Infantino during that game.
Clash of values
FIFA, meanwhile, offered its own “solution”. The FIFA “No Discrimination” campaign was brought forward from the planned quarter-finals stage, with FIFA-approved armbands endorsing anti-discrimination, albeit without a specific focus on sex and gender diversity.
FIFA’s feeble public relations spin then quickly denigrated into doublespeak. Despite banning the OneLove armbands, FIFA announced it also “supports” OneLove and the LGBTQI+ community, and “Football unites behind [FIFA’s] call for #NoDiscrimination”.
That message would hardly resonate with Qatari authorities, for whom homosexuality is an affront to Islam and forbidden under law. Just prior to the tournament, Qatar’s World Cup ambassador, former footballer Khalid Salman, claimed to a German broadcaster that same sex attraction is “damage in the mind”.
Two weeks later, panellists on Qatar’s Alkass Sports channel mocked the German football team’s protest gesture, relishing their elimination from the Cup. These Europeans, they said, had failed to respect Qatar’s customs.
FIFA, in gifting the World Cup to Qatar as host, was well aware of this clash of values, but deferred to local norms.
That said, FIFA occasionally pushed back, most notably to quell the ire of fans prevented from conveying symbolic support for LGBTQI+ communities through their clothing. At the entry to stadiums, Qatari security initially refused entry to people wearing clothing with rainbow adornments. However, after “urgent talks” with FIFA, that position was rescinded. In this sense, fans ended up having more freedom of expression than players.
But not completely. When some England fans arrived at the opening match dressed as their country’s patron saint, often replete with faux helmets, plastic swords, and shields featuring the St George Cross, Qatari police refused them entry. This attire has a long tradition among English sports fans, but FIFA sided with Qatar, deciding that “crusader” costumes could be historically offensive to Muslims.
According to FIFA, this position was consistent with it striving to promote “a discrimination-free environment”.
Meanwhile, Iranian spectators in Doha were confronted by security for the “offense” of wearing t-shirts or holding up placards in support of the recent protest movement against the Islamic Republic and its morality police.
FIFA eventually intervened to assure Iranians that symbols of dissent would no longer be constrained by World Cup authorities, but this only happened after the Iran team had been eliminated from the tournament.
Elsewhere, Brazilian fans confronted a very different political quandary. In recent years their team’s iconic yellow jersey, the canarinho, has been deployed as an unofficial emblem of former President Jair Bolsonaro’s right-wing populist movement.
Many supporters of the new left-wing president, known as Lula, have concluded the yellow jersey is still politically tainted: after all, Bolsanaro and his supporters had used the canarinho in a similar vein to Donald Trump’s MAGA merchandise.
The long-term goal of leftist football fans is to reclaim and democratise the canarinho as a patriotic but not partisan symbol. For now they encourage wearing the lesser-known blue kit, worn when Brazil won the 1958 World Cup against Sweden, which donned yellow.
Promotional rhetoric either by FIFA or its stakeholders routinely emphasises the unifying and integrative “power” of football and the World Cup.
Future World Cups will be obliged to adhere to human rights obligations that Qatar (2022) and Russia (2018) weren’t required to follow.
Yet, such is FIFA’s cognitive dissonance that Infantino, on the eve of the cup, fantasised about the possibility of a World Cup in North Korea.