Why fans still flock to the World Cup despite politics and controversy

Despite political controversy in this year's World Cup in Russia, soccer fans are still get excited for the tournament and argue the game has a powerful connection to unite the world.

Soccer fans argue the beautiful game has a powerful way of uniting the world

Supporters of the Iranian national soccer team cheer during a gathering on the eve of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in central Moscow, Russia, June 13, 2018. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)
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In spite of politics and controversy around the FIFA World Cup, fans are still flocking to Russia to support their teams or traveling to their local pub to watch the world's most-loved sporting event.

The moral dilemma sits in the stomach of sports journalist Shireen Ahmed, host of the feminist podcast, Burn It All Down, who finds it difficult to ignore what has marred this year's World Cup despite her passion for the game.

"It's easy to chalk up the World Cup as a problematic fave, but inherently there's so many problems with it," Ahmed told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"We're talking about everything from militarization, from displacement of peoples, environmental genocide, human rights abuses while creating building stadiums. And in this particular World Cup in Russia we've seen huge threats against LGBTIQ communities.

According to Human Rights Watch, 21 workers died from work accidents during world cup construction.

Ahmed said she'll keep a critical eye on the issues that have marred the sport she passionately loves, but she won't give up on the game.

"If I withdraw myself from this … I'm taking what's inherently mine in the world which is the beautiful game," Ahmed said.

"It has a way to unite us."

Shireen Ahmed discusses Muslim women and the intersections of racism and misogyny in sports on the Burn It All Down feminist sports podcast team. (Erica Ngao)

Laurent Dubois, a professor and author of The Language of the Game: How to Understand Soccer says the World Cup could better bring people if it featured more teams currently missing on the field.

"Most people watch the World Cup not able to root for their own country," Dubois said. He pointed to countries like the U.S., Canada, India and China, full of fans searching for a team to cheer on.

"People discover the world through the game," he told Tremonti. "They're able to choose allegiances, they're able to discover allegiances, they're able to sort of find in a sense a connection."

He argued the potential connection between players and their fans can be a powerful force in a world full of political divisions.

3 countries unite to host in 2026

The decision to award the 2026 World Cup to three countries at once — Canada, Mexico and the United States — has the potential to attract new fans and add a layer of complexity to tournament, Dubois pointed out. 

"There was some sort of joke on Twitter yesterday that sort of said, 'Well, it will be awkward having a World Cup between the three countries with the giant walls built between them.'"

Despite current tensions between the three countries throughout NAFTA negotiations, Dubois thinks the decision for 2026 marks a positive step for FIFA and the cup.

"It does come on the heels of both the Russia and the Qatar World Cups which were awarded under conditions of deep corruption that have now been investigated," he explained.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin and FIFA president Gianni Infantino attend a gala concert in Moscow's Red Square on June 13, 2018. (Sputnik/Alexei Nikolsky/Kremlin via Reuters)

North America's bid was chosen by a new system that included all of FIFA's 211 members voting versus a small FIFA executive committee who decided via secret ballot.

Iran and women soccer fans

Soccer has always held "a weight of political expression," according to Ahmed. Politics, she noted, is playing out on the sidelines in Iran, where women are banned from attending male soccer matches and other sports.

"I have a friend who works with the open stadiums organization that is lobbying heavily within Iran in grassroots ways to allow women into stadiums," Ahmed told Tremonti. Iran's match tomorrow against Morocco will be her friend's first.

Ahmed hopes FIFA will continue to push Iran on changing this ban and argued more should be done globally to make the game more accessible and inclusive.

"Football isn't only about big teams, it also thrives in smaller spaces. That's how it has survived the corruption," she said.

Listen to the full conversation near the top of this post.


This segment was produced by The Current's Alison Masemann and Kristian Jebsen.

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