World Cup·Photos

Qatar's World Cup featured plenty of competition — including between soccer and politics

The men's World Cup in Qatar has been as memorable for its political and human rights controversies as it has for the soccer. Here's a look at the moments that stole the spotlight at sport's biggest tournament.

From human rights concerns to attempts to ban rainbow flags, controversies have taken the spotlight off soccer

A smiling woman with lines drawn on her cheek in red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple is seen close-up.
A fan wears rainbow colors on her face ahead of Canada's match against Morocco in Doha on Dec. 1. Officials have attempted to keep rainbows flags and clothing out of stadiums during the World Cup, amid criticism of Qatar's anti-LGBTQ laws. (Pavel Golovkin/The Associated Press)

For much of its nearly 100-year history, the World Cup has been a clash of sport and politics — though perhaps never so much as at this year's tournament in Qatar.

Despite organizers' best efforts to get players and fans to focus on the soccer, the current men's World Cup has faced enduring accusations. They've been accused of "sportswashing" over the host's human rights record, with spectators detained and teams threatened over rainbow flags. It has left long-time observers wondering if FIFA has lost control of its own event.

Here's a look at the times politics and sports collided at the 2022 men's World Cup:

A controversial host

With its tiny population, extreme heat and lack of footballing history, the choice of Qatar as this year's World Cup host had long raised eyebrows. 

Days before the tournament opened on Nov. 20, former FIFA president Sepp Blatter said it was "a mistake" to choose Qatar, in part because of its small size — adding that the event should have instead gone to the U.S.

On the eve of the opening ceremony, FIFA president Gianni Infantino delivered a 57-minute tirade, demanding critics stop talking about politics and human rights, and instead enjoy the soccer. Infantino has since kept a low public profile.

A bald man wearing a suit gestures while seated at a table with a soccer ball on it.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino speaks at a press conference in Doha on Nov. 19. In his 57-minute speech, Infantino urged critics to stop talking about politics and human rights, and instead enjoy the soccer. (Matthew Childs/Reuters)

The plight of migrant workers

Exploitation of migrant workers, including those who built Qatar's stadiums and infrastructure, has been a dark cloud over its World Cup, with some former labourers detailing slave-like conditions with low pay and little time off.

Hassan Al Thawadi, the head of Qatar's World Cup organizing committee, brushed off the recent death of a migrant worker at a training site by saying: "Death is a natural part of life." Another worker died in a fall at a stadium on Saturday.

Al Thawadi previously said between 400 and 500 migrant workers died during World Cup construction projects.

A smiling man stands with his arms raised and his hands close to his head while a large number of people are seated on the ground around him. They are all looking straight ahead in the same direction.
A crowd of migrant workers watch France play Morocco at a fan zone inside a Doha cricket stadium on Wednesday. World Cup organizers say between 400 and 500 migrant workers died while working on construction projects for the tournament. (Ibraheem Al Omari/Reuters)

Removing rainbows

World Cup organizers took extraordinary steps to try to keep rainbow flags and clothing out of stadiums, amid criticism over Qatar's anti-LGBTQ laws. Fans had items confiscated, and some were even removed from stadiums or detained for wearing rainbow clothing.

The captains of seven European teams abandoned a plan to wear rainbow armbands during matches after FIFA threatened them with yellow cards. In a joint statement, the teams said they couldn't risk their success at the tournament by taking a stand (two yellow cards would result in a player being sent off and banned from the team's next game).

Before their opening match, Germany's players posed for a team photo with their mouths covered, in reference to being gagged by FIFA over the armbands.

11 men in white and black uniforms lean forwards with their right hands over their mouths while standing close together on the grass of a soccer pitch.
Germany's players cover their mouths while posing for a team photo before their opening World Cup match against Japan in Doha on Nov. 23. (Annegret Hilse/Reuters)

Nonetheless, a rainbow did make it onto the pitch, when a protester carrying a peace flag interrupted a match between Portugal and Uruguay. 

The flag is an unofficial symbol of world peace, which was created in Italy in 1961 and carries the word "PACE," which is Italian for peace.

A tattooed man with brown hair wearing a blue T-shirt that has a Superman logo and text on it, and holding a rainbow flag, runs on the grass of a soccer pitch while a soccer player in a red and green uniform looks on.
A pitch invader runs across the field with a peace flag during Portugal's group stage match against Uruguay in Lusail on Nov. 28. (Abbie Parr/The Associated Press)

Protesting Iran's regime

Iran's flag also became a contentious motif during the country's games. Security guards confiscated Persian pre-revolutionary flags and signs bearing messages of support for Iran's protest movement. There were also confrontations between protesters and supporters of the Iranian regime.

