The United States men’s soccer team featured in one of the World Cup’s biggest storyline so far — a do-or-die game against Iran that decided who advanced into the knockout stage. The match, which the Americans won 1-0, was played on the heels of the U.S. team removing the opponent’s Islamic Republic symbol from the flag in online images and Iranian reporters making political statements in the final news conference before the game.

The altered flag — appearing on Instagram and Facebook — was a move supporting protests in Iran and supporting women “fighting for basic human rights.”

Almost two weeks in, protests have been the name of the game in Qatar this World Cup. The immensely entertaining upsets — South Korea clinching a knockout stage berth after defeating Portugal and Japan’s controversial win over Spain to name a couple — have not been able to mask the foul stench coming from Qatar. And it serves a stark reminder on the thoughts that came to mind when the host nation won the bid for the tournament back in 2010.

Qatar should have never been given the opportunity to host the World Cup.

There’s a laundry list of calamities that have taken place the last twelve years leading up to today. At the very top is the inhumane treatment of migrant workers. The workers — 30,000 of them — built seven new stadiums and were subjected to discrimination, wage theft and other abuses as their employers evaded accountability, European rights group Eqidem said in a report.

In February 2021, the Guardian reported 6,500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka had died in Qatar since it won its World Cup bid. The number was based on what the Qatar embassy provided and the government noted the numbers are misleading due to not all deaths being related to World Cup projects.

The numbers provided have to be taken with a grain of salt due to the fact they’re self-reported and not found by an external investigation.

The decision to award Qatar the 2022 World Cup was a “mistake”, according to former FIFA president Sepp Blatter. Blatter, who served as president when Qatar won its bid, has repeatedly mentioned that he voted for the United States to win the bid 12 years ago.

“It was a bad choice. And I was responsible for that as president at the time,” he said.

Blatter never directly referred to labor or human rights issues when he spoke with Swiss reporters about the matter, but it’s clear what the major problem was heading into the tournament.

The labor issues are accompanied by the extreme homophobia within the host nation. Qatar, one of 70 nations deeming same-sex activity illegal, became a hub for national teams to make a statement. Seven squads — England, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Germany Switzerland and Wales — intended on wearing rainbow OneLove armbands as a sign of support to the LGBTQ+ communities.

Those plans were scrapped after FIFA threatened to impose sanctions.

“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,” the English national team wrote in a statement.

In response to FIFA’s threat, Germany’s national team covered their mouths during a photo before its match against Japan.

“It wasn’t about making a political statement — human rights are non-negotiable, the German national team wrote in a statement posted on Twitter. “That should be taken for granted, but it still isn’t the case. That’s why this message is so important to us. Denying us the armband is the same as denying us a voice. We stand by our position.”

The U.S team’s crest will feature colors of the Pride rainbow and will be seen at their training base. However, the crest has not been worn during World Cup games — only in areas the team can control.

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Wales, who managed to get a 1-1 draw against the American team last week, displayed rainbow flags at its training sites.

One tiny country, filled with so much controversy.

With weeks to go until a champion is crowned, there’s no doubt more protests will be center stage in Qatar. If Iran had advanced into the knockout stage, its team could’ve made another statement similarly to the one displayed before the 6-2 loss to England.

Fans are accustomed to seeing players sing along to their respective national anthems, but the Iranians stayed silent when their anthem played before the game against England on Nov. 21. The gesture took place after team captain, Ehsan Hajsafi, spoke in support of protests taking place in his homeland following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini.

In September, Amini died in police custody after being detained for not wearing her hijab appropriately, according to authorities.

Clearly, the teams are not adhering to a letter from FIFA’s top officials urging squads to “let football take center stage”. Qatar hosting is a “mistake,” as Blatter mentioned.

The United States was the more rational choice as the infrastructure and laws are more suitable for this kind of event. They’ll be on deck to host the World Cup in 2026 — along with Canada and Mexico.

Fiifi Frimpong

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