Growing up, my friends and I played basketball, baseball and football.
The only time we played soccer was one summer in junior high school in a city league, which was between baseball and football seasons. Ironically, we won our age group’s championship, having gone undefeated and unscored upon. After that season, we went back to our regular sports schedule. In retrospect, maybe we should have kept on playing soccer.
I was never a fan of the FIFA World Cup, which brings the best national teams together to compete every four years, until some of my employees, who were born in Mexico or who have close ties to that country, started asking if we could take a break at work when Mexico was playing to watch the match. Whenever this occurred, the office turned into a potluck dinner with my employees wearing their official jerseys and cheering on their team.
Now, I genuinely look forward to the World Cup for the camaraderie it brings to my office.
In a larger sense, the World Cup is an opportunity to bring the world together in peace to enjoy a sporting event, much like the Olympics. It also is an opportunity for the host country to showcase their people and culture. Qatar reportedly spent $200 billion to host the 2022 World Cup. It is estimated that during the 29-day tournament, more than 5 billion people will tune into their TVs to watch the matches.
However, the World Cup is like the Olympics where politics becomes involved in sports and sports becomes involved in politics. Qatar has come under criticism by many teams, countries, and fans for several issues. One is its treatment of migrant workers, many of whom accuse Qatar of housing them badly and treating them shabbily. This is no small accusation, as up to nine out of 10 residents of Qatar are non-Qatari. Another issue involves the country’s stance against LGBTQ rights, which has been strongly enforced during the games.
Another is a hot potato and involves the country’s male guardianship laws, which are sometimes hard to interpret, but restrict women’s rights in the country. They include women having to obtain a male guardian’s permission to travel abroad, get married, and work in certain industries, among others. Until the beginning of 2020, women in Qatar were required to have their guardian’s permission to obtain a driver’s license. These are conditions that are unthinkable in the Western world, which is all too eager to point this out.
Individual fans can also bring heat and disdain upon their teams and countries by their actions at the World Cup. A group of U.S. fans probably did not help the image of the U.S. by chanting “It’s soccer, not football,” which references the propensity of the U.S. to use the former term for the sport while most of the world tends to use the latter. Many outside of the U.S. would point out that Americans should not be preaching to the world, especially when they have tended to relegate soccer to a secondary sport when compared the country’s major professional sports. In the majority of countries in the world, soccer is the most popular sport.
Then there is the personal animosity between certain nations such as the U.S. and Iran. Preceding its match with Iran on Nov. 29, the United States Soccer Federation changed the Iranian flag on its social media by removing the emblem of the Islamic Republic for 24 hours to show support for the women fighting in Iraq for human rights. In response, Iran posted an image of a burning American flag.
Because of the ongoing antagonism between the two countries, which took full fury during the Iranian Revolution of 1979, many fans and citizens tended to make American and Iranian World Cup players vicarious soldiers in a battle of nations that project their animosities onto the soccer field. I watched the U.S.-Iran match and came away with a much different feeling. I especially admired the Iranian players, who in their opening match, refused to sing their national anthem as a protest against their government’s treatment of women. They did this after previously being threatened by their government if they publicly protested its policies. I worried what they would face upon their return home.
After the U.S. won the match, there was a show of sportsmanship with players of the opposing teams shaking hands and hugging each other. As the match was being played, I kept thinking that the game meant more personally and politically to the Iranians, which I thought had more at stake. While the Americans certainly wanted to advance in the World Cup, if they had lost, they would return to a country that would welcome them, and whose government would not threaten to retaliate their free speech in Qatar.
We need to step back and realize that the athletes on the field are not personally responsible for the animosity between countries. However, many people project their prejudices and feelings they have about a certain country on the athletes themselves. Sporting events such as the World Cup allow the world to gather in peace and leave negative feelings behind. The U.S.-Iran match provided a little sliver of hope that this is possible.
Jerry Pacheco is the executive director of the International Business Accelerator, a nonprofit trade counseling program of the New Mexico Small Business Development Centers Network. He can be reached at 575-589-2200 or at email@example.com.