Maverick Citizen


Qatar 2022 – Woman. Life. Freedom. Football.

Qatar 2022 – Woman. Life. Freedom. Football.
Fans hold up a shirt bearing the name of Mahsa Amini and a flag advocating for women's rights before the World Cup match between Wales and Iran in Doha, Qatar, on 25 November 2022. Amini was murdered by the Iranian regime’s 'morality police'. (Photo: Matthias Hangst / Getty Images)

Keep politics in sport. The World Cup has reminded us that human joy depends on human rights.

Life is full of irony and poetry.

The Fifa World Cup 2022 is well under way. And already the beautiful game is proving to be beautiful for more than just the dribbling or shooting skills of its talented players. It’s beautiful because, try though Fifa might, you can’t suppress the humanity or solidarity of the people who play it and watch it.

When Qatar bought the World Cup from Sepp Blatter and greedy Fifa officials back in 2010, somewhere in the small text they probably also included a promise that politics and public scrutiny of the host country would be suppressed. For the hereditary, ultra-rich monarchy which routinely violates human rights, this was supposed to be a World Cup sans freedom of expression, without politics or protest.

Sportswashing perfected.

The irony, however, is that it’s fast becoming one of the most political of World Cups. Although they are not on the field, the media and human rights activists have teamed up to shine a light on the brutality of regimes like Qatar, and the grand corruption of bodies like Fifa. Watch, for example, satirist John Oliver drawing on reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, castigating the “atrocity stadiums” that have been built at the cost of an estimated 6,000 migrant workers’ lives: Qatar World Cup: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO).

Girls carry the flag of Iran before their team’s match against Wales at Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium in Doha, Qatar, on 25 November 2022. (Photo: Marvin Ibo Guengoer – GES Sportfoto / Getty Images)

Although counterintuitive, this may be a reason that we should take big global events – and all the media that accompanies them – to the least democratically hospitable corners of the world. Perhaps it’s a reason that, despite the justifiable discomfort of climate activists, COP28 should be held in the United Arab Emirates, one of the world’s leading oil guzzlers and producers?

Iran’s team wins

In 2022, long before the final has taken place, the World Cup has been won by the players and people of Iran.

First, in their opening match, the Iranian team kept silent as their national anthem was played. In their second game after threats and intimidation from the government at home (including the chilling arrest of one of Iran’s most famous football players) the team sang the national anthem. But their muted voices gave literal meaning to the words “lip service”.

With their players “silenced”, it was the Iranian fans who picked up the baton. One woman held up a football shirt bearing the name “Mahsa Amini 22”,[1]  the name of the young woman who’s murder by the regime’s “morality police” has sparked the current uprising against the Iranian regime.

Read:Iran offer powerful show of defiance on day of jeers, tears and joy

The Iranian team created a stark contrast with the timidity of England’s pampered players who surrendered without a shot being fired when Fifa threatened to yellow-card them for wearing the OneLove armband. But, by default, even their cowardice and lack of principle raised political questions.

Iranian fans hold up signs advocating for women’s rights before Iran’s World Cup Group B match against England on 21 November 2022. (Photo: Clive Brunskill / Getty Images)

South Africans may be bystanders in this festival of football, but we should stand with the people of Iran and demand that our government does as well.

We’ve been there. Iran is currently going through its equivalent of South Africa’s June 16th. As captured in the Iranian protest song Baraye, it’s a struggle of young women, supported by most of society, for modernity, dignity and freedom.

Mehdi Taremi (front) and Karim Ansarifard of Iran celebrate after their World Cup match win against Wales on 25 November 2022. (Photo: Marvin Ibo Guengoer – GES Sportfoto / Getty Images)

For these simple aspirations, more than 450 young people have been murdered, 20,000 arrested and many tortured. Several people have been sentenced to death.

Read:Iran protests: Reports of child deaths, detentions are deeply worrying | OHCHR

But their spirit is undimmed.

Why peace matters

Over the past few years Iran has been one of the pariahs of the world, but the media and Western governments often overlook the fact that the people of Iran do not at all look like, or support, their government. In fact, they have been in an ongoing and costly struggle to challenge the brutal theocratic regime for more than a decade (read about the waves of protest here and here).

The Iran team sings the national anthem before their clash with Wales. (Photo: Marvin Ibo Guengoer – GES Sportfoto / Getty Images)

Iran’s example is a reminder of why we should not be press-ganged by the media into confusing authoritarian and corrupt governments with the people of a country. It’s why we should at least debate whether raining bombs or indiscriminate sanctions on a county hurts its people more than its regime.

It’s a reminder of why ordinary people, world citizens, should resist the drums of war and the indiscriminate launch of missiles.

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The same applies to the horrifying and brutal conflict between Russia and Ukraine. If you were to judge by the greying white men who shuffle the toy-soldier pieces around cities like Kherson on Sky News each night, this war might as well be a game of chess, or more accurately the board game Risk.

But it’s not a game of chess, it’s a game of mass murder. The BBC quotes General Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, as estimating that 100,000 young men – sons, brothers, cousins, friends – have now been killed on each side.

We should lament the deaths of young Russian men, just as we do those of the Ukrainians. Most of them have been frog-marched into a barbaric war that is not of their own making; the fact that some behave barbarically does not change this.

When Qatar bought the World Cup from Sepp Blatter (pictured) and greedy Fifa officials back in 2010, somewhere in the small text they probably also included a promise that politics and public scrutiny of the host country would be suppressed. (Photo: Philipp Schmidli / Getty Images)

So, the World Cup has reminded us that human joy depends on human rights. It has reminded us about our interconnectedness. It’s allowed us to look at all the people of “other” nations and see we are the same. It shows that conflict can be mediated by rules that most people accept. But those rules can also be subverted by big money.

Later today Iran will probably exit the World Cup in their match against the USA. Their players will return home to the likelihood of house arrest or worse. The beautiful game will go on, and most people will forget 11 brave men and the risks their fans took to call for solidarity and sympathy with their struggles.

We should not. DM/MC


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