What the World Cup Means Off the Field

Beneath the fanfare, Qatar 2022 had plenty of geopolitical subplots.

By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
The emblem of FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 is unveiled.
The emblem of FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 is unveiled.
The emblem of FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 is unveiled at the Qatar National Archive building in Doha, Qatar, on Sept. 3, 2019. Christopher Pike/Getty Images for Supreme Committee 2022

2022

The World Cup in Qatar provided thrilling entertainment along with a number of geopolitical subplots. It also played out under a cloud of accusations regarding Qatar’s treatment of foreign workers during preparations for the tournament as well as the country’s approach to the human rights concerns of foreign fans and players.

The presence of European teams at the tournament highlighted ongoing debates about immigration in Germany while providing a primetime venue for competing Serbian and Kosovar nationalism as Serbia squared off against a Switzerland team dominated by Kosovar stars. (The Serbs lost, but not before an investigation was launched against the team and its fans for using racist symbols and taunts.)

The World Cup was also a reminder of China’s inability to crack the upper echelon in soccer as it has in so many other sports while showcasing an Australian team that made it further than previous Socceroo squads, largely thanks to its refugee stars—a reminder of the benefits asylum-seekers bring to a country that has spent much of the past two decades obsessed with limiting their numbers.

The World Cup in Qatar provided thrilling entertainment along with a number of geopolitical subplots. It also played out under a cloud of accusations regarding Qatar’s treatment of foreign workers during preparations for the tournament as well as the country’s approach to the human rights concerns of foreign fans and players.

The presence of European teams at the tournament highlighted ongoing debates about immigration in Germany while providing a primetime venue for competing Serbian and Kosovar nationalism as Serbia squared off against a Switzerland team dominated by Kosovar stars. (The Serbs lost, but not before an investigation was launched against the team and its fans for using racist symbols and taunts.)

The World Cup was also a reminder of China’s inability to crack the upper echelon in soccer as it has in so many other sports while showcasing an Australian team that made it further than previous Socceroo squads, largely thanks to its refugee stars—a reminder of the benefits asylum-seekers bring to a country that has spent much of the past two decades obsessed with limiting their numbers.

Here are five of FP’s most important articles on this year’s World Cup.


1. Qatar Can’t Hide Its Abuses by Calling Criticism Racist

by Rothna Begum, Nov. 25

Rothna Begum traces Qatar’s mistreatment of foreign workers to the colonial-era kafala system, noting that “[a]fter much international campaigning and negotiating, Qatar made important labor reforms, but they either came too late, were too narrow in scope, or were too weakly enforced for most workers to benefit.” Rather than relying on lazy accusations of racism, she argues, Doha should acknowledge the human cost of its vast infrastructure program and pay compensation to the families of dead workers.


2. Mesut Ozil’s Ghost Still Haunts Germany

by Allison Meakem, Dec. 1

Spectators hold portraits of former German national team soccer player Mesut Ozil during a World Cup match between Spain and Germany at the Al-Bayt Stadium in Al Khor, Qatar, on Nov. 27.
Spectators hold portraits of former German national team soccer player Mesut Ozil during a World Cup match between Spain and Germany at the Al-Bayt Stadium in Al Khor, Qatar, on Nov. 27.

Spectators hold portraits of former German national team soccer player Mesut Ozil during a World Cup match between Spain and Germany at the Al-Bayt Stadium in Al Khor, Qatar, on Nov. 27.INA FASSBENDER/AFP via Getty Images

FP’s Allison Meakem charts the rise and fall of German superstar Mesut Ozil, a Turkish-German player who resigned from the national team in 2018 after being widely criticized for posing in a photo with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This year, his absence continued to haunt the German squad, which went home early.

Ozil reacted to public perception that he was insufficiently German by arguing that “people have used my picture with President Erdogan as an opportunity to express their previously hidden racist tendencies,” famously concluding that “I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose.”

Four years later, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s government is considering major immigration reforms. Although this “cannot single-handedly undo the racist abuse faced by Ozil and countless other Germans of color,” Meakem argues, “it can address one of Ozil’s key grievances by redefining what it means to be German in a modern, multicultural society.”


3. Why Switzerland vs. Serbia Is Really All About Kosovo

by Aleks Eror, Dec. 2

Four years after chronicling the roots of the Swiss-Serbian grudge match, Aleks Eror returns to Foreign Policy to explain the next installment of the game against the backdrop of simmering tensions in northern Kosovo.

On the surface, “[t]he fault lines behind the Serbia-Switzerland fixture … center on Belgrade’s continued refusal to accept Kosovo’s independence after its unilateral secession from Serbia 14 years ago,” he notes. But Eror argues that the grudge match remains so fraught because of a peculiar form of political psychology, namely “an emotional impulse called inat that is widely accepted as a key feature of the national character” in Serbia—a sort of schadenfreude and spiteful contrarianism that allows “people take pleasure in watching others’ misfortune because it makes their own struggles easier to bear.”

In soccer, he observes, “the spiteful joy that comes from seeing the opponent lose often outweighs the benefits of winning.” Despite Serbia’s loss last week to the Swiss, along with expected fines for racism, the bitter rivalry and overt ethnonationalist political theater that always accompanies it will persist.


4. Australia’s World Cup Hopes Depend on Its Refugee Stars

by Matthew Hall, Nov. 30

As Australia stood on the cusp of making it to the World Cup’s Round of 16, Matthew Hall writes in FP that its progress would depend on stars who came to the country as refugees during an era when asylum-seekers—especially those who arrived outside of official resettlement channels—were often demonized in the press, sent to offshore detention camps, and became a key wedge issue in election campaigns. This year’s team had numerous players who were born in Africa and some who grew up in refugee camps before arriving in Australia.

“The racial makeup of Australia’s 2022 team reveals an uncomfortable truth about the country’s immigration history,” Hall writes, referring to the notorious “white Australia” policy that remained on the books until 1975. But the team’s success provides a chance to “put a positive face on the refugee experience in Australia.”


5. Chinese Firms Are at the World Cup, but Not Chinese Fans

by Jonathan White, Nov. 22

In 2018, 60,000 Chinese fans traveled to Russia for the World Cup. This year in Qatar, there are hardly any, thanks to the tight zero-COVID restrictions that were still in place when the tournament began. Chinese corporate power is, however, on prominent display. As Jonathan White notes, China Railway International Group built Qatar’s showpiece Lusail Stadium, and Chinese firms like Hisense and Wanda are prominent advertisers. White presciently asks how Chinese fans might react to seeing jubilant, maskless crowds packed together on TV.

The Guardian provided an answer on Nov. 28: “Chinese state television has censored World Cup games to remove shots of maskless crowds after the sight of joyous fans celebrating in packed stadiums stoked anger back home, where hundreds of millions remain under strict pandemic restrictions.”

Sasha Polakow-Suransky is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @sasha_p_s

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