5 geopolitical clashes at the 2022 World Cup

On Sunday the 2022 World Cup kicks off. As is tradition, it begins with the host country (Qatar) playing the first game, against Ecuador – a match unlikely to ruffle the pubs. Qatar have never reached the final of a World Cup before and if they didn’t host the event it probably wouldn’t be in the tournament. Ecuador have only made it past the group stage once.

But sometimes the most exciting thing about a football game isn’t necessarily the teams on the pitch, it’s the geopolitical stories behind the scenes. It’s about the historical tensions and rivalries. It’s more about what’s happening off the pitch than what’s happening on it.

Here are five of the most interesting upcoming (or potentially upcoming) World Cup geopolitical matchups.

US vs Iran

Iranians are a proud people. Persia (her former name) has a good claim to being the first nation-state, and the Persian Empire stands as a behemoth of culture and philosophy. When the US (and many others) began meddling in Iranian domestic politics in the 1950s, mainly over oil, it was always likely to end badly. The US continued to back and assist the shah (king) despite his dubious legitimacy because it meant oil deals and leverage in the Middle East.

If you watched argon, you will know what happens next. In 1979, an Islamic-led revolution ousted the US-backed Shah and replaced him with Ayatollah Khomeini – a Shia cleric of a very strict form of Islam. Since then, history between the US and Iran has been one of near-constant animosity. The US is the “Great Satan” while Iran is “the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism.” Iran accuses the US of neo-imperialist ambitions and violations of state sovereignty, while the US accuses Iran of human rights abuses, sponsorship of terrorism and the covert construction of nuclear weapons. Both teams are probably right – but let’s see how they do on the pitch 11v11! The game takes place on Tuesday, November 29th at 2pm ET.

England versus Wales

Prince William is now the Prince of Wales, the official title given to heirs to the British throne. In terms of sport, this opened up a whole worm. For those who don’t know (like Ted Lasso, who famously asked “How many countries does this country have?”), Britain is a Condition consisting of four nations — England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. So it is difficult for a prince to support one and at the same time represent all. “Prince William is walking a diplomatic tightrope around World Cup membership,” he wrote telegraph, and actor Michael Sheen has openly criticized William for his previously passionate and over-the-top support of England. If William is representing Britain, who should he support when the two go head-to-head? Who do parents want to win when their children fight?

Compared to Scotland, Wales has never been so vocally independent. While the Scottish National Party gets around 40% of the vote (and control of its parliament), the Welsh Nationalists (Plaid Cymru, outspoken PLYDE KUM-ree) only get 20% and languish in third place. The banter between Wales and England is mostly playful and harmless. But politically, as many eyes will be on the heir to the throne, William, as on the football that is being played. The match is scheduled for Tuesday, November 29 at 2:00 p.m. ET.

Tunisia versus France

When an ex-colony plays a former colonist, you can usually expect fireworks. In the 1950s and 1960s, countries around the world either gained independence or wrested it violently and bloodily from the hands of Europeans. While Algeria was the much more notorious and brutal revolution, the Tunisian independence movement also attacked colonial buildings and assassinated leading French administrators. Since then, Franco-Tunisian relations have been complicated.

France spent much of the 20th century supplying arms to Tunisia, but has since been superseded by the US and Turkey. French influence in the country is waning. France is no longer an empire, but like many other European countries, it feels it has a special role to play (often in terms of economic privilege) in its former colonies. Tunisia may not agree with this. The match is scheduled for Wednesday, November 30th at 10:00am ET.

Netherlands vs Qatar

There is very little officially between these two countries, but this game is more about a clash of ideologies. The Netherlands is known worldwide for its liberalism and freedom. When an 18-year-old comes back from a long weekend in Amsterdam, you don’t need to ask what happened. The International Criminal Court – the body tasked with finding and prosecuting human rights violations – is based in The Hague in the Netherlands.

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And yet Qatar is the opposite. It is a very conservative, strictly Islamic, absolute monarchy. It’s a country notorious for its human rights abuses, from the slavery of migrant workers to women’s rights. The fact that Qatar won FIFA’s bid to host the World Cup is clouded by corrupt, underhanded wads of money. The majority of the 22 FIFA executives who gave Qatar the World Cup title face charges, investigations or bans of any kind. So that the Netherlands even went to Qatar is politically charged. The government even had to come out and defend its decision as an “opportunity for dialogue and cooperation.” The game is scheduled for Tuesday, November 29 at 10:00 am ET.

Iran vs Saudi Arabia

If you had to make a list of the greatest rivalries in geopolitics, that list would probably be headed by South-North Korea, India-Pakistan, or Iran-Saudi Arabia. Although these two aren’t in the same group, it’s a possible (albeit unlikely) scenario for the quarterfinals.

Throughout the Middle East, Islam is largely divided into two denominations: Shia and Sunni. Sunnis make up approximately 85% of Muslims worldwide, while Shias make up 15%. Since Iran is dominated by Shiite Islam and Saudi Arabia by Sunni Islam, conflicts are always politically, culturally and religiously charged.

As oil exporters, they are also economic rivals. Furthermore, they have chosen opposing geopolitical sides, with Saudi Arabia aligning with the US and Iran with Russia. Both countries would have much to lose in a full-scale interstate conflict (Iran has the much larger military, but Saudi Arabia has the much more useful ally), so the two mostly resort to proxy wars — as in Syria, Yemen, and perhaps the World Cup.

It stays sporty

Football fans aren’t exactly known for their quiet moderation and chivalrous grace. So every World Cup needs one a lot of of security. Never is this more the case than in Qatar. Qatar is working with five other countries to keep all 1.2 million fans safe. Turkey sends 3,000 riot police; Morocco deploys cybersecurity teams; France sends a small contingent of troops; the British Royal Navy will send combat fleets to the region; and US intelligence advising the Qataris.

In total, Qatar is said to have spent around $220 billion hosting the World Cup. And while football is played on TVs around the world for about half of the world’s population, the geopolitical results could be just as interesting.

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