VAR Check: Qatar is a villain but not in isolation.
The opinions expressed in this article reflect the opinions of its author(s). They do not represent the views of UCL’s Diplomacy Society or Diplomacy Review.
If there were awards for the most talked about country each month, Qatar would certainly claim the top spot for November. News outlets and social media were inundated with just about everyone and their opinion on the World Cup, and quite rightfully too; any country that is hosting on the world stage should be subject to intense scrutiny. But many of the passionate forms of protest and debate appear to dismiss valid criticisms that stretch beyond the small country, and rather fall into reinforcing harmful stereotypes which, quite frankly, have acted as performative moral outrage.
Earlier this year in its October issue, French newspaper Le Canard enchaîné, depicted the Qatari footballers as terrorists where brown faced, long bearded men, were wearing football (robes) with guns tied to their backs. They appear to be carrying belts of explosives, machetes, and even balaclavas covering their faces, all whilst trying to kick a ball in the sand. In other words: a form of blatant Islamophobia and racism. With several cities in France not showing the matches over their own concerns with Qatar’s human rights record, this cartoon rather displays a continuation of negative commentary which uses stereotypes to ostracise the other.
Of course Qatar should be challenged on its human rights conduct, in fact its treatment of migrant workers and members of the LGBTQ+ community has a poor record, and it has been courageous to view football clubs, sports presenters, and even governments take a stand to put these important issues into the spotlight.
However, it appears doubtful, even disingenuous, that countries like France and the UK are being so vocal in singling out Qatar without acknowledging the 40,885 migrants who have crossed the Channel this year alone, who are being put in overcrowded, appalling housing conditions, seen with the death of the migrant in Manston processing centre from diphtheria just weeks ago. It appears almost ironic that football teams will challenge and criticise Qatari rights without being empowered to stand up to injustices in their own governments.
In the same light, the outrage with Qatar hosting the World Cup does not appear to be continued with the next hosts, the United States, in 2026. This year alone the country has rolled back extensively reproductive rights, with abortion being banned in at least 13 states, as well as Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill where books containing content on race and LGBTQ+ issues are banned from being taught in schools; meaning discussions on gender identity and sexual orientation are outlawed. Yet, as far as I am aware, there are no mainstream complaints of the United States attempting to sports-wash the far right policies sweeping the country.
Instead, rather than stopping at Qatar, our criticisms should project a wider message on the treatment of migrants and members of the LGBTQ+ community across the globe. There is much progress to still be made, and our commentary should reflect that and have more nuance in acknowledging limits in respective western countries. Rather than performative outrage, and headline grabbing acts of protest, the spotlight should be used to find solutions, not create further divisions. If anything, the scrutiny of Qatar displays how heavy the discourse on the sport is western centric, one must remember this is, of course, a momentous occasion for the sport being held in a Middle Eastern country. In our more interconnected world, there is now increasing frustration with western moral arrogance where hyperbole headlines have overpowered any genuine criticism.
It would be ridiculous to say Qatar is innocent, rather it is possible to be critical of a country without falling back on stereotypes and generalisations to make the point.
This World Cup could have been used as a spotlight to find solutions to create discussion as well as acknowledging differences; instead we could not resist making generic and biassed accusations without some self reflection. So, whilst the VAR check on Qatar continues, it is about time that we had one too.