Soccer as icebreaker in a world hot spot

As Qatar readies to host the World Cup, it feels pressure from fans and the sport’s governing body to deal with rival Israel. The joy of athletics can often break through geopolitical rivalry.

Guests visit the 3-2-1 Qatar Olympic and Sports Museum in Doha, Qatar, Aug. 24.

Despite their friendly ties with Iran – in contrast to no diplomatic ties with Israel – leaders of the tiny Arab state of Qatar held secret meetings in recent weeks with Israeli officials. The topic wasn’t political but very practical.

Can Israel set up a consular office during the 2022 World Cup, which starts Nov. 20 in Qatar, to assist the more than 15,000 Israeli soccer fans who bought tickets for the world’s most widely viewed sporting event?

Only three months ago – under pressure from soccer’s governing body, FIFA – Qatar finally agreed to allow Israeli fans to attend the monthlong tournament. In return, Israel agreed to allow commercial flights from Europe over its territory to and from the Gulf state. The issue of a temporary Israeli office in the capital, Doha, is still hanging.

In another sign of how the universal joy of sports can melt the hearts of the most hardened leaders, Iran agreed in August to let Iranian women attend a soccer match between two domestic teams for the first time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. That move was also a result of pressure from FIFA.

“The World Cup is magical in that it brings people together, is such a uniting event, and transcends every notion of negativity,” said Gianni Infantino, president of FIFA, during a visit to Israel last year.

In hosting the World Cup – the first country in the Middle East to do so – Qatar had hoped to simply gain international prestige and cement its role as regional mediator. Yet as almost every place has discovered since the ancient Olympics, athletic events have a way of touching people across geopolitical rivalries and opening doors that traditional diplomacy cannot.

“Nowhere has the diffusion and redistribution of political and economic power in our globalizing world had more visibility than in international sport,” wrote J. Simon Rofe, author of the 2018 book “Sport and Diplomacy: Games Within Games.”

As one of the most popular sports in the Middle East, soccer already serves to bond people across borders despite sharp differences over religion, history, and ethnicity. In 2018, two years before the United Arab Emirates officially recognized Israel, it allowed the Israeli flag to be shown during sporting events. In time, Qatar might also recognize Israel. Athletes, along with their fans, are often the best diplomats for peace.

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