By Arab News
By Chris Doyle*
As the FIFA World Cup reaches its climactic end, one cannot help but reflect on what an extraordinary political event it has been. Those who argue that sport and politics should be decoupled will have found it hard watching politics as an ever-present from the day Qatar was awarded the event back in 2010 and at every single match since the tournament began on Nov. 20.
But perhaps one of the most fascinating and hopefully impactful thrills at the World Cup has been the rare opportunity to remind the world that, for all its troubles, fissures and rivalries, the peoples of the Arab world do have much in common and that football has highlighted that reality every day in Qatar.
Some might question these signs of togetherness among fellow Arabs. Yet there were copious examples where it shone. Three achievements stood out.
Firstly, for Morocco to beat Spain and then Portugal in the knockout rounds was exceptional, especially following their defeat of Belgium, the second-ranked side in the world, in the group stage. There was more than an element of delight in seeing a former colony defeating, in Spain, its one-time colonial master. Morocco will get the chance to overcome its other colonial power, France, in the semifinals on Wednesday. In fact, star player Achraf Hakimi was born in the poor suburbs of Madrid. Morocco were the only team in the quarterfinals not from Europe or South America. Few in the region were not cheering them on. A sense of collective pride emerged as a result of the North African country’s success in becoming the first Arab and African state to reach the semifinals.
One might have thought that, given the dire state of relations between Morocco and Algeria, that Algerians would have shied away from joining in the festivities. Evidence suggests otherwise. Algerians were out supporting Morocco as enthusiastically as anyone else in the region. A friend was in Paris and told me: “After one of the Morocco victories, there were lots of Algerian supporters and flags joining their Moroccan brothers and sisters in celebration.” The Algerian captain and superstar Riyad Mahrez was quick to praise the Atlas Lions’ achievements.
Secondly, Tunisia beating reigning world champions France in the group stage was also an unforgettable moment. This was the first time they had beaten European opposition in the World Cup. This was every bit as big a win as in 1982, when Algeria beat the mighty West Germany in their first ever World Cup game.
Third, the Saudi victory over Argentina was another huge milestone. In many ways, this ignited the World Cup for the Arab world.
A sense of pride has also broken out that many of the finest players in the world come from this region. Hakim Ziyech for Morocco is one. Mahrez and Mohammed Salah were not in Doha but are still at the top of the sport. Kylian Mbappe, a star of this tournament, has an Algerian mother.
The key players in the Arab teams largely play in Europe. This shows football at its best in terms of breaking down barriers. Fourteen out of the 26-man Morocco squad were born outside of the country, showing how the team relies on the Moroccan diaspora. This includes Ziyech, who opted not to play for the Netherlands. That points to one challenge that countries like Morocco face, as they lack the footballing infrastructure to develop and nurture enough talent at home.
This World Cup has also often been about one country that is not there. At every single game featuring an Arab side, and plenty others beside, the Palestinian flag was there. It is a political symbol and a defiant message that the Arabs will not forget or ignore what is happening to the Palestinians in the diaspora and under occupation. As an even more brutally right-wing coalition is about to take power in Israel, this message should be carefully noted in the US and European capitals. Palestine still matters.
Israeli hasbaristas were also caught out. Having belittled and mocked those who claimed otherwise, they discovered that, despite the normalization deals, Arabs are not willing to gloss over Israel’s crimes and oppression. Time and time again, Israeli journalists, while trying to pretend everything was all lovely and wonderful with their newfound Arab friends, found that “free Palestine” was pushed back in their faces. Many locals snubbed their requests for interviews.
Palestinian armbands and keffiyehs were being worn at nearly every match by huge numbers of fans. The sheer arrogance of believing that a state could oppress millions of people and that all would be peace and happiness was exposed as the nonsense it is. The Moroccan players had no hesitation in raising the Palestinian flag after their wins over Spain and Portugal.
Many Arabs also expressed admiration for the courage of the Iranian team after the players refused to sing their national anthem ahead of their opening match against England. This points to the widespread sympathy many Arabs feel toward Iranians, notably currently the women, who are struggling for their freedoms.
The Western media has been quick to point out all that was wrong with this World Cup. It is about time it also highlighted what has gone right. For all the criticisms of Qatar in the run-up to the cup over issues such as workers’ rights, one of the key elements of its bid has been fulfilled. Football in the region has been the winner. The atmosphere has been considerably warmer than many expected, with largely good-natured relations among fans of all countries. It seems that rival fans have not needed to be segregated, showing the festival-like atmosphere. Fan violence does not seem to have featured. The largest numbers of fans, of course, came from the Arab world, with Saudi Arabia providing the largest number from a single country.
Many outside the region were dismissive of the claims that football mattered in the Middle East. One leading commentator contemptuously told me, while on the BBC, that Qatar did not have a footballing heritage. Yet the region should never have been ignored. A World Cup in the Arab world has brought some cheer to a region that has been hit hard by wars and other crises, and whose peoples have not had much to celebrate in recent years.
- Chris Doyle is director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, in London. Twitter: @Doylech