Arabic-style World Cup. How does one maintain at least a minimum semblance of conformity to Islam in sport?

Qatari sport is keen to use mercenaries. Athletes from many countries and different nationalities do it all: they run on treadmills, kick, throw and bounce the ball. Some change citizenship and take on Muslim names to make good money.

It is not true that the World Cup in Qatar is a gross misunderstanding. There is no mistake in the location of the event. There is a self-interested consistency of FIFA: it doesn’t matter who we hold hands with, as long as they make us a profit.

And in this beautiful world, authoritarian regimes have the most money because their leaders have the most power – how they use it no longer concerns the ball dignitaries. Why? Well, because sport stays out of politics…

The calendar of global football spectacles is built on this hypocrisy. More often now than years ago, as all games cost more and more. Democratic countries are not keen on organising such events, as can be seen on the example of the Olympic Games.

Of course, there are reasons why outspoken or powdered dictators are so keen to accede to prestigious events. They want to gain greater international prominence. To improve their own image, often at the expense of their citizens, and at any cost.

Sports competitions lend themselves to this better than anything. They are of interest to billions of people, which guarantees worldwide publicity. They are a tool for friendly promotion, because sport itself has a positive connotation. Unlike political propaganda.

Vladimir Putin falls into this category of rulers. He, too, improved his image with sport for many years. Very successfully, until the state doping scandal, which deteriorated Russia’s profile. And with the war in Ukraine, Russia’s status is frozen, so now it resembles a mammoth frozen in ice.

Money is no object, and any means to an end are good. Not only good, but acceptable to sporting corporations such as FIFA. The World Cup in Russia and the World Cup in Qatar were arranged thanks to bribes. So what? The first one took place, the second one will take place and the media can be in full cry all they want.

Qatar is the smallest state in the Arabian Peninsula. Formally an emirate with an absolute monarchy. The sheikhs have money, so FIFA loves them. And they have been given a springboard to jump high. Only it won’t be a free flight. More of a cultural confrontation – Western and Muslim.

A fake Muslim

Qatar has a population of just under 3 million, but only 300,000 indigenous Qataris. It is not known how many of them do sport for the good of their health. It is not known whether physical exertion, at 45 degrees Celsius plus, is good for anyone’s health. It is only known that they have a few competitive sports there.

Nine to be precise: futsal, athletics, handball, volleyball, water polo, tennis, wrestling, rugby, and football. They field national teams at world events and run league competitions. In both cases, they mainly use mercenaries.

Athletes from many countries and different nationalities do it all: they run on treadmills, kick, throw and bounce the ball. Some change citizenship and take on Muslim names to make good money. Kenyans often do this, but there are sometimes problems.

Kenyan Sephen Cherono has undergone these procedures. He formally became a Qatari with the new name Saif Saaeed Shaheen. He was a gifted athlete, so he improved the world record in the obstacle run. On one occasion, after another victory, he made the sign of the cross on his chest.

Qatari activists reacted very nervously. The sign of the cross does not indicate a follower of Islam. But that is not all. Speaking to reporters, the Kenyan forgot his new name. He introduced himself as Cherono, which his employers considered a scandal.

You can change your nationality, you can change your name, but it is difficult to break away from the faith instilled from birth. It is easy to convert an athlete to represent Qatar, more difficult to convert an athlete to be a Muslim or even a fake Muslim. Sport is supposed to be a free and open space for everyone. Its essence is equality of opportunity. For these reasons, religious fundamentalism can sometimes be a problem.

Cloaked swimmers

Consistent with the principles of the Muslim faith is the acceptance of personal participation in sport, but cheering is frowned upon. And since this is the case, big events are not welcome either. Likewise, Islam does not condone any signs of idol or club worship.
Saif Saaeed Shaheen, an ex-Kenyan player in Qatar’s colours during the 2003 World Athletics Championships, defeated his former compatriot Ezekiel Kemboia. Photo by Kirby Lee/WireImage
This is very interesting, because Qatar, Bahrain or Saudi Arabia are working against religion in this respect. Above all, they want to host the world games – and they do. They invite sports stars who have billions of fans. Some of them they buy for millions.

  On the other hand, they try to maintain at least a minimum semblance of conformity to Islam. Not least in matters of women’s clothing, which meets resistance from the federations in charge of sports such as beach volleyball and swimming.

Since Muslim women are not allowed to expose their bodies in public, especially their buttocks, the swimming burkini (a derivative name from burqa and bikini) was invented, which covers up what needs to be covered, but does not help swimming, especially with a cloak to complement some designs.

At volleyball competitions it varies. Outside the region, European, Brazilian and US girls play in bikinis. Qatari representatives are clad completely from head to toe, even with headscarves in their hair. Things are different at Qatar’s beach tournaments.

It is the sportswomen of the West who have to adapt. Wear the right shirts and shorts. In temperatures of 40-plus degrees Celsius, it is impossible to survive a match without getting yourself drenched in water. However, sand sticks to a wet jersey like a shell, so it is not easy.

Religious strictures do not hamper the Sheikhs’ ambition to have their own sports teams that will one day match those from the West. In addition to the foreign coaches who train their youngsters, they implement standard procedures, known and proven in international sport.

