According to Gianni Infantino, the President of FIFA, football’s world governing body, the 2022 World Cup in Qatar was “an incredible success on all fronts.” The first such tournament hosted by an Arab and Muslim country was, he said, “the best ever.” For Infantino, the fact that football fans “met the Arab world” was “very important for the future of all of us.” There was, he added, a “joyful atmosphere… bringing people together.”
The FIFA chief wasn’t alone in praising Qatar for its organisation of the tournament. For example, the former co-owner and vice chairman of Britain’s Arsenal Football Club said: “Qatar has won a lot of friends because of this World Cup and the way it has been handled… It has been a very successful tournament.” David Dein added that he was “privileged” to be present in Qatar. “This has been a great World Cup, a unique World Cup; we have never seen its like before, we will never see it again.”
At the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, American writer Robert Mogielnicki pointed out that Qatar’s success will have a major positive impact on many areas, especially tourism.
Football fans from around the world watching matches in Qatar and on TV were exposed to Arab and Muslim culture and traditions, which many accepted enthusiastically. Arab headdresses in team colours were seen on the terraces, and women were reported to have felt safer in the alcohol-free stadiums. Video evidence shows that some even embraced Islam while in the small Gulf State.
None of this came cheap. Qatar apparently spent more than $220 billion on hosting the FIFA World Cup. Its aim wasn’t so much to make money, but to gain international recognition of itsculture, religion and geopolitical status.
“We have fulfilled our promise to organise an exceptional championship in an Arab country,” said the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani, “which provided an opportunity for the people of the world to learn about the richness of our culture and the originality of our values.”
Infantino pointed out that visitors to Qatar generally only knew what had been portrayed to them about the region. “Now they have discovered the Arab world. This is enough for Qatar; to have the people know about it and about the region from the region, not from others.”
However, Western media and journalists have criticised Emir Tamim for draping Argentina’s victorious captain, Lionel Messi, in a traditional Arab abaya before handing him the trophy. While in the Arab world people are draped in the abaya when they celebrate major life events such as graduations and marriages, Western media and journalists insisted on linking it to what they still insist is a corrupt, coercive bureaucracy. There was a completely incorrect reading of the intention and situation.
Britain’s Daily Mail, for example, published an article under the headline “Selfish moment Qatar World Cup hosts force Lionel Messi to cover up his iconic No.10 shirt with an Arabic robe for trophy presentation: ‘It’s a moment for the players, not the host’.”
The right-wing newspaper pointed out, rightly, that: “Bishts [abayas] have been worn in the Arabic world for thousands of years at formal occasions. They have been compared to a black tie in the western world, but also come with connotations of power as they have often been worn by royalty, officials and clergy.” This, it said, was intended to send a specific message.
The Mirror, meanwhile, used an even more misleading headline. “Lionel Messi forced to cover Argentina shirt to lift World Cup trophy”. BBC presenter and former England striker Gary Lineker, it reported, was unhappy with this as he commented: “Amazing scenes, great pictures from above and great pictures from inside the ground as Argentina win the World Cup for the third time. It seems a shame, in a way, that they’ve covered up Messi in his Argentina shirt.”
The Atlantic journalist Laurie Whitwell tweeted: “Qatar obviously wanted to be present in the World Cup trophy pictures, hence putting that black bisht on Messi. But just made for a weird, unnecessary look amid a sea of blue + white sporting shirts. It should be a moment for the players, not the host. Grossly indulgent.”
BBC pundit and former Argentina footballer Pablo Zabaleta wondered: “Just why? There is no reason to do that.” Sky Sports chief reporter, Kaveh Solhekol, said: “Normally when the captain receives the trophy, of course he’s wearing his country’s shirt — and the Argentina shirt is one of the most famous in world football. Except tonight, when Lionel Messi got his hands on that trophy, he was wearing a ceremonial Arab robe called a bisht.”
According to James Pearce of the Atlantic, draping Messi in the abaya “ruined” the happiness of lifting the trophy. “Longest wait for a trophy lift ever and they did their best to ruin it,” he tweeted. “Why cover up Messi’s shirt with that? Ridiculous. Glad he’s now ditched it.”After deleting an offensive tweet, ESPN writer Mark Ogden tweeted: “It wasn’t Qatar’s moment to cover Messi’s Argentina shirt with their own garment.”
The abaya, of course, was see-through. It didn’t cover Messi’s iconic shirt completely. And placing it on his shoulders was not a political move, or an attempt to steal some of his glory. It was a genuine moment honouring him for the great footballer that he is, not least because he was presented with the garment by the Emir of Qatar, the head of state.
Let us not forget that the gown worn with distinction by university graduates the world over originated in the abaya in the Muslim world. Western historians may be right to say that the gown was a tradition handed to university graduates by Christian clergymen in the 12th and 13th centuries, but we have to ask where they got it from. The first university in the world was founded by Muslims, well before such institutions sprung up in Europe. And abayas — “gowns” — were worn there.
The criticism of the “Messi abaya” seems, therefore, to spring from a determination to discredit Qatar as much as possible. Despite being acclaimed as the “best ever” FIFA World Cup, this is too much for many people in the West to handle. They still resent that this accolade has been handed to a tournament staged and hosted by an Arab Muslim country.
Every country falls short on many issues; those in the West as well as those in the Muslim world. And there is still a lot of work to do in Qatar. However, let’s be gracious, and give credit where it’s due. This was the best ever World Cup; and it was held in Qatar. Let’s leave it at that, and move forward to a brighter, more understanding future for everyone.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.