Despite facing an unprecedented scale of criticism and calls for boycotts, months before a ball had been kicked, the FIFA World Cup 2022 in Qatar has been a success. The month-long tournament ended yesterday in a dramatic final, widely lauded as the best one many pundits and commentators had ever witnessed with Argentina’s Lionel Messi, clad in a traditional Arab cloak or bisht, finally living up to the post-Maradona expectations of the South American nation by lifting the World Cup trophy, putting to bed the “GOAT” debate once and for all. On a personal level, Qatar 2022 was also the best World Cup in living memory, having avidly watched all prior ones since France 98 and with vague recollections of USA 94.
Unsurprisingly the criticism of the Arab, Muslim-majority nation hosting the prestigious event was largely from Western media and politicians, driven by the usual double standards and selective moral outrage concerning human rights issues coupled with anti-Muslim bigotry. From the very first day of the World Cup a month ago, the BBC made an extraordinary decision not to broadcast the Opening Ceremony on terrestrial television, instead subjecting the audience to a tedious segment of virtue signalling, something never done before and unlikely to happen in four years’ time when the US will jointly host the next World Cup with Canada and Mexico.
Yet the agenda itself faced a backlash from genuine football fans around the world, becoming too obvious to ignore, in addition to all seven European teams who were advocating pro-LGBT rights being kicked out of the World Cup before progressing to the semi-finals. Among them were England who failed at arguably their first real challenging opponent, France, and Germany, who were unable to qualify beyond the group stages. Instead, they become an internet meme over their pre-game “protest” against Japan – suggesting they were being “silenced” for not being allowed to wear the so-called OneLove armband. Upon exiting the World Cup, the team faced widespread ridicule both online and on Qatari TV over their priorities.
It wasn’t long before the virtue signalling and faux concern took a backseat, however, and the tournament, in spite of the naysayers, rapidly became a memorable spectacle with fantastic fixtures, controversial match talking-points and several upsets, including Saudi Arabia’s 2-1 victory over eventual winners Argentina. Not to mention, the much-celebrated and inspirational achievement of Morocco, who became the sole Arab nation in the World Cup and made history by being the first African country to reach the semi-finals before their heart-breaking elimination.
Human rights issues aside, there was much scepticism over whether the tiny, yet wealthy Gulf state could pull off such an ambitious and logistically-challenging sporting event, and how the hundreds and thousands of travelling fans would adapt to the social restrictions and norms of the Muslim host nation, including a ban on alcohol at stadiums.
Yet, off the field, Qatar 2022 still excelled. Female fans and families welcomed the alcohol ban, saying it made for a safer and harassment-free experience, something unheard of in previous tournaments. Also, for the first time ever England fans managed to avoid any arrests, they were praised for their “exemplary behaviour” by British police, although more credit is probably due to the country’s stringent, no-nonsense laws on anti-social behaviour and hooliganism.
Politically-speaking, this year’s World Cup also raised awareness of the Palestinian cause to new heights, becoming further entrenched in football culture, with fans Arab and non-Arab alike voicing support and solidarity with Palestine, in addition to Moroccan and Tunisian players. It also illustrated to the world that in spite of certain Arab governments’ decisions to normalise with Israel, the people remain firmly in opposition to Zionism and the continued occupation of Palestine.
As the first World Cup held in the Middle East, the tournament also exposed numerous foreigners to the region’s culture and traditions, especially those steeped in family values and hospitality. Others became more familiar with the religion of Islam, for some it was their first exposure to it, dispelling many misconceptions they may have previously had. Another benefit for Westerners was their exposure to “Muslim showers”, hand-held bidets that are common in Muslim households due to religiously proscribed hygiene practises. In one viral tweet British Croatian-born YouTuber, David Vujanic, said how he had been using “the toilet bum shower thing” in Qatar for a month and that he was “horrified” that most Europeans “only use toilet paper.”
I want this image printed on a T Shirt…im now the self proclaimed founder of the Shatafa Ultras group…bum shower fanatics let’s gooo 🔥🔥🔥🔥 pic.twitter.com/fwb0BQE24H
— VUJ (@DavidVujanic) December 14, 2022
Back to the football, Qatar 2022 lived up to its promises and arguably exceeded expectations in hosting the World Cup, putting together a football tournament that will go down in history as a defining generational one, with an epic showdown in the final pitting the world’s current best player in the world, France’s Kylian Mbappe against the GOAT, Messi, which ended in a penalty-shootout after Mbappe’s late equaliser.
Unfortunately, western coverage and in particular the BBC’s was once again let down, despite broadcasting the Closing Ceremony. Before lifting the cup, Messi was personally gifted a traditional Arab cloak by the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani – who incidentally also owns the French club Messi and Mbappe play for, Paris Saint-Germain.
However, the incident invoked the displeasure of several Western pundits, including the BBC’s Gary Linekar who described it as a “shame” for covering Messi’s shirt, despite being transparent, adding that “He’s taken his little robe off now” as he left the podium. His studio guest and former Argentina international Pablo Zabaleta agreed with him saying there was “no reason to.” On Twitter, Senior Writer at ESPN, Mark Ogden, also weighed in, stating: “It wasn’t Qatar’s moment to cover Messi’s Argentina shirt with their own garment of clothing.” Unfortunately, such views reveal an underlying ignorance over the culture and customs of the host nation of this global event.
Known as a bisht in modern Arabic, it is originally a Persian word for the same item of clothing, while in Persian it is ironically referred to using the traditional Arabic name ‘aba. The gesture is common symbolising honour and appreciation in Arab culture especially to dignitaries, and several legendary footballers have previously been bestowed them, as several social media users have pointed out. While others have noted that Messi seemed proud to don the cloak and that Argentine supporters and fans of Messi have been seen buying the bisht at markets to replicate their hero. It is also worth mentioning that Brazilian legend Pele was presented with a sombrero hat after winning his third World Cup in Mexico 70.
Qatar has secured its place in footballing lore by hosting a memorable tournament of “the beautiful game” which peaked with Messi completing his career by winning everything there is to win before retirement, giving millions of fans closure so-to-speak. In doing so, the Gulf state also paved the way for more countries in the region to aspire to host the World Cup. If their bid is successful, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, along with Greece will jointly host the 2030 World Cup.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.