Opinions - 28.11.2022 - 15:25 

World Cup in Qatar: More than a game

The World Cup reflects and reproduces the existing international order. Criticism of it, however, can help to develop both further. A contribution by Dr. Julian Eckl and Dr. Bernd Bucher.
November 21, 2022, Ahmad bin Ali Stadium, Doha, QAT, World Cup FIFA 2022, Group B, USA vs Wales, in the picture the opening ceremony with an oversized World Cup. (KEYSTONE/DPA/Hasan Bratic)

Numerous points of criticism of the World Cup finals in Qatar have already been discussed in detail. However, one important aspect seems to have been overlooked so far. It is not only due to the almost mafia-like structures in world football that the defence of human rights repeatedly fails despite global attention. Rather, this is also related to the fact that world football is closely linked to the existing international order, which it celebrates and reproduces in a playful manner. To see this more clearly, we need to realize what connects games and play to social order.

Small-scale re-enactments reveal the bigger picture

When children play, they are not just engaging in a fun pastime. They also learn something about the basic rules of their society, which they re-enact in a small and simplified way. For example, when robbers are chased by the police in a game, social concepts of private property and state law enforcement are conveyed at the same time. Abstract concepts thus become directly tangible in play.

When adults play, it is also about more than fun and diversion. This is especially true for sport events where national teams compete in front of global audiences. As we explained in more detail in a scholarly article published at the beginning of 2021, such events make it possible to experience how humanity organizes itself as a global society. The world is revealed in these sporting events as a society of states that have territories and whose existence is legitimized by the fact that states, in principle, embody nations. 

The world as an entertaining competitive interstate society

While attempts to discuss sovereignty, territoriality and nationality as institutions of the society of states over an after-work beer are likely to quickly come to nothing, these abstract concepts are directly experienced and conveyed as a natural fact, not least at the World Cup finals. The world is staged as a mosaic of nation states. Teams, stadium visitors, fans on their end-user devices, and all people in general appear as members of nations. Alternative ideas to this society of states, for example a global society of individuals, are thus marginalized.

This nationally divided world is not only presented as a factual given, but also as entertaining and desirable. The positive overall impression is due not least to the fact that sport is a special kind of game. It is a competition designed for excitement, demanding physical and mental excellence from those who play. Sport events not only engage those directly involved in the game. They are also capable of captivating a large audience that indirectly takes part in the game. And this audience experiences at first hand that nations are almost naturally in a competitive relationship. There is competition between them, based on common rules. 

Clear priorities are set when it comes to norms

The rights of individuals are not completely lost in this game. For example, anti-discrimination norms can in principle be made visible verbally and symbolically – for example, through the rainbow colours on armbands. However, these values are not conveyed as a central part of the game. They are only referred to in very general terms, while states do not have to meet any particular human rights criteria in order to be represented by a team. A clear reference to the topics of political participation or freedom of the press is even more lacking. In contrast, other participation criteria are very strict, and a central basic rule states that participating teams must represent states. Thus, internationally unrecognized nations, political groups organized in networks, transnational corporations and all other forms of human organization are not allowed to participate. In sum, individuals and their rights play a certain, but not indispensable, role and are regularly subordinated to the constitutive norms of interstate relations.
The priorities set in this way can be exemplified by the previous World Cup host Russia. There was criticism of the 2018 World Cup as well, but neither the political situation and the deficient human rights situation in the country nor the occupation of Crimea, which took place even then, nor the interference in the Donbass were enough to challenge Russia's role as host. It was supposedly still too much about internal affairs and opaque border disputes. 

That changed radically in 2022, when the full-scale attack on Ukraine threatened the very existence of a sovereign state and member of the society of states. This also challenged the international order as a whole. The rules of coexistence that enable peaceful competition were violated by Russia, and expulsion from football and other world sport events followed on its heels. 

Using the World Cup as a global stage nonetheless

The clear reactions to the Russian war of aggression show that the international order, despite its shortcomings, is at least capable of supporting peace, coexistence and cooperation as minimal goals. This also applies to the display of this order in football. In contrast, in the case of Qatar, neither the brutal exploitation of workers nor discrimination against women and LGBTQ+ persons prevented the World Cup from taking place. However, the criticism of the staging of the World Cup in Qatar and the efforts to make visible human rights issues also show that this is a dynamic order that can be further developed. Playful stagings that re-enact it on a small scale are not the least suitable means of doing so. 

It is not to be expected that public criticism of mafia structures, oppressive political systems and human rights violations alone will lead to a normative upheaval of world football, including FIFA, and the society of states in a short time. But the global reach of the World Cup provides an opportunity for human rights, tolerance, and respect to be given greater prominence in football, as well as in the society of states. Making these demands clear in words and symbolic actions is significant because there are no uninvolved spectators at this game. Everyone is involved in such a global public spectacle, whether on or off the pitch.

Julian Eckl is postdoctoral research fellow at the University of St.Gallen and Bernd Bucher is associate professor at Franklin University Switzerland.

Image: Keystone / World Cup 2022

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