Qatar’s football festival has come to a conclusion. While Messi’s Argentina is the FIFA 2022 champion, a nation that wasn’t even competing is the true victor of the world’s largest athletic event. Palestine. Palestine’s participation at FIFA 2022 was so overwhelming and emotive that many media pundits referred to it as the “33rd country” at the World Cup.
The largest display of support came from Team Morocco, which raised a Palestinian flag in the centre of the field as they celebrated their victory over Spain. Palestinian flags, bands, and chants could be seen all across Qatar and at its stadiums. This served as an equally potent political message at the stadium as the Iranian team’s decision to forgo playing the national anthem.
One may believe that Palestine is one of the 32 nations whose teams competed in this World Cup based on the abundance of Palestinian flags, Palestinian armbands, and “free Palestine” slogans heard in stadiums, fan zones, on the streets, and on social media. In fact, it has been referred to as the tournament’s “33rd country” by various Latin American media publications.
A giant banner saying “Free Palestine” was hoisted by Tunisian and Moroccan supporters during the 48th minute of the games versus Australia and Belgium, which was a moving occasion. It served as a reminder of the Nakba (catastrophe), which Palestine has endured since 1948 when Israel was established in what has now occupied Palestine.
Arab spectators in the stadium screamed, “With our souls, with our blood, we will sacrifice for you, O Palestine,” as Israeli soldiers killed five Palestinians late last month.
Then, a number of videos and news articles showed supporters openly and vocally boycotting Israeli media. You are not welcome here. A Saudi soccer fan reportedly informed Israeli journalist Moav Vardy in a widely seen and reported event. We are in Qatar. This is where we live. Only Palestine exists. Israel does not.
The show of pro-Palestinian unity has been impressive. Naturally, the location plays a role; the Gulf State is easily accessible and reasonably priced for many Arab and North African fans, making it a setting where supporters of Palestine might vigorously argue their case. However, it hasn’t only been Gulf or North African enthusiasts. Visitors from Latin America and even Europe frequently expressed and publicly proclaimed their support for the Palestinian cause.
Why, therefore, is Palestine so widely represented while the Palestinian national team is not even competing? because it is much more than just a sporting event. It is a sizable gathering of individuals from all over the world who have come together to celebrate diversity and human unity while also sharing their love of football.
This year’s World Cup is being staged for the first time ever in an Arab nation. As a result, it has been more accessible to individuals from the area than any prior World Cup from a geographical, logistical, and cultural standpoint. Additionally, it has allowed residents of the area to congregate in large numbers without experiencing the typical fear of repression.
Palestine has now assumed centre stage, bringing Arabs together in a happy, joyful mood and reinforcing their dedication to the Palestinian cause.
People in the area sent their leaders a clear message via their worldwide support for Palestine: “You may make agreements with Israel and normalise relations, but for people, Palestine stays in their hearts and always will.”
With the Abraham Accord, the UAE, Morocco, Bahrain, Sudan, and Egypt have established diplomatic ties with Israel. But the people of these nations have made it clear to their leaders that they do not share their sentiments on the sensitive subject of Palestine.
In this rare Arab moment of popular opinion, supporting Palestine appears to be a declaration of freedom and a sign of rejection of both the ongoing occupation of Palestine and oppressive neocolonial Arab rule. It reminds me of the stirring moments in the attempted revolutions from more than ten years ago, when Arabs also waved the Palestinian flag and yelled “free Palestine” alongside their aspirations for freedom and dignity. In fact, the Palestinian flag has been a common sight in the stands at football games and is a symbol of Arab political action.
Despite the fact that Israel and Qatar do not have formal diplomatic relations, FIFA regulations enabled Israeli media representatives and residents to attend the World Cup. The Israeli government likely saw the competition as a fantastic chance to once again show that it is capable of getting through the long-standing Arab policy of avoiding contact with the Israeli colonial state. However, things did not pan out that way.
Israeli media has been widely rejected by fans. On social media, dozens of popular videos depicting Israelis attempting to interact with fans and completely failing have gone viral. Photographs have been taken of fans who stubbornly refused to interact, including Lebanese, Saudis, Moroccans, Egyptians, Jordanians, Qataris, Yemenis, Tunisians, and Palestinians.
The emotional outpouring during FIFA 2022 may not have had much of an impact on the situation in Palestine, but it did serve as a reminder of a lingering wound for the rest of the world.