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Opinion: Arabs deserve to enjoy this World Cup

DW Korrespondentin - Dana Sumlaji
Dana Sumlaji
November 20, 2022

As a female reporter who grew up in Syria, the World Cup in Qatar has sparked both pride and shame in DW's Dana Sumlaji. But she will still enjoy the tournament in an Arab nation — and Arabs should be able to as well.

Supporters sit on 2022 signage ahead of the FIFA World Cup Qatar in Doha
Image: Alex Pantling/Getty Images

I was in Dubai when FIFA announced that Qatar would host the 2022 World Cup.

The announcement sparked an overwhelming feeling of happiness and pride. My newsroom colleagues at the time all started cheering because we all viewed it as a long-awaited victory for the Arab world.

But my joy didn't last long. Three months after the announcement, war broke out in my native Syria, which turned my life, like that of many Syrians, upside down.

Now, with the World Cup kicking off in Doha, my feelings remain mixed. As proud as I am that a World Cup is taking place in an Arab nation, that pride is fractured and torn.

Arab football fans have long deserved to host a World Cup. Despite geopolitical differences and conflicted feelings toward Qatar, they can unite in the fact that, finally, the world's biggest stars will be playing for football's biggest prize in the Middle East.

World Cup still a dream come true

DW's Dana Sumlaji
DW's Dana SumlajiImage: Privat

Of course, not all Arabs are excited about this World Cup. People in the LGBTQ community, for starters, must suppress their identity to exist. Coupled with my pride is bitterness and shame — shame for the disparity between the layers of Qatari society, for the inequality that laborers face on a daily basis, for the suppression of free speech.

As a female journalist who grew up in the Middle East, I have experienced the widespread inequality firsthand. Being a woman and Syrian were enough to put me through arbitrary circumstances that are intense in that part of the world. That's why I chose to leave, a privilege not all people in my position have.

But I am faced with a choice: Do I let the ugly truth steal my joy? Or do I let myself enjoy a World Cup in an Arab country?

Football joy has already been stolen from me. I grew up next to Abbasiyyin Stadium, the biggest football stadium in Damascus, where I would also eventually work as a field reporter. That was where my passion for football originated, and it inspired dreams of seeing famous teams and football stars play close to my home.

When I returned to that stadium after a decade of war, it broke my heart to see it turn into a deserted ruin, one that is unlikely to see football anytime soon.

For many Arab football fans like me, war has taken our dreams away, just like many other things. But with the World Cup happening in an Arab country, this dream will finally come true.

Arab fans are excited for the World Cup

A welcome distraction

Any pride Arabs may feel toward this World Cup is also not an endorsement of Qatar or its government. If you don't hear Arabs criticize what's happening in Qatar or other Arab countries, it's not because they agree with human rights violations but simply because they don't have the freedom to express their dissent.

The tournament could have taken place in a different Arab country — like Egypt or Morocco, nations with more history and passion for football than Qatar. But no Arab country fully respects freedom of speech or human rights, especially for women and the LGBTQ community.

And FIFA has allowed World Cup events to take place in many non-Arab countries with questionable human rights records in the past, whether it be Italy in 1934 during Benito Mussolini's fascist rule, Argentina in 1978 two years after a military coup or Russia in 2018. And FIFA corruption surrounding staging World Cups had been commonplace even before Qatar was awarded hosting rights.

The Lusail Stadium in Doha, Qatar.
The Lusail Stadium in Doha will host the World Cup final on December 18 — but controversies have dogged the tournamentImage: MUSTAFA ABUMUNES/AFP/Getty Images

Also keep in mind: the World Cup belongs to the world, and therefore should be staged in new places. My only hope is that those workers, those people who had their human rights taken away, are not forgotten after this World Cup.

In the end, football has been a welcome distraction in my life, as it has been for many Arabs. No doubt it's hard to maintain my pride, but such World Cup celebrations numb the pain and provide a distraction from ugly politics and war, allowing us to temporarily forget the disappointment we have with our governments.

As the World Cup gets underway, Arabs will be switching off from everything else and enjoying the football — and they deserve it.

Edited by: Davis VanOpdorp

DW Korrespondentin - Dana Sumlaji
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