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Kerning Cultures

Scoring the World Cup

This is the final week of the first World Cup hosted in the Middle East. And it’s been a tournament like no other: We’ve seen Morocco advance further than any Middle East or African team has before, making the whole region proud. And we’ve seen many joyous moments go viral as fans from across the world descend on Doha.

But it’s also a World Cup shrouded in controversy, that has left many of us with mixed feelings.

So, over the last couple of weeks, we’ve been going out to speak with fans around the world to get a sense of what people make of it all, from the highs and lows of the tournament itself, to everything happening off the pitch.

This episode was produced by Ban Barkawi, Alex Atack and Ahmed Ashour, with help from Sarah Risheq, Al Shaibani, Shahd Bani-Odeh, Maher Ali, Soumaya Bouabdellah, Youssef Douazou, Sara Kaddouri and Zeina Dowidar. It was edited by Sarah Risheq and Dana Ballout. Sound design was by Paul Alouf. Our team also includes Nadeen Shaker and Finbar Anderson.

Our sister podcast – Masafat – has also released an episode about the Qatar world cup in Arabic. To hear that, search Masafat in your podcast app.

Find a transcript for this episode at our website, kerningcultures.com/kerningcultures.

Support this podcast on patreon.com/kerningcultures for as little as $2 a month.


Hosted on Acast. See acast.com/privacy for more information.

[STING]

DANA BALLOUT: I’m Dana Ballout, and this is Kerning Cultures. Today – we’re doing something a little different.

ARCHIVE: What about that for a penalty! 

ARCHIVE: Goal! Goal! Goal Goal!

ARCHIVE: A monumental moment for Morocco! 

ARCHIVE: The golden boy of Saudi Arabian football has put his national ahead against Argentina!

DANA BALLOUT: As you might’ve heard – there’s a football tournament (or soccer, depending on where you live) going on at the moment.

Really, it’s a world cup like nothing we’ve ever seen. 

It’s the first time the competition has been hosted in the Middle East. 

For thousands of people across the region, its the first time they’ve been able to see the games up close.

ARCHIVE: Richarldason again! What a goal.

ARCHIVE: GOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAALLLLLLLLLLLL!

DANA BALLOUT: And it’s the first time a team from the Middle East or Africa has gotten this far in the tournament…

ARCHIVE: A genuine tilt in the axis of world football, because Morocco have smashed through that glass ceiling!

DANA BALLOUT: But it’s also a world cup that’s left us with mixed feelings. Hosting the tournament in Qatar has put a spotlight on the fact that thousands of migrant workers have died during the construction for the World Cup. And, on the ways that the Qatar and other GCC country’s laws exploit workers and discriminate against migrants and the LGBTQ+ community.

But these stories have also played out in the world’s media in a way that’s felt to a lot of people like its unfair, lacking nuance, and even racist.

VOX POP: Well, now we’ve gotten used to the hypocrisy and double standards of the Western countries. And as we all noticed based on the massive anti-Qatari coverage, the Western media have an orientalist view on Qatar hosting the world’s biggest football event.

DANA BALLOUT: We didn’t quite know where to land on this – how we should form an opinion about this World Cup. Frankly, its been complicated.

VOX POP: I think – keep politics out of sport, but when it comes to human rights its a bit different.

DANA BALLOUT: So, since it started, and because we’re such a global team, we’ve been going out to speak with fans across the globe.

VOX POP: I can see both sides of the debate, and I’m very present on the social media topic, the controversies that happen, but it didn’t affect my opinion on it, because its just fake woke. To be honest.

DANA BALLOUT: To get a sense of what people make of it all – the personal highs and lows of the tournament itself…

VOX POP: Saudi Arabia went so strong today. I’m so proud of Saudi Arabia, oh my god.

DANA BALLOUT: And – in a World Cup like this – asking if its really possible to separate politics from the sport…

VOX POP: I feel like we’re here for the game, we should just try to enjoy the game, and that’s it.

DANA BALLOUT: I’m going to hand over to our wonderful producers: Ban Barkawi in Jordan, Ahmed Ashour in Bahrain, and Alex Atack in the UK.

