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Qatar’s World Cup is a festival of cosmopolitanism — not nationalism

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I’ve spent years writing about the rise of nationalism. Trump, Brexit, Putin, Bolsonaro and the rest were supposedly a backlash against globalisation only “elites” still liked. Then came this World Cup, and everyone seized on a clash of civilisations. Westerners opposed Qatar’s mistreatment of migrant workers and LGBT+ people. Arabs called us hypocritical racists. We wanted to wear OneLove armbands. Some Arab fans wear “Free Palestine” armbands. In short: nationalism, hatred and incomprehension everywhere.

All that makes actually being at this World Cup confusing. I’m spending 16 hours a day around Doha and in stadiums, witnessing a different world. Broadly speaking: the civilisations are getting along just fine. The World Cup is more a festival of cosmopolitanism than of nationalism. To quote Fifa’s impossibly cheesy but possibly correct slogan: “Football unites the world”.

Most fans here are affluent football tourists, from everywhere from Dubai to Durban, often supporting multiple teams. But even among the minority that’s single-mindedly backing their country, comity holds. In a typical metro carriage during the first round, you saw male Saudi fans packed together with mixed groups of Iranians and singing Mexicans, watched benignly by shaven-headed Englishmen, everyone filming everyone else on their phones. Women in full hijab mingle with women in shorts. Brazilians mingle with Argentines. People aren’t just tolerant of religious difference. They are tolerant of breathing in somebody’s body odour and listening to their voice messages on speaker at 1am in a crammed carriage after their own team has lost.

The main civilisational divide here is by height: fans from rich countries seem to be on average a head taller than those from the Global South. But the latter come, by definition, from their national elites. Exclusion at this World Cup is class-based: the only poor people here are the migrant workers pushing us into trains.

I remember more conflictual times. At my first World Cup in Italy in 1990, the two officials at a tiny border post on the Franco-Italian frontier initially refused to let me and my friends in: we were young Englishmen, so we must be hooligans. For many years, every town where England played went into terrified lockdown. An FT colleague, covering the hooliganism in Toulouse in 1998, spontaneously turned policeman, shouting at an Englishman kicking a French car: “Why are you doing that?” “They’re French, innit,” explained the hooligan. “You’re in France!” my colleague revealed, to no avail. Here in Doha, nobody attempts to segregate rival fans. The Turkish, Jordanian and Pakistani policemen hired by Qatar for the tournament seem to spend their days pointing people the way.

Tolerance prevails back home too. In many countries, World Cup games have become the biggest shared nationalist experience, judged by TV viewing figures. Those 11 young men in polyester shirts are the nation made flesh. Yet when they lose, the nation goes quietly to bed. The next morning, after a few whines on the Slack channel about the team’s manager, everyone moves on.

The players share the same spirit. Forty years ago, matches like France-West Germany or Poland-USSR evoked national passions that transcended football. Today’s Gen Zers treat opponents as colleagues. After the US eliminated Iran, American players — including Timothy Weah, son of Liberia’s president — consoled weeping Iranians. The great angry exception was Serbia-Switzerland, which briefly erupted into entertaining on-field brawls after Granit Xhaka, a Swiss player of Kosovan origin, provoked Serbian opponents. But when the game ended with Serbia’s elimination, another Swiss-Kosovan, the brilliant Xherdan Shaqiri, waddled around the field hugging Serbs. The Uruguayans did make their ritual enraged exit, blaming the referees, but the most heated conflicts here were between Belgian players.

After 56 matches, there had been only two red cards: one for the Welsh goalkeeper for illegally stopping an attack, and the other magnificently for Cameroon’s Vincent Aboubakar, one of the lights of this World Cup. He already had a yellow card when he scored the last-minute winner against Brazil (OK, Brazil’s second 11) and took off his shirt, which qualified as an illegal celebration. The referee smiled, patted him on the head, then apologetically sent him off. Aboubakar saluted him amicably and jogged off.

When the tournament ends, I expect Fifa’s president Gianni Infantino to proclaim, with some reason, “This was the best World Cup ever.” Saudi Arabia will then probably leverage the Gulf’s success by launching its bid, with Egypt and Greece, to host the 2030 World Cup. If the west found Qatar hard to swallow, good luck with Saudi Arabia.

Follow Simon on Twitter @KuperSimon and email him at simon.kuper@ft.com

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Video: Qatar’s World Cup legacy | FT Scoreboard

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