‘People-to-people diplomacy’ winner in Qatar World Cup

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On the eve of South Africa hosting the FIFA world cup in 2010, Western media were relentless as they attempted to cast aspersions over the country’s legitimacy to host the global spectacle.

Western media’s focus was set on its sheer subjectivity over a “third world country” winning the rights to host the soccer World Cup.

Instead of the ubiquitous joy and national feel-good atmosphere that reigned across South Africa and the continent at the time, the Western media elected to parade our country as the “crime capital of the world”. It was unsafe to visit, they argued, and in some instances alleged by implication that SA won the rights to host the FIFA world cup through utter corruption.

On the eve of Qatar hosting the FIFA world cup last week, the Western media were once again at their best subtle racism. Hardly any mention was made of Qatar breaking the duck by being the first Middle Eastern country in history to host the global showpiece. Instead, the West focussed on the fact that the Islamic State of Qatar did not embrace the ethos of the LGBTI, and that queer people were, therefore, unwelcomed in the beautiful Qatari whose modern infrastructural development is a sight to behold.

They expressed fears about the “freedoms enjoyed by the LGBTI people in Europe and the West”, and laid scathing attacks on Qatar’s Islamic religious and cultural as well as traditional practices, implying a “lack of civilization” or “backwardness”.

As they attempted to build a stronger case against Qatar hosting the FIFA World Cup, the Western media further focussed on the incidents of fatalities during the construction of various stadia in preparation for the currently underway competition. It was the West’s unconvincing concern about the plight of the migrant workers in Qatar – a sudden interest in the issue just before kick-off – proving that their reports had ulterior motives.

And then, of course, the usual allegation of corruption in the awarding of the world cup would not escape Qatar, just as it was thrown at SA back in 2010 when the country was Africa’s first-ever FIFA World Cup host in history.

I want to critic this Western bigotry toward international relations by first referring to the president of FIFA, Gianni Infantino, whose exasperation with the Western media reached a boiling point last week.

Addressing a global media conference on the eve of the competition in Qatar, Italian-born Infantino lashed out: “I think for what we Europeans have been doing in the last 3 000 years around the world we should be apologizing for the next 3 000 years before starting to give moral lessons to the people.”

Indeed, Europe has wreaked havoc across Africa and the Middle East in particular, subjugating indigenous communities to their Western norms and forcing nations to abandon their customs, culture, and traditions – at a gunpoint!

Slavery, colonialism and apartheid remain the worst crimes against humanity in memorable history and the perpetrators are yet to pay a dime in reparations, nor overtly apologising for their sins and those of their forebears. As Infantino proposed, they should do so for the next “3 000 years”.

It was quite fitting that the criticism of the hypocrisy of the Westerners came from one of their own in Infantino. It required one of their own to prick their gradually dying collective conscience and awareness about their heinous past throughout the developing world.

Since the FIFA World Cup kicked off last Sunday, ordinary citizens of the world who’ve ignored poisonous reporting by the Western media outlets have flocked en masse to Qatar, inter-mingling freely and enjoying football match after match in the glittering stadia built especially for this moment.

The misplaced ideological warfare, launched by sly Western governments through their lopsided media outlets, has thankfully failed to materialise. Over the last decade, in particular, the West has used every trick in the book to discredit ideological opponents. From their parliamentary buildings across the Global North, they have attempted to use football and the rest of sport to fight geopolitical battles. They are the self-appointed supervisors of the world about anything to do with morality and public good, whereas their history on the subject leaves much to be desired.

Their continued renouncement of anything that is different from their worldview is regarded as archaic and barbaric. In their warped logic, diversity is a weakness. The more than 8 billion citizens of the world are born and bred in different ways – according to their culture and customary practices. Our belief in political systems is also practically and understandably different. Yet the self-righteous Western nations that dominate our geopolitics and are surreptitious bullies at global fora such as the UN, IOC and WTO, among others, remain hell-bent on coercing “different” nations to fall in line with their “rules-based world order”.

But the beauty about ordinary citizens of the world is that they differ from their self-serving politicians.

The soccer fans/tourists that have flocked to Qatar are a case in point. On television daily, everybody can watch visitors to Qatar enjoying themselves beyond measure at various stadiums or fan zones.

Hordes of Western nations’ fans – Britain, Germany, France, Belgium, Netherlands, US, Canada, etc., have embraced traditional Arab regalia, foods, and ways of doing things.

And this, they do without any fuss. Ankle-length robes, better known as thawbs, have become popular among visiting soccer fans. To look the part, they wear them with a ghutra, a traditional Arabic headdress. The clothing is being sold widely in the team colours of the 32 nations competing in the World Cup.

For the visiting fans having fun dressed in Arab clothing, they have learnt and accepted that before entering a pub or bar, one needs to take off the Arab robes and headdress as such behaviour is regarded as an insult to Islam.

Availability of alcohol is severely restricted in Doha and across Qatar and the Middle East. An attempted brouhaha by the Western media when Qatari authorities laid down their strict rules shortly before the competition ended up a damp squib.

If there are valuable lessons to draw from the Qatari experience, it is the power of ordinary people. They speak less and act more. Actions, as they say, speak louder than words. As Shakespeare once observed: “By their actions shall ye judge them.”

The people-to-people diplomacy has come out triumphantly in Qatar. It is a lesson politicians need to learn. The distance between public office bearers and those they purport to represent is huge. And the distance is a reflection of the trust deficit between the people and their political leaders.

Ordinary citizens of the world, be they soccer fans or just anybody, want to live in peace and harmony with their neighbours. They accept their differences with respect and humility, as Qatar shows us. Sport is traditionally regarded as a unifier of communities, of societies. It brings different people together in harmony so that they may learn each other’s ways of living. In recent years FIFA has often been criticised for allowing itself to be dragged into the geopolitics of this world.

Traditionally, FIFA has kept a strict line between sport and politics. Until today, if politicians interfere with the running of their national soccer associations (affiliates of FIFA), such an affiliate is swiftly suspended until the politicians leave the sport alone.

The most disturbing development that has marred the reputation of FIFA has been its inexplicable decision to suspend the soccer federation of Russia from continental and global competitions, citing the Ukraine war as a reason. For the first time, it became FIFA that dragged sport into politics.

For the record, the soccer federation of Russia clearly had no role whatsoever in the invasion of Ukraine that the Kremlin describes as a “special military operation”. To punish the athletes and sportsmen and women is callous, irrational and lacks foresight. At worst, it is downright malicious and politically motivated. Keeping Russian sport in the fold would have ensured that the interests and worthiness of Russian sportsmen and women who have nothing to do with the Ukraine war or politics, in general, are safeguarded. Keeping Russian football out of FIFA competitions is truly atrocious and a cruel misplacement of anger. Hopefully, with the benefit of hindsight, Infantino & Co will rethink their diabolical decision soonest. Sports and soccer, in particular, unites nations and their people. Its leadership should lead by example.