BAN BARKAWI:  Before we get into the nitty gritty of this World Cup, I wonder if we can go back, like way back, and try to think of your earliest memory of the World Cup or of watching the World Cup. Or if not the earliest memory, then at least the one that seems to – that stuck with you for a long time that resonates with you still today?

ALEX ATACK: My one’s really easy I don’t know why I remember this so clearly, but I – so 2002…

ARCHIVE: Heskey. Owen sprinting away to the left here against Lucio. Michael Owen for England, it’s a great chance! And he’s scored! Michael Owen!

ALEX ATACK: England got through to the quarter finals and I must have been like nine or ten and I’d like had a sleepover at a friend’s house and I still remember like where he lived. He lived in the Hyatt Regency apartment building in Deira in Dubai and we’d stayed up – and we’d stayed up all night, I guess with excitement because I think the game started really early in the morning in Dubai. And I remember we were supposed to go to sleep and we couldn’t, and were kind of delirious from lack of sleep as 10 year olds and, I don’t know if you remember Ronaldinho’s free kick in that game that sent England out?

ARCHIVE: They’re taking up the far post position, those two. 

ALEX ATACK: He’s really far out. David Seaman, the England goalie is not expecting him to shoot at all. And he’s completely off his line. Ronaldinho takes the free kick and…

ARCHIVE: Oh, and Seaman’s been beaten! It’s a goal! 

ALEX ATACK: It hits this weird arc and sort of just like sail completely over David Seaman’s head. 

ARCHIVE: He scored direct from the free kick! Ronaldinho has made it 2-1 Brazil! And everybody was watching those in the penalty area, maybe Seamen was as well. The ball went over his head!

ALEX ATACK: But that was my first memory of the World Cup with this sort of concoction of like devastation that England are clearly going out – and I think we deserve to lose that game – but also the like I guess the beauty of it. 

BAN BARKAWI:  That’s pretty poetic. That is, that’s such a vivid memory. I don’t know if I have – I mean, my first memory was the ‘94 World Cup. It was the final. And it’s so funny, you know how you talk about staying up late as a ten year old? That was exactly me. It must have been later than we were allowed to stay up. But there were lots of people, I couldn’t tell you who now. Family friends? I didn’t grow up in Amman, so I wasn’t living here, but we were here for the summer because World Cups, except for this one, usually happen in the summer. And my parents dragged out this like giant, huge square cuboid television set to the balcony somehow. I don’t know where they found their tech savviness from. And we were all gathered watching it outside at night. And I remember being allowed to stay up really late, and I remember at halftime, kind of pretending to be the Brazilian footballers and we were playing downstairs in the garage and then…

ARCHIVE: Roberto Baggio, the saviour of Italy throughout this tournament. He’s missed it! And Brazil win the World Cup!

BAN BARKAWI: Just remembering how ecstatic everybody was when Italy missed that penalty and were out of the tournament – it was a penalties final – and Brazil won, and I remember cheering and just being like, oh, I guess I cheer for Brazil. Like not really understanding why, right? Which is really ironic because later in life I would go on to support Italy in every World Cup. But it was just, it was so, it was like from that moment on, you knew, right? Like you knew you were always going to be emotionally attached to this one thing. 

ALEX ATACK: But do you remember what it was about as a kid watching teams that you – you weren’t from either of those countries? Like what is it about the World Cup that has that effect?

BAN BARKAWI: I don’t think there was an alternative. I think in our minds there was – other than Saudi, funnily enough, I don’t really remember us even expecting an Arab team – forget team Jordan – but any Arab team to actually be featured. Like for us it was, oh, the World Cup was not really a World Cup. It was exclusive to European countries and Latin American countries. And that more or less continues to be the case. Although, who knows, I have a feeling maybe this World Cup is changing how we think about that a little bit. Ahmed what’s your earliest memory?

AHMED ASHOUR: Oh yeah, oh…

BAN BARKAWI: Qatar 2022?

AHMED ASHOUR: I’m not gonna lie – I’m not that young! But I will say my favourite World Cup memory is not related to the World Cup or to the football at all.

