The Geopolitics of the World Cup

November 28, 2022
March 9, 2023

Americans generally have not followed the soccer World Cup as closely as most of the world’s population – most prefer the Super Bowl as their “football” championship. But the World Cup is nonetheless an important global cultural and political phenomenon not merely because soccer is a global sport, but because the nature of the competition—pitting national teams against one another in brackets—allows for historical conflicts to be fought out by proxy. Britain and Germany are unlikely to reenact their early 20th century conflicts, but Margaret Thatcher still once quipped following England’s 1990 loss in the semi-finals to Germany that “[Germany] might have beaten us at our national sport, but we managed to beat them at their national sport twice in the 20th century”.

The entire contest is infused with politics, which is why what has happened in Qatar over the last few weeks should be of interest to Americans, whether sports fans or policymakers. The 2022 World Cup featured drama before it even began, as both Ukraine and Russia missed out on automatic spots, and found themselves pitted against one another in a play-in match in March, only to have it cancelled due to the conflict. Geopolitical drama continued on the first day of group play when the Iranian national team “forgot” the words to their national anthem, a move which was seen as a show of solidarity with protests roiling their homeland. Their silent protest only ended under severe threat of reprisal.

As for Iran’s English opponents, they had arrived in Qatar declaring that nothing would prevent them from showing their solidarity with the LGBT community through the wearing of rainbow armbands during matches, only to immediately agree to remove them the moment they were threatened with disqualification. The latter clash between the English team and its efforts to engage in ESG-esque virtue signaling to the home market, and the financial power of hosts who not only do not share those values but are outright hostile to them, is perhaps the most pertinent story thus far from the tournament. Almost from the moment it was chosen to host, Qatar came under attack in the Western media for its alleged use of “slave labor,” the authoritarian nature of its monarchy, and its treatment of LGBT populations.

In many ways, this is typical of the corporate virtue signaling that attends international events such as the Olympics. Western governments and companies have catered to their voters and customers by claiming to defend an ever-expanding list of “universal values and norms” and in turn those constituencies have come to expect some level of action when those values are challenged.

However, neither governments nor major corporate interests are generally willing to invest economic and military resources in imposing norms abroad that they know are not even universally held at home, and furthermore realize it would be impossible to impose even if they wished to do so. The result has been seen with the Olympics, which produces boycott threats whenever it is held in an authoritarian country, most recently China.

These boycott threats are as old as the 1936 Berlin Olympics held in Hitler’s Germany, and the outcome is almost always the same. There are declarations of outrage, threats of action, and then, following pro-forma concessions from the host country, everyone pretends that it will better advance whatever “values” are at stake if they choose to engage rather than confront. In the case of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the International Olympic Committee demanded Hitler allow Jews to compete for the German team. Eventually, the IOC reached a “compromise” whereby a half dozen half-Jewish and quarter-Jewish individuals were allowed to compete, most of whom did so in exchange for the paperwork to emigrate.

What has changed in recent years is that the power balance in global finance and politics has shifted such that even cosmetic concessions are no longer granted. What stands out about the Qatar World Cup in 2022 is not that these complaints were made, but Qatar’s response to them. A decade or two ago, Qatar would have been so desperate for Western support in the region, and its ruling class so eager for social acceptance into the club of Western liberal society, that they would have bent over backwards to prove their “progressivism.” A great show would have been made to change labor laws and punish offenders, and sodomy laws would have been repealed. Perhaps a woman would have been appointed Minister of Sport or even Prime Minister to preside over the ceremony. Instead, Qatar’s response this year has been a resounding, “don’t come if you don’t want to play by our rules.”

This was made abundantly clear when it came to England, the United States, and several other Western nations attempting to show their “solidarity” with the LGBT community, which has become a core aspect of corporate HR and ESG culture. The same approach was attempted with Qatar, where corporate-dominated FIFA players assumed they could virtue signal their way through bad press by aggressively challenging Qatar’s views on these issues. That meant demanding the right to project the Rainbow Flag onto corporate buildings this summer, or the English team flying to Qatar on a “pride jet.” In what can only be described as provocative marketing move to test the patience of Qatari authorities, it was revealed that two members of a premier league team were in a gay relationship and would exclusively reveal their identities in a TV appearance from Qatar. In vain did Britain’s Foreign Secretary warn English travelers to Qatar to “respect local laws and customs” and the British government announce on its website that this was not a PR stunt, and that the safety of those who deliberately traveled to a country in order to break its laws could not be guaranteed.

There was a time, not long ago, when the Qatari Foreign Minister would have been eager to have the British Foreign Secretary take his call. This time, all the British Foreign Secretary, James Cleverly, could do was report that he had “made it clear that we feel very strongly about this issue and actually one of the advantages about having a strong relationship with other countries is you can have these difficult conversations.” But that relationship was apparently not strong enough to influence policy. He conceded that “rules for what goes on in the stadia” were a matter for the host country.

Wales fans were told to remove rainbow hats if they wished to enter the venue, leading the former women’s team captain who had come to protest to complain that officials were behaving “a little heavy-handed.” One U.S. journalist breathlessly reported being “detained” for trying to enter a stadium with a gay pride shirt on, only to later admit that stadium security apologized to him and allowed him to enter. Then dramatically, the English team, who had flown over in their “pride jet,” was banned from wearing their rainbow armbands, the Belgian team was prohibited from displaying the word “love,” and German protests over uniforms were ignored.

This frantic virtue signaling obsession by the West likely seems both absurd and offensive to Qataris and other non-Western viewers. How on earth did Europeans or Biden ever expect OPEC to listen to their demands for an increase in production or a boycott of Russia, when they treat them in this fashion during a big international event?

How indeed? As the Biden administration has learned with Saudi Arabia and India, the power relationship that allowed George W. Bush to dictate terms to the region has shifted. The Saudis are now a global financial power, and they have alternative markets. Israel, having substantially reconciled  with the Arab states through the Abraham Accords, is no longer bound to the whims of Washington, or the efforts of Biden officials to tell newly-returned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who he can and cannot include in his cabinet.

This does not mean these countries do not wish for an alliance or partnership with the United States. But they wish to be treated as independent nations with their own cultures, something Donald Trump was one of the first presidents to appreciate and for which he was attacked by Democrats and many Republicans for being an “appeaser of dictators.” Instead, he was a realist, and the failure to apply a realistic understanding of the balance of power in relationships is a key reason relationships fail.

This World Cup, much like the recent OPEC summit, illustrates the limitations of Western power in the 2020s. In fact, it illustrates it even more dramatically. Increasing oil production at the request of Biden would have directly harmed the interests of the Gulf States. Allowing Westerners to wear armbands and create cringy, Pro-LGBTQ+etc TikToks would have cost Qatar little but embarrassment, as much for their guests as themselves. That they were able to defy these demands means they fully understand that the West needs them more than they need the West. Western liberals, used to dictating to others, should perhaps prepare themselves for being asked to respect others values more often.

First published on AMAC


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