They recruit talent, organise training centres, including in Europe, to familiarise players with a different culture and prepare them for inter-state competition according to the norms and rules that apply there.

The World Cup is to be a test of the concept adopted. The small Belgian club KAS Eupen trains and plays the Qataris who will perform at the World Cup. The organisation of the club was subordinated to this, which was easy, as the emir of Qatar is its owner.

For the time being, the only almost-native Qatari mega-star is Mutazz Isa Barshim. Almost native, because his parents are from Sudan, although he was born in Qatar. Olympic champion from Tokyo, three-time world champion in the high jump. Coached by a Pole, Stanisław Szczyrba.

Mutazz was playing basketball, getting to the rim with the lightness of a butterfly. That’s how Szczyrba tracked him down. Sports careers are often made by chance, and so it was this time. People with talent don’t always know they have it – until someone opens their eyes.

If the Qataris hadn’t invited the Pole to a consultation to watch a group of young talent, if he hadn’t seen this boy “with a lift in his leg”, if he hadn’t convinced him to train and if it hadn’t been Szczyrba, Qatar probably wouldn’t have Barshim.

However, circumstances worked out favourably. The kid has grown into a champion who treats his coach like a second father, knows exactly how much he owes him, and the player’s successes have been recognised, elevating Stanisław Szczyrba to coach of the year in Qatar.

Who’s to say “no” the the wealthy one?

Grass doesn’t grow in the Arabian deserts, but fortunes grow under the sand, which open every door for the sheikhs. And there are few doors in the world that do not work on payment cards.

The hiring of foreigners, including naturalisation and name changes, let alone the production of a national sport, also with the support of foreign coaches, is not enough to fulfil the objective of raising the international prestige of Muslim monarchies.

This is only a part of political marketing, medially noticeable, although not essential. The main instrument for influencing global opinion – and, thus, the greater importance of Qatar, Bahrain or Saudi Arabia – are prestigious sporting events.

Such events naturally focus attention across the planet, on a particular venue for months before and after the games, and while they last. It is worth investing in this type of promotion because it simply pays off the most.

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In terms of mega-events, Qatar has become not just a regional but a global leader. In recent years it has hosted the World Handball Championships, the World Athletics Championships, it is now preparing for the World Cup and is a candidate for the Olympic Games.

Qatar’s payment card has coverage. The payer is reliable, so it no longer surprises anyone in particular that such a tiny country with such a lethal climate for sport is taking over major shows. And who’s to say “no” the the wealthy one?

This arrogant saying inspires and dazzles the dignitaries of sport, who have long adhered to the principle: whoever has the money, rules as he pleases. FIFA boss Gianni Infantino smashed up football leagues to give the sheikhs what they bought themselves. That’s because the banknotes don’t have a banner saying “corruption” on them.

People were dying, the ball kept rolling

But corruption or changes to the tournament calendar mean nothing in this case. The World Cup in Qatar equals death. More than 6,500 South Asian workers have died at stadium construction sites, although this figure may be higher.

The daily average was 12 fatalities coming from India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, as reported by The Guardian. They were working at heights without any protection. For seven months at a time without pay. In a deadly heat. Subjected to numerous oppressions.

The media reported on it, but the ball kept rolling. The Sheikhs were breezing through the footballing salons, embraced by Infantino and friends who had no intention of changing course. They legitimise this state of affairs. Thus performing a special ennoblement of an inhuman regime.

Western civilisation invented concepts such as marketing, promotion and image as tools of civilised business. But marketing built on deaths is a macabre caricature of both civilisation and business. FIFA couldn’t be bothered.

However, it preaches principled separation of politics and sport. In this vein, FIFA sent out a letter to football federations with the message to focus on sport. This was already too much even for football circles trained for years to swallow the bitter pill of hypocrisy.

The football world woke up at the eleventh hour and started protesting. Twelve years after Qatar was awarded the World Cup. One could say – better late than never. But you can’t say that, because the protests are slightly ridiculous and therefore hardly sincere.

In protest against human rights violations, this time their wives will not go to the World Cup with the footballers. A couple of sponsors won’t display their logos so they won’t be seen. But they will abide by the rest of the agreement, so they will be heard of because someone will talk or write about them.

In some countries, fan zones will not be opened – at the painful loss of fans of hot-dogs and beer, so two billion people will plonk themselves down on home sofas with a drink to fete a global football feast in faraway Qatar and enjoy the spectacle.

The so-called “wave of protests” reflects more the correctness that characterises Western democracies than genuine indignation. In the background, a few questions arise: is the world of sports still on the light side of the Force today?

As a matter of fact, in whose interests do organisations such as FIFA or the IOC operate? The question is rhetorical, because it is visible to the naked eye that they act in their own interest, according to a clear philosophy. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from to our negotiations table. What matters is that you come and pay for our lunch. And that’s about it.

– Marek Jóźwik

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and journalists

– Translated by jz
Main photo: Welcoming the Australia team to Qatar on 16 November 2022. photo by BERNADETT SZABO / Reuters / Forum
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