FIFA World Cup: Sport versus Migration, Activism
Probably wary of the backlash from the hosts, FIFA clamped down on sports activism on the field
A football World Cup that is witnessing the David Beckham Vs sports activism issue over human rights concerns, plight of migrant workers, and LGBTQ rights found another twist in the tale. It was not only the results on the field, but the reactions off it, bringing the issue of migrants to Europe in focus in the midst of "celebratory riots" by Moroccan fans.
A new and rather problematic chapter has been added to the ongoing Football World Cup. Some delirious Moroccan fans across Brussels in Belgium and Rotterdam in the Netherlands went on a rampage overnight in the wake of Morocco's shock win over Belgium by a 2-0 margin. "Celebratory" riots resulted in attacks on police vehicles, vandalising of stores and damage to property across the two prominent European countries.
Pandemonium broke out on social media, "attack by non locals: is this what we want" went viral. Some sections of Europeans took the opportunity to call it blasphemy in the headquarters of the UN (Brussels) and home of the Hague (international court in the Netherlands) for such behaviour.
At the heart of the matter was not angry Belgian fans taking to the streets, but the clusters of migrants of Morocco who took a destructive way to express their joy at the unexpected football success.
Images of rioting and violence on the streets in the dark of night marred the World Cup celebration, in what has been a tournament of upsets as far as the big teams are concerned. What should have been epic turned into a horrific story in the aftermath that is only likely to add fuel to the fire. The EU nations have been deeply divided in recent times over the issue of migrants travelling across waters to escape oppressive regimes back home.
Language barriers, religious discrimination, and educational and skill level qualifications and a surplus population have all been cited by countries opposed to a more unified policy on the issue of migration into Europe. This will have ironically fortified their stance even though football has generally not enjoyed a blemish-free reputation back home.
No time was wasted to highlight what the acceptance of "foreigners" in asylum is doing to the traditional European nations. It might be pointed out that FIFA chief, Gianni Infantino, had spoken about "Western European" hypocrisy when touching upon the many controversies that led him to hold a press conference on the eve of the World Cup that went longer than a traditional match time wise.
Hooliganism, rioting, boorish behaviour, racism, discrimination were amongst the many reasons highlighted by Infantino for the last minute U-turn to not to serve beer in the stadia across the FIFA World Cup in Qatar. He touched upon the Muslim sentiment where alcohol is prohibited and the alien culture where there is heavy consumption of beer/alcohol across football matches across Europe in particular unlike across the Arab world.
He also called out the European countries, trying unconvincingly deflect attention from the plight of migrant workers particularly from Asia and India, including the worrying number of death of such workers while working at the building of the stadiums across the Arab country which until recently was alienated by its own neighbouring countries like Saudi Arabia over internal factions.
This is likely to deflect from this problematic concern, as migrants are generally desperate to send money back home and generally live in appalling conditions with many of their rights including their passport being taken away from them, turning them into bonded labour essentially.
What happened over England's defeat in the last multi team encounter is still fresh in the minds of football fans around the world. There has been a dark shadow cast over the current World Cup about the potential fall out thousands of miles away from the action after these reports which have given a huge impetus in the debate over allowing immigration for people living in oppressed conditions back home.
The behaviour of the few is likely to impact how asylum seekers from places like Afghanistan and Iran are viewed by conservative European countries adopting a far right policy which is gaining momentum.
There are already concerns over the safety of Iranian footballers when they do return home after their decision to remain silent while their national anthem was played ahead of the clash against England. Although England pleaded to participate in the protest, the footballers chose to take the knee, having been denied the opportunity to express their solidarity with the human rights of the LGBTQ community with the "one love" armband.
Probably wary of the backlash from the hosts and not wanting to churn the waters, FIFA had to step up and clamp down on sports activism on the field as seven European countries decided to take their solidarity to another level with their captains sporting the "one love" armband.
Threatening teams of the protesting players being awarded a yellow card to begin with, teams had to withdraw and eventually agree to wearing a more non-denominational "no discrimination" black armband.
