By Charlotte Lysa, PhD-Candidate at the Centre for Islamic and Middle East Studies, University of Oslo.
On the 13th of June, Qatar beat Korea 3-2 in the 2018 World Cup qualifier, holding on to a small hope of making it to the playoffs. However, in light of the ongoing diplomatic crisis, this victory had a meaning far beyond football. Supporters from both teams, Qatari players and the Qatari football association expressed solidarity with Qatar and its Emir, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani in the Stadium, on the pitch and on social media.
Ties between Qatar and neighboring Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, and a number of other countries including Egypt, has deteriorated ever since Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia for the recent Riyadh summit. After the Qatari news agency was allegedly hacked, publishing a number of controversial statements attributed to Qatari Emir, these countries have launched a campaign against Qatar, accusing the small emirate of supporting “all sorts of terrorists”. In an attempt at pressuring Doha into cutting off ties with Saudi Arabia’s biggest rival Iran as well as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, these countries have blocked access to Qatari-owned Al Jazeera, closed their borders, banned Qatar Airways from their airspace, and cut off diplomatic ties, among other measures.
Hedging and soft power in Qatar
Qatar, since the former Emir, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani took power in a bloodless coup in 1995, has exerted a more independent and more offensive foreign policy than their fellow GCC-members, to the despair of their neighbors. Following several events in the 90’s, including the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and a border dispute with Saudi Arabia, Hamad bin Khalifa deemed it necessary to better insure his country’s survival by looking outside of the GCC for new alliances.
Emir Hamad thus engaged in what Mehran Kamrava describes as a foreign policy of hedging. As Qatar is a small country, without any relevant military force, it relies on external alliances to secure its borders. Instead of putting all of its trust in one side or another, Qatar has chosen to keep the doors open. This has resulted in ties with several actors, including the hosting of a large US military base. In addition, Qatar under Hamad launched a number of soft power efforts, including the launching of the satellite network Al Jazeera, large investments in several countries (including France and Britain), hosting of a number of American branch universities and think tanks, and — maybe the most controversial for European audiences — a bid to host the FIFA World Cup 2022. His policies have been largely continued by his son and successor, Emir Tamim, who praised his father’s efforts to turn Qatar into “a principal actor in politics, economics, media, culture, and sports at a global level” when he took office in 2013
A newfound patriotism enters the football field
A wave of patriotism has hit Qatar over the last weeks, uniting citizens and expats alike in supporting Qatar and Emir Tamim. By the first day of the ongoing dispute, a large number of people changed their profile pictures to pictures of the current emir, his father, or a combination of the two. In social media, residents have encouraged each other to buy and support local products in the absence of, among other things, Saudi dairy products. A number of hashtags supporting Qatar and the Emir are appearing on social media, and cars with bumper stickers in support for the Emir can now be seen all over Doha.
This newfound Qatari patriotism merged with football at Jassim bin Hamad stadium in Doha this week. A spectator told Al Jazeera that he “came here to support the national team Qatar, also to support the Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad, also to support all Qatari people here.” Free stickers with the now famous picture of Emir Tamim with the slogans “We are all Qatar” and “Tamim the glorious” written on them, drawn by a local artist, were handed out. According to Al Jazeera’s reporter on site, the supporters were “happy to use them”.
The claim is supported by the TV-images, showing enthusiastic supporters, many with Tamim-stickers or t-shirts. This solidarity with Qatar was however not limited to the supporters of the Qatari team; at a time Korea was down 2-0, the Korean supporters simultaneously lifted two large banners. One said We ❤ Korea, the other We ❤ Qatar.
Although flags and other national symbols are indeed common at football games, the particular image of Emir Tamim printed on t-shirts and stickers is an image that has been going viral the last days in reaction to the ongoing dispute. In a more surprising move however, the Tamim-t-shirts were used by the Qatari national team while warming up on the pitch. Qatari striker Hassan al-Haidos went as far as to celebrate his first of two goals in the match by showing off the t-shirt to fans and cameras. The Qatari Football Association is seemingly supportive of the maneuver, publishing pictures of it on social media, along with the hashtag #Tamim_TheGlorious.
A risky move
This is not unproblematic, for either the QFA or al-Haidos. In a similar maneuver, albeit in a far more controversial context, Russian midfielder Dmitry Tarasov was fined with 5000 Euros in 2016 during a Europa League game between his team Lokomotiv Moscow and Turkish club Fenerbahce. His misdeed was celebrating a goal by reveling a t-shirt under his jersey, with a picture of Russian president Vladimir Putin and the text “the most polite president”. According to UEFA, he broke the rules against displaying political slogans.
