Taking the temperature of the Middle East’s World Cup

The Take examines what the legacy of the first World Cup in the Middle East might be.

Morocco football players celebrate on the pitch.
Morocco's players celebrate their win at the end of the penalty shoot-outs in the Qatar 2022 World Cup Round of 16 football match between Morocco and Spain at the Education City Stadium in Al Rayyan, west of Doha, Qatar, on December 6, 2022 [Javier Soriano/AFP]

For more than a decade, football fans have been wondering what the first Middle Eastern World Cup would look like. Now that the tournament has passed its halfway mark, we can finally see it in practice. Morocco is now the last Arab and African team standing. After their win against Spain, players posed with the Palestinian flag, highlighting an issue that has become central to fans at the tournament. In this episode, we see how the World Cup Qatar 2022 has panned out so far, from upsets to football culture to geopolitics.

In this episode: 

  • Tony Karon (@TonyKaron), editorial lead at AJ+
  • Abubakr Al-Shamahi (@ShamahiAbubakr), Al Jazeera digital editor for the Middle East and North Africa

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Full episode transcript:

This transcript was created using AI. It’s been reviewed by humans, but it might contain errors. Please let us know if you have any corrections or questions, our email is TheTake@aljazeera.net.


Sepp Blatter: The winner to organise the 2022 FIFA World Cup is Qatar.

Halla Mohieddeen: Ever since it was announced that the World Cup was heading to an Arab country, there have been a lot of questions about what the world’s biggest sporting event would look like in the Middle East.

Newsreel: One and a half million visitors are expected to attend the Middle East’s first World Cup.

Newsreel: A chance to construct a very different image of the Middle East to the world.

Halla Mohieddeen: Now that we’re halfway through the tournament, we can finally see what that looks like in practice. From upsets to footballing culture to geopolitics, today we’re looking at how the first World Cup in the Middle East has panned out so far. I’m Halla Mohieddeen and this is The Take.


Halla Mohieddeen: Today I’m talking with Tony Karon. He’s the editorial lead at AJ+, and he’s been a fixture in our football coverage.


Halla Mohieddeen: It’s our first time speaking since the World Cup actually started. We had a good little chin wag before the World Cup about VAR. But even with or without the VAR, this has been an unpredictable tournament. Let’s start off with one of the biggest upsets I think fans will associate with this World Cup.

Newsreel: Argentina have been beaten 2-1 by Saudi Arabia in their opening game.

Newsreel: One of the biggest shocks in World Cup history without a shadow of a doubt.

Halla Mohieddeen: What went through your mind at that game?

Tony Karon: So at the end of the last World Cup, I wrote a piece for the New York Times about how the power balance in world football was in some ways mimicking what was happening in geopolitics. Foreign policy types use the term multipolarity, that a world order dominated by sort of a handful of industrialised nations was suddenly being challenged in geopolitics and power was being more distributed.

Halla Mohieddeen: So, say you were to pick out an equivalent of the G7 of the football world.

Tony Karon: Argentina, Brazil, Germany, France, and Italy probably would’ve been your most powerful states. And you could see how that has been challenged. So what you were seeing then already, and seeing even more in this World Cup, is that you have countries outside of the traditional dominant football powers suddenly able to go toe-to-toe with traditional powers. So that upset, Argentina losing to Saudi Arabia was just this brilliant moment of going, actually, the global game is now far more open, far more competitive, frankly, than it’s ever been. There is no game, there is no result you can take for granted.

Halla Mohieddeen: And Tony says the atmosphere from his TV alone showed the almost home-game advantage Arab teams have been feeling since this tournament began.

Tony Karon: You have the same thing that we know from Africa, where if our own country’s team is not the one playing or the one winning, we support other teams from Africa because we want Africa to do well on the international stage. And I think you’re seeing the same thing, that in Doha, fans from all over the region celebrate a Saudi victory, celebrate a Morocco victory. I think it was two nights later in New York, I got a cab ride with a driver from Bangladesh and the first thing he said was just how proud he was of Saudi Arabia beating Argentina. So you can see how that resonated with a far wider community that haven’t been traditionally big players on the global football stage.

Halla Mohieddeen: It’s a sentence that I wouldn’t have thought I’d hear just a matter of weeks ago, I’m so proud of Saudi Arabia. I mean, there were so many videos of Saudi fans celebrating after their win and, you know, just so many people celebrating, not just Saudis. I mean, what did you make of those?

Tony Karon: I’ve been a lifelong Liverpool fan. The owners of Liverpool FC right now are a Boston-based hedge fund. That’s not who the fans are celebrating when the team wins. They feel the sense of ownership over the team. And I think with national teams, it’s actually similar. It’s like regardless of where people are on the political or geopolitical spectrum, they feel a sense of ownership and being represented by the team regardless of the politics.

