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Ian Buruma is the author, most recently, of The Churchill Complex: The Curse of Being Special, from Winston and FDR to Trump and Brexit.

Count on the International Federation of Association Football, better known as FIFA, to come up with a fatuous slogan for the World Cup in Qatar: “Football Unites the World.” An official promotional video has Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Brazil’s Neymar mouthing the words in Spanish and Portuguese, respectively.

Is it true? Does football really unite the world?

Of course not. It does not even unite countries. In Brazil, the team’s yellow-and-green colours have been co-opted by supporters of the recently ousted president Jair Bolsonaro (backed by Neymar), which has annoyed supporters of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (backed by Brazilian striker Richarlison).

The idea that sporting events unite the world is an old obsession, going back to Baron Pierre de Coubertin’s invention of the modern Olympic Games in 1896. Sports, in the Baron’s mind, ought to transcend politics, international tensions, and any other discord. FIFA, too, subscribes to the fantasy of a world without politics, where conflict is confined to the playing fields.

In fact, the choice to hold this year’s tournament in Qatar, a tiny oil-rich sheikdom with no footballing history or evidence of robust local interest in the game, is itself political. The country’s ruling emir craved the prestige of a global event, and Qatar had the money to buy it. Thick envelopes are said to have been slipped into the pockets of voting FIFA officials. And FIFA was richly rewarded for giving broadcasting rights to Al Jazeera, Qatar’s state-funded TV channel.

FIFA, evidently, was unbothered by Qatar’s poor human-rights record, abuse of immigrant workers, and laws that punish homosexuality – certainly no more than even dodgier venues of the past. After all, the last World Cup tournament was held in Russia, which was already under international sanctions.

But the fact that tiny Qatar, the first Middle Eastern country to host the World Cup tournament, wields such clout, shows how much power has shifted in recent times. FIFA, like the International Olympic Committee, always bends to the power of money, making it clear that neither the players nor visiting European dignitaries should wear armbands with the phrase “OneLove.” That expression of support for people’s right to love who and how they want was seen as a political statement, and FIFA cannot allow sports and politics to mix.

Except that they can and they do. It has been perfectly acceptable for Moroccan, Saudi or Qatari fans to express solidarity with the Palestinian cause by waving Palestine’s flag in the World Cup stadiums. Meanwhile, the Dutch Minister for Sport, Conny Helder, could do no more than wear a tiny “OneLove” pin to a match as the Qatari official sitting next to her calmly tied on a Palestinian armband.

Any criticism of human-rights violations in Qatar has been swiftly met with accusations of racism, backed by FIFA’s Swiss president, Gianni Infantino, who reminded fellow Europeans of “3,000 years” of Western imperialism. T-shirts bearing the words “woman” and “freedom” were prohibited as well, lest they irritate the Iranian theocracy, which is being challenged with those slogans at home.

Just as notable is the lack of national unity. Demonstrators in Tehran and other Iranian cities, protesting the regime’s efforts to bask in the glow of its football victories, cheered when their team lost to the United States, of all countries. Most remarkable of all was the refusal of the Iranian players themselves to sing the national anthem before their opening match. They were reportedly warned by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps not to repeat this brave act of defiance.

Then there was the extraordinary defeat of the young German team. Like most national teams, the German side is multiethnic, and when they failed to proceed to the knock-out stage (only because Spain lost to Japan) conservative pundits in Germany blamed it on a lack of the traditional German fighting spirit. Even before this World Cup, the team was attacked in certain right-wing circles and accused of not being truly German.

One of the ironies of modern football is that national teams whip up passions in a kind of carnivalesque performance of patriotic partisanship. But the players themselves are mostly colleagues in club teams all over Europe who usually speak several languages and are often close friends off the field, making them unsuitable avatars for this type of chauvinism. They are members of an extremely wealthy, truly cosmopolitan elite. So, the football stars are, in a sense, united, even if the World Cup unites no one else.

Still, one can understand why FIFA chose its 2022 World Cup slogan. “Money makes the world go ‘round” would have been a little too honest.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.

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