What World Cup, Post-Pandemic, Really Means

By Bruce Murray

Our global society faces many challenges. Currently, a war is being fought in Europe after Russia invaded Ukraine and a conflict rages on. Recently, the World Bank president David Malpass stated that we are headed “dangerously close” to a global recession, and the IMF said that 2023 will “feel like a recession” for many people. And we cannot forget that our entire globe has battled and continues to battle COVID-19, just to name a few issues in front of us. Sometimes it can feel like the world is in chaos.

Especially during such times, thankfully, sports can offer a needed dose of our common humanity, pride in our respective nations and teams, and the celebration of great competition and achievement. Soccer in particular brings people together from all walks of life.  Peoples of all countries, cultures, and communities come together to celebrate and cheer on their favorite team. The national soccer teams themselves are often composed of athletes from different places and backgrounds. And in the coming weeks, we will be able to experience the spirit of sportsmanship and unity on one of the greatest global stages for the most universal sport – the World Cup.

I had the honor of playing on the U.S. National Team at the 1988 Summer Olympics and in the 1990 World Cup. I also had the privilege of playing professionally in both the United States and in Europe, as well as playing in and winning the NCAA championships twice as a college player at Clemson where I was an All-American. Following my pro career, I have coached young athletes as well as student-athletes at Harvard. These experiences taught me the power of sport to bring people together.
Indeed, in all competitions, and especially on the world stage when I represented the United States, playing soccer never had anything to do with ours or the opposing players’ skin color, religion, sexual orientation, or nationality. It was never about any of that. It was about sharing the sport that we love and striving to win.   

This year, for the first time, the World Cup will be held in the Middle East, in the Arab nation of Qatar. Qatar has only 350,000 citizens and less than 3 million residents but expects 1.2 million visitors during the month-long tournament with 32 teams competing from around the globe. FIFA, the international soccer association, anticipates five billion people will watch the greatest tournament on earth. 

While the Middle East is frequently associated with conflict and turmoil, in preparation for the event, Qatar has taken a welcoming and positive posture, cultivating and promoting the values of sportsmanship and a more united world. The Emir of Qatar told the United Nations General Assembly that his country will open the doors to Doha, the capital, to people from around the world without discrimination. The head of Qatar’s World Cup organizing committee, Hassan al-Thawadi, made a point to emphasize that when it comes to this Cup, everyone is welcome.

That is no small development. Qatar is still a conservative Muslim nation. Nevertheless, in the lead-up to the tournament, Qatar has committed to more diversity.

In the immediate term, tournament organizers will welcome all fans to the matches, including the LGTBQ community. Additionally, alcohol consumption will be permitted in more public spaces in celebration of the games even though alcohol is traditionally banned in the country for religious reasons everywhere except for licensed, designated spaces. 

In the longer term, as part of its National Vision 2030, which was catalyzed by hosting the World Cup, Qatar has committed to invest in human capital. As one example, through its Generation Amazing Foundation, Qatar is  hosting an educational program tied to the World Cup to invite young leaders to an international exchange program with workshops about how sports can tie into social impact and sustainability projects. The Qatari government has also made concerted efforts to empower women to be full participants in civic life, education, entrepreneurship, and economic growth. For over twenty years, women in Qatar have had the right to vote, and many hold public office. Recently as the World Cup approached, the Emir spoke proudly of how women now make up more than sixty percent of the country’s university students. Several public reports also show that over half of the women in Qatar are now in the workforce.
In the face of criticism from Amnesty International for abuses of migrant workers employed for the construction of World Cup facilities, Qatar has made concerted efforts to address the problems by changing their labor laws. In fact, Qatar received praise for its efforts by the head of the Norway Football Federation, Lise Klaveness, who called Qatari labor law reforms “impressive.”  Qatar also boasts of new, state-of-the-art infrastructure and transportation systems, technologically advanced facilities, and a more diverse energy grid, especially promoting natural gas and solar.

Before the World Cup has even begun, it seems we are seeing sports diplomacy as a driver of positive change. Having represented the United States in 86 matches both in the US and around the world, I felt the power of unity that soccer brings to the global community. It should bring hope and optimism to see that power making a difference in a nation in the Middle East.
 The Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics were plagued by COVID-19, and subsequently, so were the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. The 2022 World Cup will be the first world sporting event that will take place largely unencumbered by pandemic restrictions. This is cause for celebration.

 It will be refreshing to once again see people from all over the world gather to elevate honorable competition and our common humanity. It will be especially interesting to see that happen in the Middle East, which has never hosted games on this grand scale before. And it will be most satisfying for fans around the globe to take a break and—dare I say it in this age of uncertainty and rage—have fun. As a former World Cup player who scored a goal in the 1990 Cup and will always be a big fan of the best sport on earth, I know I will.

Bruce Murray was inducted into the U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2011. He played on the U.S. National Team in the 1990 World Cup.