Halla Mohieddeen: And that celebration was even more evident in Doha.

Newsreel: Everybody’s saying here, it’s such a massive day for Arab football. Everybody’s pleased to be here. People from Morocco, people from Tunisia, Iraq, all coming down to celebrate that shock win from Saudi Arabia.

Abubakr Al-Shamahi: Okay, so I’d like to preempt everything by saying that my voice is a bit scratchy, and that is because of the World Cup itself.

Halla Mohieddeen: That’s Abubakr Al-Shamahi, Al Jazeera’s Middle East and North Africa editor. And, like most people, he was stunned by the Saudi victory.

Abubakr Al-Shamahi: That game was not supposed to be a Saudi Arabia win. It was clearly supposed to be an Argentina win. And where I’m living right now, I live very close to the stadium where the match happened, at Lusail Stadium. And as soon as that second goal went in, I just thought, I need to go and see the fans.

Saudi team celebrates after winning 1-2 in Argentina v Saudi Arabia, Group C, at Lusail stadium, FIFA World Cup 2022. November 22, Doha, Qatar [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]
Saudi team celebrates after winning 1-2 in Argentina v Saudi Arabia, Group C, at Lusail stadium, FIFA World Cup 2022. November 22, Doha, Qatar [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]


Abubakr Al-Shamahi: And I think it was – what? – the third day of the World Cup or something along those lines. It was like the moment I feel, really, that the World Cup woke up. And it was because we had this amazing atmosphere, this amazing result, and this opportunity for a team from the region to really make history.

Halla Mohieddeen: The nature of the upset was surprising. You have Argentina, led by the legendary Lionel Messi, a potential favourite to win the whole tournament.


Halla Mohieddeen: And then you have Saudi Arabia.

Abubakr Al-Shamahi: I’m not Saudi myself, but I’m originally Yemeni, I’m Arab. And I remember growing up, Saudi Arabia would perform so badly every World Cup. And I would get the taunts at school because I was Arab, even though I had no relation to the Saudi team whatsoever and didn’t support them. Going from almost like the butt of jokes at the World Cup, losing eight nil to Germany in the past as well. I remember that result, and then you’ve got Argentina and you’re expecting something similar might be happening and instead they turn around and actually win. It’s crazy.

Halla Mohieddeen: So the Saudi win was just that, one win. But it also gave the world some insight into Saudi footballing culture. Saudi’s league has some intense fans, many of whom went to Qatar to watch the national team play.

Abubakr Al-Shamahi: There’s a term that’s obviously been adopted in Arabic, which is “ultras”. This is something that comes from Europe, of like, overly passionate fans almost, who, their team becomes an integral part of their identity, and they make that clear through songs and chants and music and banners. They call these huge banners, tifos that they unfurl in the stadium that has been adopted by the Saudis as it has been in other Arab countries as well, such as Morocco, Egypt, and Tunisia.

Halla Mohieddeen: These elements, familiar to football fans anywhere, then get their own local Saudi spin.


Abubakr Al-Shamahi: I was talking to fans, and they were talking to me about how they were able to introduce Saudi tribal chants into their footballing chant. And the style of chanting was actually based on Saudi and Arab culture, they’ve kind of intermingled with things that have come from the outside and formed this Saudi footballing culture. Many people from outside of Saudi Arabia, including in the Arab world, and I have to say, even myself, I did not really see the full extent of Saudi fan culture, until I witnessed the presence of those fans at the World Cup itself.

Halla Mohieddeen: And that’s partly because any foreign media coverage of Saudi usually centres more on its government than its people.

Abubakr Al-Shamahi: There’s obviously a perception of Saudi Arabia, and you know, there’s one thing to talk about politics and governments, but it’s another thing to talk about people, and the actual Saudi people themselves. And Saudi people can be stereotyped, not just in the wider world, but also in the Arab region itself. And I saw it when I was speaking to people, once I started telling them, just from my perspective how cool it was to see all that, I could see the pride in their faces. They were very happy to talk about that because it was an opportunity to actually talk about something positive.

Halla Mohieddeen: So, unfortunately, the Saudi dream ended shortly after that match, when they lost to Poland and Mexico. But they weren’t the only Arab team that pulled an upset.

Newsreel: Morocco beat Belgium two-nil with what was clearly a fully deserved win.

Newsreel: Now another shock result from this World Cup as Tunisia was able to clinch a one-nil win over defending champions of France.

Newsreel: Absolute brilliance for Morocco. They go on to win the group, 2-1 final today against Canada.

