Empires of Soccer

England’s game is America’s, for now. But the Qatar World Cup shows that no undisputed set of values can unite us all.

England fans wear masks of players and hold up an English flag
England fans wear masks of players ahead of the team's November 21 match against Iran (Marc Atkins / Getty)

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Day six of the World Cup and it’s the United States versus England, big Satan versus little Satan in the great battle of the evil imperialists. At stake, a place in the next round of a competition that would likely never have existed without the soccer-spreading British empire, taking place in a country that is unlikely to have existed without it either. And yet the very fact that it is taking place in Qatar has become one of the great symbols of our age—not as a marker of Western cultural power, but of the challenge to its global supremacy. How’s that for irony?

In fact, I find it hard to think of a global event that could be more à la mode than this World Cup, a tournament so deeply steeped in contradictions and challenges. Here we have a great global bonanza for a onetime British sport hosted by a onetime British protectorate that has now insured its independence by becoming the host for the new military superpower, the United States.

One way to understand this World Cup is as another chance for this tiny and vulnerable Arab nation to showcase its independence in a dangerous region of wannabe hegemons (read: Saudi Arabia). Yet, in the face of mounting Western hostility to the very fact that the tournament is taking place in Qatar, the event has become something of a symbol of Arab unity against the old Western imperialists who are once again trying to impose their values where they shouldn’t. Hence the spectacles of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, waving the flag of Qatar before the host nation’s opening match and the emir of Qatar reciprocating by clutching the Saudi green during his neighbor’s famous win over Argentina.

Nothing has come to embody the clash of values more than the dispute over the LGBTQ Pride rainbow. The England captain, Harry Kane, had wanted to wear an armband bearing the symbol during the tournament to showcase his opposition to the laws in Qatar that criminalize homosexuality, but was dissuaded from doing so by a threat of sanctions from FIFA. The American team had gone a step further, redesigning its national crest to replace the red-and-white stripes with rainbow colors. This was banned. The German national team then got around this problem by posing with their hands over their mouths ahead of their match against Japan on Wednesday, signifying their anger at what they saw as their freedom of expression being silenced. Even spectators with multicolored hats have been told to take them off.

In response, some have said the World Cup should never have been allowed to go ahead in Qatar. Others have said the players should have ignored the authorities and worn their rainbow colors, regardless of the consequences. My own view is that the decision to hand the tournament to Qatar is the greatest absurdity in the history of the sport, because the country is so spectacularly unsuited to hosting the event.

Yet the charge of moral imperialism is not entirely without merit. Qatar is a Sunni Arab monarchy that bases its laws on Sharia—which makes it hardly surprising that the country is not as liberal on matters of sexuality as New York, Berlin, London, or Paris. Even in the West, LGBTQ rights remain contested. Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the great icon of liberal internationalism, voted against gay marriage as recently as 2017. Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act as U.S. president, which blocked the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage. The point is that attitudes toward gay rights, let alone transgender rights, have developed at an extraordinary pace in the Western world. The last time England hosted the World Cup, in 1966, homosexuality was still illegal. When the U.S. hosted the tournament in 1994, gay men and women could serve in the miltary only if they didn’t tell anybody about their sexuality.

I’m struck that the symbol of protest the West has chosen to foreground in Qatar is one so central to the debates still taking place in its own societies. Western nations’ players are not wearing symbols to protest Uyghur concentration camps or Russian butchery in Ukraine. They are not wearing green in support of the women of Iran currently being killed for daring to uncover their hair. Nor, indeed, are they doing anything to protest the treatment of women in Qatar, where, just as in Saudi Arabia, they cannot leave the house without a man. These players are instead choosing—for perfectly defensible reasons—a symbol that has reemerged as a contentious issue in their own countries, principally because of arguments over trans rights.

But what price are Western soccer players prepared to pay to defend their values? How many of these players unhappy about Qatar, I wonder, nevertheless take holidays in similarly repressive Dubai? Not a single Western team has gone ahead with a show of support for LGBTQ rights after the organizers of the World Cup said that doing so would be met with the mildest of punishments—a yellow card—a penalty equivalent to that often imposed for a foul such as a clumsy tackle.

No Western player has made any gesture that could result in real-life consequences for them or their families comparable to the action of the Iranian players who refused to sing their national anthem ahead of their game against England. The contrast is sobering.

None of that is to say that the English, American, or German players are shallow or hypocritical people. In my decades supporting England, I have never seen such a group of evidently decent, well-rounded, socially responsible people—more likely to talk about the challenges of poverty, mental health, and gay rights than to disgrace themselves in a strip club or voice reactionary views.

Soccer used to be laddish, even boorish, and marred by booze-soaked hooliganism. Now it is woke.

I’m not sure this is a bad thing. Obvious, though, is that today’s generation of Western soccer stars are utterly of their own time and place: the products of a society in which a very culturally specific idea of moral virtue is to be not only praised but demanded, and that seems saturated in whatever debates are currently foremost in the U.S.

Occasionally, this can be jarring. Ahead of Iran’s game against England, while the Iranian players solemnly refused to sing their national anthem, the English players concentrated on taking the knee in support of the Black Lives Matter. For England’s young, multiracial squad, this has become an important declaration of who they are and what they stand for, ever since the movement sparked by the murder of George Floyd in 2020. And why not? Many in the England squad are Black and have suffered racist abuse themselves; they have every right to show their anger.

Soccer might be a legacy of the British empire, spread around the globe via shipping lanes and commercial interests, but we are now very much in an American world. The United States, not Britain, now projects its values around the world. One paradox of the situation is that this is happening in soccer, the global sporting obsession that still faces some resistance in the U.S. itself.

Today, we may well have the confounding spectacle of the English soccer team getting down on one knee to support a movement that began in the United States, while the American team stays standing, waiting to get on with a game that began in England but has now become the property of the world—even as the Arab countries of the region, and many other nations besides, look on with little interest or mild antipathy.

What is so troubling for many about this World Cup in Qatar is how unavoidable the fact that although soccer might now be the undisputed global game of our era, no undisputed set of values can unite us all. The way we handle this fact will play a big part in the century to come.

Listen to staff writer Franklin Foer on a special episode of “Radio Atlantic”: