The FIFA World Cup held in Qatar is probably going to be the worst in the 92-year history of the tournament, but not for the reasons most are thinking.
Aside from the fact that it is being held for the first time in winter due to the soaring summer temperatures of the Persian Gulf – and apart from the many off-field controversies surrounding the event – this year’s World Cup has kicked off with shockingly biased coverage by the BBC.
The choice of Qatar to host the prestigious global football tournament was always going to be one steeped in controversy – a West Asian Muslim nation, for one, had never snagged a prize this big, and of such global significance.
So from the onset, bribery scandals implicating the Qataris with the corrupt-prone FIFA organization ran rife. True or not, to date there exists no hard evidence linking Qatar and its successful bid to host the World Cup.
The first World Cup in West Asia
Then there was the cultural aspect: a conservative, Arab, Asian, Muslim-majority emirate was deemed unworthy of hosting the world’s most important football event. The biases run deep: consider, for instance, that this World Cup is only the second ever to be hosted in Asia – the world’s biggest continent – after Japan-South Korea co-hosted in 2002.
Alcohol and football spectating often go hand in hand, and the Qataris have already made headlines by announcing two days before the tournament a ban on the sale of alcohol inside stadiums. This, despite a contractual agreement between FIFA and US beer giant Budweiser, which enjoyed exclusive official sponsor rights to sell its drinks at the World Cup.
However, these issues can and have by and large been overlooked by most football fans and the media. The elephant in the room, has always been the issue of Qatari human rights and whether it is therefore “unfit” to host the world’s greatest sporting event, after the Olympics.
These pressing issues, so championed by the liberal west, include democracy, women’s rights, LGBT rights, and the plight and treatment of migrant workers – most of these from South Asia. Yet while some of the charges are valid talking points, they are accompanied by an all too familiar feeling of western double standards.
The BBC snubs the Opening Ceremony
The BBC, which has built a global reputation for its renowned football coverage throughout the decades – including many memorable World Cups – has let itself down immensely over its refusal to air Qatar 2022’s Opening Ceremony.
The opening show, after all, is every host nation’s chance to introduce itself to the rest of the world and put on a dazzling and meaningful display of its heritage, culture, and a means to project its soft power. Yet millions of television viewers in the UK were deprived of witnessing the spectacle Qatar had painstakingly organized. This was British petulance and pettiness on display for all the world to see.
From the very outset, BBC presenter and former footballer Gary Lineker set a scathing tone with a disclaimer-like segment prior to the program. “It’s the most controversial World Cup in history and a ball hasn’t even been kicked,” he said before listing the aforementioned controversies.
“Against that backdrop, there’s a tournament to be played – one that will be watched and enjoyed around the world. Stick to football, say FIFA. Well, we will – for a couple of minutes at least.”
He wasn’t joking either. For a good 20 minutes, the show intended to display the opening ceremony of the first World Cup in West Asia, was instead an insufferable bore of virtue-signaling by the BBC and its panel of pundits.
Online backlash against the BBC
Naturally, this deviation from the main subject was picked up on social media by both popular, verified users, and average football fans, alike. The people tuned into the BBC, not only for the opening ceremony, but you guessed it – for football.
British media personality Piers Morgan was among those who slammed the BBC over its “outrageously disrespectful” coverage for not broadcasting the opening ceremony and playing petty politics. “If they’re that appalled, they should bring home their vast army of (British) employees & spare us this absurd hypocrisy,” he added.
These sentiments were echoed across Twitter, with many users describing the BBC’s coverage as a “disgrace.” Others pointed out the blatant hypocrisy of the pundits, who despite criticizing the Qataris and essentially boycotting the opening ceremony, still will be getting paid to film the month-long spectacle in the country.
Selective moral outrage
What has been remarkable, though, has been the incessant moral outrage that has emerged in the build-up to this competition – noticeably absent not only in all previous World Cups, but also interestingly enough, in the last tournament which was hosted in Russia – the villain of the hour, and Europe’s current security bogeyman.
That 2018 World Cup opening ceremony was neither snubbed, nor were LGBT rights or any other human rights issues invoked. Remember that this was four years after the annexation of Crimea – a prelude to the current, on-going Russian military operation in Ukraine.
At the time, the BBC’s coverage proceeded as normal, despite publicized accusations of “sports washing.” Likewise, the BBC had no qualms about broadcasting the opening ceremony of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China, in spite of (unsubstantiated) western claims of a Uyghur genocide.
So why has Qatar been singled out? Some observers have pointed to Islamophobia, which truth be told, may be a far too simplistic assumption, although there has definitely been obvious cases of this in certain western media coverage. What is true is that Arabs and Muslims remain pretty much the only global demographic left against which racist and ethnic bashing are not only allowed, but roundly applauded.
Linekar’s fellow pundits include female ex-footballer Alex Scott who tried to defend her presence in Qatar despite criticizing the country’s human rights record, “Because I love my job,” she argued – which she justified by having these “harder conversations.”
“You think about four years ago, I was the first female pundit for the BBC at a World Cup. You think about how far we’ve moved in four years.” Interestingly enough, not only did she share her commentary in the last World Cup in Russia, but she was also seen pictured with President Vladimir Putin. Clearly “human rights” were of no concern to her back then.
Former footballer Alan Shearer’s moral outrage against Qatar is also ironic, given that he is a vocal proponent of Saudi Arabia’s takeover of his beloved hometown club, Newcastle United. The Saudis, after all, practically wrote the textbook on repression and rights violations. Why hasn’t he opposed lucrative Saudi investment in the Magpies?
Perhaps feeling compelled to address the Saudi acquisition while discussing the World Cup in Qatar, Shearer did say: “Do I love the impact that it has had on Newcastle? Absolutely. Newcastle are buzzing and playing some great football.”
“Also, do I think that the Saudis and other countries should be held to account over human rights? Absolutely yes.”
What about the next FIFA World Cup?
The virtue signaling we are witnessing will likely continue to be throughout the rest of the World Cup. The BBC have already taken the unprecedented step of placing politics at the forefront of their sports coverage.
In terms of consistency, then, it will be interesting to see where they go with the next FIFA World Cup to be jointly hosted by the US, Canada, and Mexico. Will the BBC snub the opening ceremony to protest rampant US police brutality, its dismal human rights record, its illegal wars, arms sales to despotic regimes, or its on-going theft of Syrian oil?
How about Canada’s arms trade with Saudi Arabia which contributes directly to the devastating war in Yemen where tens of thousands have died and millions are on the verge of starvation? And let’s not forget the narco-state that has emerged in Mexico, where kidnapping and capital crimes now rule the streets, with little pushback from the government.
Of course, the British government’s mouthpiece will have no objections with those host nations. No, the BBC will not spare even a second to point out those deadly crimes that affect tens of millions more people than whatever-Qatar-did-wrong.
Ultimately, for football fans around the world who eagerly waited four long years for this tournament, it won’t be hard to watch this Qatari World Cup. It will only be hard to watch it on the BBC.