Because my earliest memory is of Shakira performing the Bamboo remix of Hips Don’t Lie at the closing ceremony of the 2006 World Cup. And if anyone asks me, what is the performance that made you say that culture – in general – culture was a thing that I would be interested in as a human being. It would be that one performance by Shakira at the 2006 World Cup ceremony.

And I kid you not, for that performance, I genuinely thought that football must be the greatest event on earth if the outcome of that sport would be a performance by Shakira.

So I think this gets me thinking, this year specifically, where have you been watching the proceedings from this year?

ALEX ATACK: Yeah. Well, I gotta say, so being in the UK at the moment, it’s a bit weird because I think in the UK at least the World Cup is so synonymous with the summer and I think it feels a little bit this time, like the UK doesn’t quite know how to do a Winter World Cup. Like, it’s kind of weird. You go to like a pub or something that would show the game. And I mean a lot of them have kind of been like pretty quiet. I dunno if I’m just going to the wrong places. But it definitely – I haven’t found a place yet that’s been like full.

BAN BARKAWI: It’s so true that – it’s funny, you talk about it being synonymous with the summer. I will say this whole idea of it being in the winter is really bizarre. And it’s so funny because I was out and about talking to people while they were watching the matches and I ended up talking to this ninth grader who was really excited to talk..

VOX POP: In school, we put the games on the screen and we all watch together.

BAN BARKAWI: What grade are you in? 

VOX POP: Nine. 

BAN BARKAWI: Oh, no way! That’s so cool. They have it up in school?

VOX POP: Yeah…

BAN BARKAWI: And she’s like, yeah, we all watch the Saudi Argentina game at school. And I’m like, in school? Are they playing World Cup matches for you at school? Like nobody ever did that for us. And then I realised that we were always out for the summer because school was out in the summer, so we never had that. And it was just so funny that you’re seeing this new generation being fully invested during school hours.

VOX POP: So I’m a teacher so we put it for our students to watch, but I didn’t get to watch it because I had to watch the students.

BAN BARKAWI: Hold on a second, you put the World Cup – I was just talking to a ninth grader and she’s like, yeah, all the World Cup is up in schools. I’m like, what? That never happened. 

VOX POP: Yes, of course it is. The kids wanted to leave, they wanted to go home to watch the game, so…

AHMED ASHOUR: So my journey with the World Cup has started in Dubai. 

AMBI: Testing one, two. Testing one, two. 

AHMED ASHOUR: I was there when the opening ceremony match happened. And the Dubai experience is marked by collective fan zones. So there are a lot of open air spaces where people are gathering. It’s very loud and there’s a whole pomp and circumstance to it.

VOX POP: This is an amazing experience for us, like us if we have gone to Qatar and watching the real football, that’s a really good vibe. 

AHMED ASHOUR: I was there on the opening ceremony for the opening game and a lot of the people that I talked to interestingly, were very pessimistic about the way that Arab teams were going to perform in the games. And one of the people that I spoke to…

VOX POP

AHMED ASHOUR: She spoke to me in Arabic and she said, ‘oh, the Saudi game is happening in two days. I know we’re going to lose because it’s against Argentina, but all we can hope for is that we make our exit from the tournament with grace’. And you know, for the plot twist to come two days later and for KSA to win against Argentina. It was quite funny to see that journey reach an end.

ARCHIVE: KSA v Argentina commentary

BAN BARKAWI: Watching these Arab teams surprise and sort of crush our sense of defeatism that we are so attached to as Arab spectators. You know, you ask like what was it like watching teams that didn’t represent a country that I come from and having to support them and being like over the moon – I think because we are kind of like accustomed to watching other teams, and in addition to Arab teams that are playing, or Middle Eastern teams that are playing in the World Cup. So we feel like we kind of maybe have, maybe a slightly better understanding of what a big deal it is for Saudi to then beat Argentina or like just how insane it is, how meme worthy it is, and maybe when your country is always being represented or countries from your continent or your region are always being really well represented on the world stage then the attention’s always only been there and really nowhere else. But I also feel like this is a chance to kind of shift that.

ALEX ATACK: Did you see the video of the South Korean fan surprising the Qatari news presenter when he could speak Arabic?