Halla Mohieddeen: Despite the wins from Saudi Arabia and Tunisia, Morocco was the only Arab team to advance to the Round of 16. They played that match on Tuesday against Spain. Neither team scored a goal, even in extra time, but Morocco took down the former world champions in penalty kicks.

Fans gather at the stadium ahead of the match Morocco vs Spain, FIFA World Cup 2022, December 6, Education City Stadium [Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera]
Fans gather at the stadium ahead of the match Morocco vs Spain, FIFA World Cup 2022, December 6, Education City Stadium [Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera]


Halla Mohieddeen: Fans inside and outside the stadium went wild. Newsreel: Wow, what a penalty shootout. You would not believe it. Morocco through, Spain out. Halla Mohieddeen: Morocco will go to the quarterfinals of the World Cup for the first time, and the sound of their celebrations resounded across Doha. I asked Tony about how the fan presence might help the teams they support. [MUSIC PLAYING]

Halla Mohieddeen: We have seen some pretty impressive performances from North African and Asian teams. I think of Japan in particular, who have now managed to send Germany packing. Do you think that having the World Cup located outside of Europe and Latin America has actually helped these other teams in some way?

Tony Karon: I think being in Qatar where the host country is far more accessible to fans from Africa and Asia will have made a difference, not only in terms of air travel, but also visa accessibility. If you’re from Africa and you’re trying to get a visa to Europe for any reason, and you have an African passport, it is a nightmare. I used to have a South African passport. I’ve actually experienced this directly where you take a pile of documents, bank statements from the last six months, a floor plan of the place that you’re going to be staying, which has been approved by some municipal authority in France. ⁹It’s absolutely ridiculous. Fortress Europe. So, you know, you can think, well, fans can travel to Qatar far more easily and they have done so. I think there’s definitely an element, certainly for teams from the region, I found like very much a home crowd, and that, you know, playing at home helps, of course.

Halla Mohieddeen: After the break, a look at the issues this home crowd is raising in front of the rest of the world.

Halla Mohieddeen: Today I’m speaking with Tony Karon about how the first World Cup in the Middle East is playing out so far.


Halla Mohieddeen: But first, another dispatch from Doha, from Al Jazeera’s Abubakr Al-Shamahi.

Abubakr Al-Shamahi: This has been an opportunity for people from around the region to gather in one place. I have to say that is a rare thing to happen for people from Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, all these different countries. There’s very often not really this existence of a shared space, where they can actually express themselves. What we’re seeing in Qatar right now with the World Cup is this kind of opportunity for people from all these different countries to actually mix, intermingle, speak to each other, in a way that really for many of them only existed online or through television, and the reality is for many Arabs, Palestine is number one, or if not, number one, one of the most important issues for them.

Halla Mohieddeen: Some of the most viral moments of the World Cup have come from tournament attendees, either refusing to speak with Israeli media, or using an appearance as a way to express their support for the Palestinian cause. And it’s not just Arab fans. Some England supporters, when asked by Israeli media about whether the World Cup is “coming home” to England…

Newsreel: First question. Is it coming home? Of course it is, It’s coming home.

Halla Mohieddeen: Qualified their response…

Newsreel: But more importantly, free Palestine.

Halla Mohieddeen: This broad support is something Tony was keen to mention as well.

Tony Karon: It’s been absolutely remarkable that the Palestinian flag is the most recurring symbol other than the flags of the countries who are participating. And I think we’ve seen that, you know, whenever Morocco plays, when Tunisia plays, you’ve seen so many fans on the streets and in the stands flying that flag. It is a really interesting moment that actually raises a lot of questions.

Halla Mohieddeen: One is about FIFA’s treatment of Palestine.

Tony Karon: You know, it’s been put on FIFA’s agenda since 2014 that not only is Israel violating international law simply by the fact of the occupation, but it’s actually violating a number of very specific FIFA statutes – FIFA recognises Palestine as its own entity. And so the fact that Israel has settlement teams in its domestic leagues is a flagrant violation of FIFA’s extraterritoriality rules that, when Russia tried to bring Crimean teams into its league, it was warned that it would lose the 2018 World Cup if it did that.

Halla Mohieddeen: But another question this solidarity raises is about the state of the occupation, especially as Palestinians have been killed by Israel during the World Cup.

Newsreel: Two brothers have become the latest casualties of near-daily confrontations between Palestinians and Israel’s military

Newsreel: 2022 already counts as the bloodiest year in the occupied West Bank since 2006, a year that isn’t over yet.

Tony Karon: Not only FIFA, but also some of the governments of the Arab countries themselves, have actually chosen to normalise ties with Israel, regardless of what’s happening with the Palestinians.