In other words, the move was far from risk free, something that both QFA and al-Haidos are likely to be aware off. Coming from a federation who is a future host of the FIFA World Cup, and who already has received a lot of criticism in relation to its role as a host nation, the act is even bolder. It shows then, how important such expressions of support and patriotism are seen in the current political climate. The move was nevertheless widely supported, both on social and traditional media, and pictures of al-Haidos celebrating with the picture of the Emir were featured on the front page of the sport sections of all of the major Qatari newspapers the following day. Each of the newspapers also made a direct connection between the win and the ongoing conflict. Al-Sharq’s headline was “Victory despite the blockade”, while the headlines of Al-Arab read “Your image is engraved in our hearts…” and “Tamim the Glorious” with you Qatar is victorious.”
Although the development of Qatari football nationalism in light of current events is remarkable, the connection between football, identity expression and nationalism is not new. Support for a football team is often bigger than the sport itself, and may relate to ethnic, religious, political or geographic belonging. This is especially the case in more authoritarian regimes, where possibilities to express political attitudes are more limited, and where football can function as an identity marker. In 1969, the so called “football war” between El Salvador and Honduras was sparked by precisely a World Cup qualifier.
Football as an identity marker
In an incident closer in time and geography, riots broke out after a match between the Kurdish team al-Jihad and the Arabic team al-Futuwah in Syria in 2004. During the game, visiting al-Futawah supporters brought pictures of Saddam Hussein, whereas the Kurdish supporters answered by waving Kurdish flags, and chanting slogans supporting then President George W. Bush and the United States. The level of aggression rose, and supporters from the two teams started throwing stones. After the game finished, tension moved to the street, where the ruling Baath-party’s office was set on fire, and a statue of previous president Hafez al-Assad was destroyed. The riots lasted for days, and approximately 30 Kurds were killed.
Writing on football in Jordan, Dag Tuastad has argued that football is an arena where both ethnic and national conflict is surfaced after the 1970 civil war, and that football thus not only works as a barometer of political tensions, but also as a factor in the reproduction of the Jordanian-Palestinian conflict. On an opposite note, in Yemen football was a clear symbol of unity in the aftermath the uniting in 1992. The new national team consisted of an equal number of players from the north and south, and at the first international game, during the 1992 Olympics, the Yemenite supporters chanted slogans promoting unity and cohesion. According to Stevenson and Alaug, the symbolism of football has continued to change, and represented association to different parties, opposition to the regime, and regional rather than national identities.
What the above accounts have in common is that they show both the deep connection between football and identity and how it cannot be understood separately from political or historical events. The new wave of patriotism in Qatar sparked by the ongoing diplomatic crisis in the Middle East has moved into football stadiums, uniting expats, football players and regular Qataris alike in their support for Qatar and the Emir, manifested in support for the Qatari national team.
Newspaper headlines on June 14, 2017 (from left): Al- Sharq: Victory despite the blockade. Al-Raiyya: Sweet victory under the blockade. Al-Arab: Your image is engraved in our hearts… “Tamim the Glorious” with you Qatar is victorious. Al-Watan: A patriotic battle.
 Kamrava, Megran. Qatar. Small State Big Poitics. New York: Cornell University Press, 2013.
 Hammond, Andrew. Policy Brief: Qatar’s Leadership Transition: Like Father, Like Son. European Council on Foreign Relations, February 2014. P. 6.
 Aljazeera.com (2017). “Qatar football team faces FIFA sanction for Emir shirt”http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/06/qatar-football-team-faces-fifa-sanction-emir-shirt-170614052607240.html Visited: 14.06.2017
 It is important to note here, that the incident happened in a time when the relationship between Russia and Turkey was tense, and that ”polite people” is known to refer to the unmarked russian soldiers in Crimea
 Tuastad, Dag. “From Football Riot to Revolution. The Political Role of Football in the Arab World,” i Soccer & Society vol. 15 no. 3 2013.
 KurdWatch. ”The ”Al-Qamishli Uprising” The beginning of a ”new era” for Syrian Kurds?” report no. 4. 2009.
 Tustad, Dag.””Hverdagsborgerkrig”: Om fotball og sosialt minne i Jordan” in Babylon – Nordisk Tidskrift for Midtøstenstudier no. 2 2016.
 Stevenson, Thomas B. and Abdul-Karim Alaug “Football in Yemen. Rituals of Resistance, Intergration and Identity” in International Review for the Sociology of Sport Vol. 32 no. 3 1997.