Soccer. I know. “It’s low scoring.” “There’s nothing happening.” “All the players are just flopping around.” If you’ve thought any of these things before, I get it, but just hear me out for a minute. If over half the world is tuning in, regardless of the time of day, maybe this FIFA World Cup thing is not all that bad. While football might be infinitely more popular than soccer in our neck of the woods, I would like to explain why I think all of us, for just one month, should care about the biggest sports tournament in the world.
An event that comes about every four years, the FIFA World Cup is the pinnacle of soccer and this particular edition is being hosted by the Middle Eastern nation of Qatar. If you have somehow missed all the controversy surrounding the World Cup taking place in Qatar, I would recommend getting filled in on it, as it is one of today’s most polarizing issues. That being said, I am not here to tell you about the corruption that gave Qatar the rights to host the World Cup, the dodgy circumstances in which this event was organized or, most importantly, soccer. I am here to show you why the World Cup is worth your time, regardless of whether or not you enjoy watching the sport.
Very simply put, the FIFA World Cup has provided a platform to raise awareness regarding issues concerning people all around the world. Take Iran, for whom this World Cup has been a way for their citizens to amplify their voices. Iranian women are currently fighting, and have been fighting for decades, a battle for their freedom. For the freedom to wear the clothes they want to wear and to have access to the same basic rights that the men in their country do, including, but not limited to, being able to watch soccer games inside the stadium. Because, as of today, that is a right they do not have.
The story of Mahsa Amini, one I believe everybody should know, has been at the center of Iranian protests, making its way into the World Cup. Not only have Iranian fans continued their protests and tributes to Amini in the stadiums during World Cup games, but the team itself, despite very real threats from their own government back home, has openly stood up to them, refusing to sing the country’s national anthem before the game. It might seem a bit performative, but the courage of the Iranians to not back down and continue the fight for equality at the world’s biggest stage is inspiring and something we all should bear witness to.
For members of the LGBTQ+ community, this World Cup has, unfortunately, served as a stark reminder that there are parts of the world where they are not welcome. Throughout the tournament, security guards have been asked to remove anything or anyone wearing rainbow colors — the global symbol of the LGBTQ+ community — from stadiums. The message from Qatar regarding members of this community has been clear: “You are free to express yourself, just not in our country.” The “debate” of whether homosexuality is a law or a human right has taken the World Cup by storm and is unlikely to subside even after the tournament.
What’s frustrating is how much joy certain sections of supporters and Qatari media officials at the World Cup are taking from watching teams that are voicing their opinions fail. After banning the use of the “One Love” armbands, which several teams were going to be wearing to combat the oppression of the LGBTQ+ community in Qatar, teams found different ways to convey their message. The German team sent perhaps the biggest statement by covering their mouths during their team picture to symbolize how they and so many have been silenced.
The German team’s eventual loss and exit from the tournament, however, sparked widespread mockery of their message, further normalizing homophobia at the tournament and leading to increased belief in the idea that athletes should just, as the cliché goes, stick to sports. Even high-ranking people within FIFA (including the president himself), an organization which claims that one of their paramount goals is to “fight discrimination of all kinds,” suggested that teams should stay away from making political statements.
Sports have always been a way for people to express themselves, while also being a distraction from the harsh realities of society. This World Cup in Qatar threatens both of those invariants of soccer. The fight for equality and human rights takes different forms in different parts of the planet, and they have all gathered in Qatar for the World Cup. Regardless of your loyalty to soccer, I implore you to pay attention. I implore you to help fight the fight that millions across the world are fighting everyday, because our support is the least they deserve.
From the death of hundreds of migrant workers to the violation of basic human rights, Qatar has been an oppressive force for over a decade already, but even if you managed to overlook everything that happened in the buildup to this World Cup, do not look away right now. Citizens from all corners of the world have brought their fight for a better and more fair life to Qatar, and it is my hope and prayer that their efforts will not be in vain. The world should know about what they’re going through, and so I will say one last time: watch the FIFA World Cup and listen to those whose voices are being drowned out — to voices that are desperate to be heard.
Rushabh Shah is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.