Morocco's players celebrate at the end of the Qatar 2022 World Cup round of 16 football match between Morocco and Spain at the Education City Stadium in Al-Rayyan, west of Doha on December 6, 2022. (Photo by Glyn KIRK / AFP)
Morocco’s players celebrate at the end of the Qatar 2022 World Cup round of 16 football match between Morocco and Spain at the Education City Stadium in Al-Rayyan, west of Doha on December 6, 2022. [Glyn Kirk/AFP]


Halla Mohieddeen: Tony’s talking here about the wave of agreements several Arab governments have signed with Israel, restoring relations after decades of official boycotts.

Newsreel: The deal between Israel and the UAE is called the Abraham Accords. It’s been brokered by the United States.

Newsreel: First Israel and the United Arab Emirates, now Israel and Bahrain announcing they would normalise arrangements and agreements.

Newsreel: Morocco and Israel have normalised ties in a US broker deal.

Tony Karon: What you’re seeing here is a situation where the Arab public having a rare opportunity to make their voices heard in some cases, is expressing dissent, is saying no, we can’t accept this. We cannot normalise relations with this apartheid entity that’s actually killing people. So I think, you know, it’s a dissent over Palestine and an expression of solidarity with a people suffering under occupation. But I think it’s also an identity statement of people from a region, which broke out in open rebellion in 2011, in search of a different way of being governed. And that has largely been closed down. And to me, what we’re seeing here is a sense that the Palestinian flag doesn’t only mean Palestine, it also means, in a lot of Arab societies, people challenging the way they’re governed and looking for something different.

Halla Mohieddeen: Someone had said on Twitter that it’s telling that as soon as this free forum emerges, it’s immediately filmed with explicit expression of solidarity for the Palestinians and football. The World Cup is a rare moment of open space and assembly in the Arab region. Does that kind of tally with what you know?

Tony Karon: Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think football represents a fairly unique, and perhaps I’m biased here because, you know, this is what I spend my time obsessing about, but I think it’s a very unique form of civil society. And as you say, it creates a public space for expression that a lot of authoritarian regimes don’t allow, typically. And you’ve seen people move into that with gusto at the World Cup, with an absolute sense of like, here’s something you are looking to sweep under the carpet, but we’re not. Also, just another, should we say, ‘scientific observation’ about football. And that is like, what is the value, at least the monetary value of football as a spectacle? Where does FIFA make money? From selling the TV rights to the World Cup. Same for the Premiership, same for the European Champions League. So what is the spectacle that’s being sold? Is it just the game itself? Well, look what happened during COVID when you were playing games behind closed doors. They are dull as doornails. It’s like watching a training session.

Halla Mohieddeen: They were having to pump atmosphere!

Tony Karon: Exactly. The fake sounds, right! Exactly.

Halla Mohieddeen: Fake sounds of clapping and cheering.

Tony Karon: Exactly. And that tells you that actually the spectacle, the valuable spectacle of football is the chemistry of the interaction between what’s happening on the field and the fans. And that gives the fans a lot of power.


Halla Mohieddeen: And fan spectacle has been something to behold at this tournament. Whether that’s Arab and Brazilian supporters having a dance-off outside the stadium …


Halla Mohieddeen: … or match attendees turning a World Cup employee into an internet sensation for giving directions to the metro with a dose of charisma. This World Cup has offered us some genuine moments of connection.

Tony Karon: I think a World Cup always offers this moment of a global community that, like, for all of the tensions, stresses, schisms, and often very violent differences that play out in the world, the World Cup is this moment of shared humanity.

Morocco vs Spain
Morocco vs Spain, FIFA World Cup 2022, December 6, Education City Stadium [Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera]


Tony Karon: It’s like acknowledging that there are things we have in common, and that creates a basis for thinking about a different kind of human community. Now that, you know, that sounds naive. It sounds a little kitschy. I think it’s true. It doesn’t mean that that is the outcome, but it reminds us of the possibility of better outcomes. The legacy for me when a fan from Tunisia is encountering a fan from Argentina, or Ecuador, or from Senegal. You know, you think what is holding us together? We all love football, but also we have a world to save and a world to win? Dare I sound like some old lefty? At the end of the day, the people of the world own the World Cup and at the end of the day, the people of the world are gonna have to own their destiny, our destiny.

Halla Mohieddeen: And that’s The Take. This episode was produced by Negin Owliaei with Chloe K Li, Ruby Zaman, Alexandra Locke, Ashish Malhotra, Amy Walters, and me, Halla Mohieddeen. Alex Roldan is our sound designer. Aya Elmileik and Adam Abou-Gad are The Take’s engagement producers. Ney Alvarez is Al Jazeera’s head of audio. We’ll be back on Friday.

Source: Al Jazeera