Peter Drury’s famous words of the 2010 South Africa World Cup, ‘Goal for South Africa. Goal for all Africa.’, ring familiarly as Morocco advance to the Semi-finals of the 2022 Qatar World Cup. Sofiane Boufal dances on the pitch with his mother, celebrating the history made as Morocco are the first African nation to reach such a stage in the World Cup. In the history of the event, 85 of the 88 semi-finalists have been from Europe or South America, and Morocco have finally broken the deadlock. Magic System’s words hit home as fans in Abu Dhabi sing ‘Magic in the air.’ The Moroccan flag flies high from the Ivory Coast to Palestine, whilst the prime ministers of Libya and the leaders of the UAE congratulate the Moroccan effort. In the eyes of regular Algerians, politics has no role in football, as they celebrate their neighbour’s victory, but the Algerian government’s exclusion of Moroccan results says otherwise.
In hindsight, politics is inseparable from football. Historical issues have included match-fixing and bribery, and from the turn of the 21st century, there has been a proliferation of controversy. For not only Japan but also Korea to host the 2002 tournament was questionable, especially during its monsoon season. Fans would have to traverse the Korea Strait and fans watching from Europe would have to watch matches in the morning as players played in the evening. Japan at the time had also yet to qualify for the World Cup, which posed the question, was their hosting a vehicle for political expediency. Its parallels to the 2022 World Cup are clear, but FIFA and Qatar have had to wrestle with further issues: the treatment of migrant workers and freedom of expression.
With 90% of its labour force from overseas, Qatar has the highest ratio of migrant workers to citizens in the world with the majority hailing from India, Bangladesh, and the Philippines. Amnesty International first shed light on the exploitation of migrant workers in 2013 and have since worked alongside groups like the ILO. Reforms have occurred, but an asymmetry is clear, organisations have strived to enact and enforce regulation whilst Qatar has seemed reluctant to introduce and uphold reform. Although the kafala system, whereby a worker is sponsored by an employer, has nominally been abolished by Qatar, workers still endure its effects. As the state provided employers with the means to recruit a worker, finance their travel, and provide housing, they were also given control of the workers’ legal status, determining when they could change jobs or leave the country. Restriction, coercion, and deception are all interlinked and results of the power imbalance. Complaints are met with threats of never leaving the country, contracts are signed in foreign languages that outline lower pay, and recruitment fees, meant to be paid from employer to worker, are imposed on the worker instead, setting them back up to $4300 and leaving them with an onerous debt.
Secondly, freedom of expression. Gianni Infantino, President of FIFA, had assured fans of many things before the ball got rolling, including that ‘everyone is welcome.’ and that ‘politics should stay out football.’ Of course, neither ended up happening. FIFA, just hours before England were scheduled to play Iran, warned the Three Lions that wearing the ‘OneLove’ armband would be yellow-carded, Grant Wahl was detained for wearing a T-shirt with a rainbow, and a protestor waving the peace flag and wearing a T-shirt with ‘Save Ukraine’ and ‘Respect for Iranian Woman’ lost his permit to stay in Qatar. The spotlight onto human rights in the peninsula has undoubtedly been drawn, but whether reform will extend past the World Cup is another matter.
However, the positives cannot be overlooked. The World Cup was a time to brush off diplomatic tensions: in the words of US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, ‘One of the most powerful things about football, about soccer, is its potential to bring the world together.’ The 2017 boycott of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt was put on hold as maritime and airspace borders reopened. In one tiktok American, Iranian, and Saudi fans, could be seen dancing together, and following the Saudi triumph over Argentina, the Saudi flag was projected onto Qatari high-rises – all despite their geo-political tensions. The event was one of opportunity: fans were able to make the most out of closely located stadiums, with some watching more than 40 games, and for two English fans a moment of serendipity came when they invited back to a Sheikh son’s palace whilst on the search for beer. It was also a tournament of landmarks: Stéphanie Frappart became the first woman to referee a men’s World Cup match, despite Qatar’s ignorance of women’s rights, Morocco undertook a journey of inspiration for Africa and the Middle East, and a record 172 goals were scored. But the tournament concluded and culminated on the 18th of December, where the greatest commentator of all time shook hands with both the greatest player and final of all time.