AHMED ASHOUR: My god, so wonderful. So good.

ARCHIVE: South Korean fan on Qatari TV

BAN BARKAWI: I think one of my favourite things is that humour that’s being captured, like the very Arab sense of humour that’s being captured as a cross section with other cultures, and then being documented all over like social media platforms. Like, I can’t believe TikTok is part of this experience, but that is special because we’ve always watched the World Cup in really distant locations, at least when I say distant, distant to where I’ve grown up and where I’ve lived. And it’s always seemed like something so intangible. You know, Brazil, oh my goodness. All the way in Brazil. Wow. What a dream. It’s just a dream. It’s not something that’s tangible. And then now it’s kind of made its way next door. So even though I’m not there and, and in fact, I don’t think I was ever even that excited about the idea of Qatar hosting it for various reasons that we’ll get into next. But the idea now that it’s happening and I’m watching all of this and there’s like all these moments of Arab sense of humour that’s being that’s embedded into the legacy of this World Cup or the identity of this World Cup is, is so much fun to watch.

ARCHIVE: Saudi fans asking TV presenter, where’s Messi?

BAN BARKAWI: I don’t think there’s a single Saudi fan who did not go up to a reporter from whatever the country and ask where is Messi? 

ARCHIVE: Saudi fans asking TV presenter, where’s Messi?

BAN BARKAWI: And then to watch the world actually be part of that is such an experience in and of itself. It’s nice to export that for a change. And, I don’t know, I think we’ve got a good sense of humour.

AHMED ASHOUR: I think you know, flip side of that coin is also, you know, going into this game there was a lot of – how do I say this? Lack of clarity about how people should feel towards this year’s games.

BAN BARKAWI: I don’t think there’s – I don’t think the coverage is lost on anyone anymore. I think it’s – there’s accusations of human rights violations, of corruption, of discrimination against LGBTQ people. And I think criticism is valid I don’t know that it is entirely reflective or the way that the criticism is being covered, it seems like it’s lacking something. Speaking for myself, I was conflicted. I didn’t know how to feel about what anymore. I find myself very drawn to the World Cup in general, I always have been. But I care about the things, right? I care about the issues. I care that they’re happening in my region. Something needs to change. But there was something that felt like an attack, and there’s some – part of it felt like it was an attack and it was a bit misdirected. And I think that’s where we all kind of had our conflicting opinions and I didn’t know how to form an opinion about this. And so we went out and we kind of tried to get a sense from people all around the world, how are they feeling? What are they – because you’ve also seen a reaction to this, and I don’t know if this is being translated to the world at large, but you’re seeing a very strong reaction mainly from the Middle East.

VOX POP: I think the scrutiny is much more heightened when it’s an Arab country. And I get it. There’s a lot to say. And that’s not to eradicate Qatar’s faults. I’m sure there’s shortcomings and plenty some. But please keep the same energy, hold all countries to the same standard and then we can talk. Keep that same energy for past hosts – for Russia, for Brazil, and for future hosts like the United States and others.

BAN BARKAWI: It doesn’t stop you guys from watching a sport? 

VOX POP: It does not stop me one bit because it’s virtue signalling. It’s biassed…

BAN BARKAWI: And I don’t know that I agree with that either, right? Like there’s, there’s somewhere where this conversation needs to be a little bit more, I dunno what the word is, like more a specific conversation. I don’t know how, I still don’t know. I still don’t think I have an answer.

AHMED ASHOUR: Yeah, it is  a vicious cycle, I will say. There’s criticism pointed at Qatar for all of the human rights violations. Or the continued discrimination of the LGBTQ+ community in Qatar, in the Gulf and in the Arab world, et cetera, et cetera. But then what that leads to is many members of the Arab community here being like, ‘you are pointing your finger at us, but you haven’t held a mirror to yourself,’ which is absolutely correct. And so, I don’t know. It’s a hard one. I spoke to a fan…

VOX POP: My name is Jonathan…

AHMED ASHOUR: A nice Irish fan that I met at a fan zone in Dubai. 

VOX POP: Oh, you gotta cheer on Brazil. Brazil never harmed anybody. They’ve got their rainforest – that gives us life! 

