Much has been said about how hosting the World Cup helped put Qatar on the map. The gap between established soccer nations and emerging powers’ teams was reduced with viewers reeling from the drama and relishing in the revenge of the underdogs on the field.
Meanwhile, could a more important gap have been reduced in the process, that of the Middle East? Was it the moment for the Middle East to shine?
U.S. media coined the term, this was a World Cup of “upsets.” Saudi Arabia beat Argentina in the opening stage, Morocco eliminated favorites Spain and Portugal in the knockout rounds, and spectacular play was displayed by South Korea and Japan. Besides the undeniably good soccer, politics reigned supreme: the Iranian team was nothing short of heroic in its refusal to sing the national anthem; the Saudi team had huge support from across the Arab world, and the new favorites, Morocco, the first Arab-African team to make history, dubbed “the pride of a continent,” rallied the Middle East and Africa behind it, simultaneously providing one of the biggest shows of pan-Arab unity in history, let alone World Cup history.
Was Qatar the overall winner of the World Cup? While the Middle East is frequently associated with conflict, in preparation for the tournament, the hosts took a welcoming posture. Work on labor rights continues and there is more room for improvement. Qatar continues to explore opportunities to make the lives of workers and to establish fair and lasting reforms.
Some Middle Eastern papers suggested that another winner during the tournament may have been the Palestinians for the show of support for them in the stadiums, despite FIFA’s expected sensitivity with any politics being displayed.
Politics aside, it was without contest one of the most exciting World Cups and best-organized tournaments for players and fans alike with record-breaking TV ratings in the U.S. and globally despite time zone difficulties and pitting the tournament against the busiest sporting season on the calendar.
The organizers can be proud of the show they put on. Major global events have long been regarded as effective catalysts to transform cities and sometimes countries. Whether to develop a nation’s regions outside the capital city, to stimulate an economy, as was the case with Spain, or to create landmarks that loomed large for decades, such as the Eiffel Tower built for the first ever World Expo.
In this regard, Qatar is no exception.
Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup proved more than just its capacity to pull off a show of epic proportions. With inbound traffic coming from Saudi Arabia and India in the top two slots, it also proved that the World Cup can and should be hosted outside of the Western world because soccer is as much loved in the Middle East and Asia, for example, as it is in the West.
Beyond the media frenzy and bad press that plagued the host nation, a more important question must have been in sight. That is, what impact did this World Cup have on the Middle East and Qatar’s role in it?
The gap in which preconceived notions lie was bridged on and off the soccer field.
The first sign of a trend traveling from the masses upwards to their leaders during the tournament was Mohammed Bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, attending the Cup’s opening game, waving the Qatari national flag and Qatar’s emir waving the Saudi flag in return. Just ahead of the tournament’s opening ceremony, the head of Israel’s Public Diplomacy Directorate, Lior Haiat, tweeted from Tel Aviv airport that “history has been made” with the “first direct flight from Tel Aviv to Doha.” And, halfway through the tournament came the surprise visit of the President of the United Arab Emirates, reportedly saying that Qatar’s World Cup was “a win for the Middle East.”
Diplomacy requires parties to meet face-to-face, debate and discuss important issues on a level playing field. Like a soccer field. Could soccer, the show of pan-Arab fan support, Morocco’s run all the way to the semifinals and the exemplary organization, have brought the broader Middle East closer together?
With the final whistle blown on Dec. 18, coincidentally on Qatar’s National Day, the public and the press now debate what legacy will come of the tournament.
If nothing else, Qatar’s World Cup proved that the tournament truly belongs to the world, to us all, as its name makes very clear, and that a direct result of the tournament may also be the Middle East coming together. That would be a wonderful ending to what was touted as the best World Cup final in our collective history.
Bruce Murray is a former U.S. national team player who represented the U.S. in the 1990 World Cup. Murray played professionally in both the U.S. and Europe, and played in and won the NCAA championships twice as a college player at Clemson, where he was an All-American. He was inducted into the U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2011. Following his pro career Murray has coached young athletes across America as well as student-athletes at Harvard.