After many years of anticipation mingled with dread, the oddest World Cup ever kicked off on Sunday. The tournament, which Qatar procured through highly suspicious means, is taking place in a speck of a country on the Persian Gulf where homosexuality is illegal, thousands of workers are reported to have died building stadiums that didn’t exist until a few years ago (Qatar denies this), and buying a beer is about as difficult as finding a diehard local soccer fan.
Given the turbulent run-up to this tournament, plus the usual geopolitical complications that lurk in the background of any World Cup, there were bound to be fireworks during the opening days of the tournament. Here are the strangest and most dramatic moments so far.
FIFA Cracks Down on Rainbow Armbands
To (mildly) push back on Qatar’s draconian treatment of LGBTQ+ people, several European teams including England, Germany, and the Netherlands had planned on wearing “OneLove” rainbow armbands during their matches, willing to weather financial penalties for doing so. But shortly before kickoff, FIFA warned that captains of each team who did so would receive automatic yellow cards — punishment that could lead to expulsion from the game.
“FIFA has been very clear that it will impose sporting sanctions if our captains wear the armbands on the field of play,” a joint statement from the teams read in part. “As national federations, we can’t put our players in a position where they could face sporting sanctions including bookings, so we have asked the captains not to attempt to wear the armbands in FIFA World Cup games.”
Instead, the teams will wear FIFA-issued armbands that include a vaguer statement: “No Discrimination.” These were supposed to be introduced in the Round of 16 but are rolling out for the early rounds instead.
Qatar’s dislike for overt LGBTQ+ messaging was on display Monday. Soccer journalist Grant Wahl tweeted that he was briefly detained by security outside the U.S.-Wales match after attempting to enter wearing a shirt with a rainbow on it.
Members of the Iranian Team Refuse to Sing Their Country’s National Anthem
Qatar is hardly the only authoritarian government in the region. Just across the Persian Gulf, Iran’s theocratic leadership has responded brutally to wide-scale protests still consuming the country more than two months after they kicked off.
On Monday, players on Iran’s national soccer team made it clear where they stand. During the national anthem ahead of Iran’s game against England, every one of Iran’s players remained silent.
Iranian fans expressed themselves carrying signs protesting the regime into the stadium. Persian flags, however, were not allowed in.
England, a World Cup favorite, easily beat Iran 6-2.
Qatar Fans Leave Their Country’s First Game Early
There are many reasons Qatar was a puzzling choice to host the World Cup, and its complete lack of soccer history is high on that list. The country’s team never made it to a World Cup before this one (World Cup host countries automatically qualify for their tournaments). Beyond that, there is little in the way of soccer tradition or interest there.
Qatar’s team may have made strides over the last few years, but based on the crowd at Sunday’s kickoff match, fan culture in the country still has a long way to go. As Qatar fell down 2-0 to Ecuador — hardly an insurmountable deficit — many in the home crowd headed for the exits.
That a large number of the home country’s apparent supporters couldn’t be bothered to stick around for 90 minutes of play does not augur well for soccer’s future in Qatar.
Ecuador Fans Chant “We Want Beer!”
Qatar is a deeply conservative Muslim country, and alcohol there is both rare — largely confined to places like hotel bars — and expensive. And it has made things even more difficult for fans who want a drink. Just days before the tournament, Qatar abruptly announced that beer would not be available outside stadiums as previously promised. All this has left frustrated fans struggling to access a scarce supply of booze and paying through the nose when they find it. On Sunday, Ecuador fans expressed their frustration with a simple but effective chant:
Well said, Ecuadorians, well said.
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