Three people - a woman and a man dressed in black with hearts painted on their faces in the colours of the Iranian flag, and a man wearing a jacket that says "tournament security police" - have a heated discussion in front of red chairs in the stands. The police officer appears to be trying to take a flag off the other man, while the woman grabs that man's arm.
A security official, right, speaks with fans who were holding up a flag advocating for women's rights in Iran, and a shirt with the name of Mahsa Amini on it, while Iran played Wales in Doha on Nov. 25. Amini's death in custody in September sparked massive protests across Iran. (Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)

But some ticket-holders did manage to carry flags, T-shirts and signs into stadiums, and they held up messages referring to women's rights and Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old woman whose death in Iranian custody in September sparked the country's massive protests.

Iran's soccer team stood silently during their national anthem, ahead of their opening match, in a sign of support for the protests back home. However, they sang the anthem at their next match.

10 men in red T-shirts and shorts, and an 11th man wearing light blue, stand in a line with their arms around each other on the grass of a soccer pitch. Ten children dressed in dark blue sweatsuits stand in a line in front of the men.
Iran players did not sing their national anthem before their opening World Cup match against England in Doha on Nov. 21. (Hannah Mckay/Reuters)

Iran's group stage face-off with the U.S. was shaping up as a geopolitical event, even before U.S. Soccer posted an altered version of Iran's flag — without its Islamic Republic emblem — on social media. The U.S. Soccer Federation later said the post was a show of support for Iran's protest movement.

Iranian state media called for Team USA to be kicked out of the World Cup, while the U.S. team's coach and captain were grilled by Iranian journalists over the flag image, geopolitics in the Persian Gulf, and their pronunciation of "Iran" as "eye-ran".

Palestinian flag on display

The flag of the Palestinian territories has been a regular sight in the stands and on the pitch at this year's World Cup — the first to take place in the Middle East — even though their team isn't playing.

On Nov. 30, a man waving a Palestinian flag ran onto the pitch during Tunisia's game against France.

And when Morocco reached the quarterfinals, it wasn't their own flag they posed with. Instead, they celebrated with a Palestinian flag.

A smiling man in a white soccer shirt and shorts raises a green, white, black and red flag behind his back on a soccer pitch.
Morocco defender Jawad El Yamiq waves the Palestinian flag after his team beat Canada in Doha on Dec. 1. (Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty Images)

Canada's goalie faces discrimination

FIFA disciplined Croatia's team after its fans taunted Canadian goalkeeper Milan Borjan during the two teams' group stage clash on Nov. 27.

Borjan was born in an ethnic Serb region of Croatia that was part of the conflict that split the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. During the match, Borjan faced abusive chants and banners making light of his family's escape from their hometown when it was taken by Croatian forces in 1995.

In a statement on its website, the Croatian Football Federation said FIFA's disciplinary committee had fined it 50,000 Swiss francs ($72,600 Cdn) for its fans' inappropriate behaviour. 

A man dressed in an aquamarine T-shirt and shorts, with gloves on his hands, walks on grass while another man dressed in black sits on the ground holding his knees. Red, white and blue flags are visible in the background.
Canada's goalkeeper Milan Borjan, left, and defender Kamal Miller react after losing a group stage match against Croatia during the 2022 World Cup in Al Rayyan on Nov. 27. Borjan was subjected to taunts by Croatian fans during the game, for which FIFA later fined Croatia's soccer association. (Danielle Parhizkaran/USA TODAY Sports)

Beery bad news

Two days before the World Cup opened, Qatar — which has very strict alcohol control — announced it would not allow beer to be sold in stadiums. Instead, it could only be sold in fan zones and some other approved sites. 

The news came as a shock to FIFA, ticket-holders and Budweiser alike. The beer giant has been a World Cup sponsor since 1985. It's unclear whether it will sue World Cup organizers for breaching their multimillion-dollar contract. 

The company quickly came up with another way to offload all the beer it took to Qatar: give it to the winning team.


Laura McQuillan is an online journalist with CBC News in Toronto. She covers general news, social issues and science and has a special interest in finding unexpected answers to unusual questions. Laura previously reported from New Zealand and Brazil.

With files from The Associated Press and Reuters


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