It did not stop German footballers from openly engaging with FIFA with a pre match photoshoot with their hand over this mouth to highlight the enforced silencing. Punitive measures are yet to be announced, if any.
Protests by sports persons are not new, though they are few, across history. There has been a call for more prominent voices to be heard such as Sachin Tendulkar and Mahendra Singh Dhoni back home at the height of the match fixing scandal in the field of cricket. Sports stars are vilified for remaining silent over what directly affects the health of the sport for fear of turning away their sponsors and influential board officials.
While calling the European bias to the first ever football World Cup in the Middle East as FIFA did, it has to be pointed out that only recently China and Russia have been blacklisted from sports such as Formula 1 racing over covid concerns and the invasion and war on Ukraine more recently. Russia hosted the last World Cup edition despite its invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014 and China hosted two Olympics.
It was called as hypocrisy similarly when Formula 1 racing has chosen to expand in far away USA where the timings tend not to agree with the mass of European and Asian fans while the drivers have expressed concern, particularly as Houthi rebels missiles hit an oil depot on the same weekend as the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix to the racing ambitions expanding in the Middle East.
Sometimes, drivers like Lewis Hamilton have had to single handedly drive his own personal ambitious activism whether it is "Black lives matter" or the cause of the LGBTQ community with a rainbow displayed prominently on his race helmet and such. Not all drivers have been in agreement in getting on board and it has meant a more individual stand on the issue.
Although sports activism has been appreciated, there is a deep division over whether it should be sanctioned by authorities on teams and individuals that choose to highlight issues or even collectively imposed in a team context on all players to take a stand or be sanctioned, and the larger impact on the sportsperson's life outside of the pitch, court or track as the case may be.
That intolerance has become an unsavoury flavour of sport in modern times has become more evident as there is public condemnation of commentators in Italy who are supporting the likes of Argentina in the absence of Italy's presence at the World Cup, or of fans in India who have cheered for Pakistan for Asian representation in the recently concluded ICC Twenty20 World Cup when India failed to make the final. Sport as its own entity is becoming more and more of a myth and there is an equal debate over whether it can be bandied that sport brings people together without looking at the flipside of that coin.
This comes at a time when there is much divided opinion over whether footballers and sportspersons in general are being asked to take too many risks, to their careers but also, to their personal safety and that of their families by being asked to take a stand.
What feels hypocritical to many is that the likes of former illustrious footballers like England's David Beckham are being paid reportedly upwards of 150 million dollars to serve as ambassador for the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, when in their position, these footballers could easily carry the flag of activism with far less risk with their sporting careers on the field behind them but business ventures are thriving in abundance.
The irony is not lost as England's Harry Kane was seen sporting a rainbow coloured Rolex watch at the start of one of England's matches even as in violation of FIFA's and Qatar's stance that all were welcome at the tournament, fans and reporters were being pulled up for sporting anything that represents rainbow colours on their body in the form of shirts or hats as symbolism of support for the LGBTQ communities.
If anything, while a small quarter of activists celebrated the England captain's gesture, there was greater vilification of the excessive show of wealth while it is still not certain that the purpose behind that rainbow watch was a show of defiance.
The rioting in the streets might have thrown a spanner in the works, colluding football with the political divide in Europe. Unfortunately enjoying this sport or any without the backdrop of political implications and backlash remains a utopian dream.
Having the World Cup in Qatar, awarded the rights more than ten years amidst allegations of corruption which Sepp Blatter, the then FIFA President labelled "a mistake" which specifically why, might have done the job of bringing the region to light as far as the world is concerned.
But the impact is likely to be wide reaching, whether in the form of symbolism that has overshadowed the game and puts unwarranted focus on sports to be anything under than what they are in their identity outside of political machinations, or consumer driven activism that is directed at certain merchandise, or the impact of the results that have toppled traditional winners, inadvertently calling on people for celebrations that are not in the spirit in which sport should be applauded.