I know what it’s like to dream for your region at the FIFA World Cup from afar. I know what it’s like to see those hopes come true before my very eyes.
So I know why the 2022 edition will be special for Qatar – and why millions of others from across Africa and the Middle East will be enjoying it too.
When it comes to the most memorable football tournaments in history, my sentimental favorite is the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.
Argentina defeated Germany 3-2 in the final to win the 13th edition of the competition best remembered for the outstanding and inspiring exploits of one player: Diego Maradona. His sublime and extravagant performances left me completely speechless and overwhelmed. Especially when he scored the so-called “goal of the century” in Argentina’s quarter-final game against England.
I was just an 11 year old boy from Harare, Zimbabwe and had started to appreciate and follow international football on TV. The diminutive Argentina captain seemed superhuman at times and his skill and sheer strength of character certainly captured the world’s imagination.
Four years later, when Italy was hosting the World Cup, my schoolmates and I fell in love with Cameroon’s national team – the Indomitable Lions – when they emerged as the surprise package of the tournament. Cameroon defeated Argentina, Romania and Colombia, led by Maradona, en route to becoming the first African team to reach the quarter-finals, where they lost 3-2 to England in a thrilling match. That team featured Roger Milla, a stylish and highly skilled 38-year-old forward who scored four exceptional goals.
Zimbabwe didn’t make it to the World Cup, but Cameroon’s players represented us and millions of Africans too. Their achievements made us so proud to be black and African. They made us love the World Cup.
My experience came to a head when South Africa became the first and only African country to host the World Cup in 2010.
I have attended several matches including Algeria vs Slovenia in Polokwane. I watched my long-time favorites Cameroon, led by the extremely talented Samuel Eto’o, lose 2-1 to Denmark in Pretoria. I later returned to Polokwane to watch a game between Argentina and Greece. To my delight, Lionel Messi was Argentina’s captain and Maradona was the coach.
On the night Ghana defeated the United States, I met with Ghanaians and South Africans at a meeting point in Rustenburg, a large mining town 173 km (107 miles) outside of Johannesburg.
As well as the highly entertaining matches, I have enjoyed the priceless camaraderie of football. That it happened in South Africa – in Africa – made it that much sweeter.
Football, I thought, had finally come home.
I saw South Africans celebrate “Football Fridays” every Friday from September 2009 by wearing the national team colours. I felt it in the pride and joy that shone on people’s faces before and especially during the tournament. I felt the great togetherness that developed among South Africans and Africans alike as they rallied behind Ghana’s national team quarter-final run. And when Spain beat Germany in the finals, I was convinced that every football-loving nation deserved to host the World Cup.
So I’m delighted to see Qatar host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, a first for a Middle Eastern country. I understand what this means for Qatar and football fans in the Middle East and Africa.
Former FIFA President Sepp Blatter recently criticized the decision to award Qatar the right to host the 2022 tournament. Blatter said “Qatar is a mistake” and called it a “small” country.
Obviously, shameless zealots like Blatter are unsettled by the constant development and democratization of football. For years, “small” countries from the Global South have been supporting the global game by participating in many competitions.
For decades, millions of people from ‘small’ countries like Liberia, Gabon, Burkina Faso and Morocco have boosted FIFA’s substantial revenues by buying TV subscriptions, merchandise and playing cards. The Qatar World Cup could become the organization’s most profitable event ever.
Still, FIFA bosses have largely overlooked our widespread passion for football. For example, Germany, Italy, France, Brazil and Mexico have each hosted twice. And European countries have hosted a total of 11 out of 22 tournaments.
Suffice it to say, Blatter’s feelings are one of white privilege and extreme indifference to the undeniable need for more equitable representation and participation in all aspects of football.
Since FIFA was founded in 1904, seven of its eight presidents have been white, male and European. One, Issa Hayatou – an African – was acting president for 141 days in 2015-2016.
But despite their dubious efforts, Europeans cannot claim any particular contribution to international football. African and Arab countries have long produced world-class teams and players, despite the socio-economic consequences of colonialism.
Football has benefited enormously from the talents of stars like Mozambique-born Eusebio, Algeria’s Mustapha Dahleb, Liberia’s George Weah, Ghana’s Abedi Pele, Morocco’s Aziz Bouderbala, Senegal’s Sadio Mané and Egypt’s Mohamed Salah, to name a few.
The Qatar World Cup is as special and historic as South Africa 2010. The football establishment should not discriminate against blacks and browns from African and Arab countries. Or slander Qatar’s ability to host a world-class event.
I am confident that this year’s World Cup will impress many 11-year-old Arab and African boys and girls, just as the 1986 competition impressed me. And I firmly believe that most Africans will support Qatar as hosts of the World Cup.
Also remember that this is our tournament you should appreciate.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of Al Jazeera.
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