AHMED ASHOUR: He articulated what I have been feeling so well, which is: It’s a hard one.

VOX POP: So I’m torn because on one hand, freedom of speech, freedom of expression, gay rights, they’re all great things and they should be promoted. But on the other hand, if it’s someone’s religion that something is a sin, how do you approach it? So I’m very torn, I think. If it was my call, I would say allow everything, because it’s just the right thing to do. But how do we go to someone else’s country and tell them what to do? Right. So that’s why I’m torn.

AHMED ASHOUR: The discourse, I think, will die down. And before you know it, I think the next mega event is gonna roll around wherever. Criticism is going to be levelled at it. And it’s just gonna repeat itself. And I don’t know. I just feel like the lifespan of this discourse is never really long lasting in such a way it’s actually makes it significant in the long run.

ALEX ATACK: But wouldn’t it be good if it was in a way, I mean, I feel like part of the problem here is that the organisers of the World Cup both on the Qatari side and from FIFA – like a complete sort of unwillingness to engage in any of the criticisms. I totally agree that there’s definitely been a lot of anti-Arab racism in the way that it’s been talked about and portrayed in at least the UK media, like the BBC’s decision to not even broadcast the opening ceremony, I think was unprecedented. And instead they started it with a thing highlighting all of the issues of the World Cup.

ARCHIVE: It’s the most controversial World Cup in history and a ball hasn’t even been kicked.

ALEX ATACK: I still don’t how I feel about that, but I almost feel like – wouldn’t it be good if it was like an opportunity to engage with some of the issues that have come up during the construction of the World Cup instead of shutting it down? And I feel like when you try and shut it down, it makes it worse in a way.

BAN BARKAWI: I feel like that’s totally fair. And I feel like that the ideal right should be that you do both, right? We’ll have to see how accountability becomes a part of this in future World Cups. And I hope it does. I think one of the things that is worth thinking about is this idea of separating the sport from the host and from sporting nations, and can you really do that? Is that a thing that, that is even attainable?

DANA BALLOUT: We’ll be right back, after a quick break.

[MIDROLL]

ALEX ATACK: Well, so Iran have been one of the teams who have had lots of like political sort of discussions surrounding their football team this World Cup, and me and Al Shaibani, who’s another producer at Kerning Cultures, went to an Iranian cafe in North London to watch the game with a bunch of really lovely middle aged and older Iranian guys…

VOX POP: I support Iran because I’m originally from Iran, but you know the people in Iran, they are interested in the football and soccer. But unfortunately in this situation, I don’t know – you know what’s happening in Iran right now?

ALEX ATACK: We found that on display immediately that you can’t separate the politics from the football. Like we had an idea that we want to just sort of watch the game with them and talk to them about the football and talk to them about what it means for them to be watching Iran in the World Cup. But immediately people would spend five seconds talking about that and then would turn to the politics of it.

VOX POP: This World Cup is a good opportunity for the players. They have this opportunity to talk on behalf of the people and say, what’s happening in Iran right now? 

ALEX ATACK: I mean, I think for everyone, at least in that café it was really difficult because, on the one hand, they wanted their team to win because obviously you want your team to win. But on the other hand, a lot of them told us that if Iran won and if Iran did well in the World Cup, it would be used as a win for the regime that all of them were against, especially with all of the protests and the violence that’s been directed towards protestors in Iran over the last couple of months. 

VOX POP: To be honest, for 90 minutes, we try to not look at the game as a politic, you know, but the thing is, our heart with our people. We are confused. But the thing is, we want to win the football as well, but we know if we win the football, the regime in Iran, use this for themself as a propaganda. 

ALEX ATACK: Yeah. It’s like really fraught and really difficult because at half time everyone was telling us like, oh, we don’t even want Iran to win. Like, if they win, it’s a win for the regime. And then like the game would start and they’d be like standing up in their chair like, that was offside! That’s a penalty!

BAN BARKAWI: I love that.

ALEX ATACK: So, yeah, I don’t know. I think that whole thing of separating the politics from the football, I think any attempt to do that is kind of misguided, especially in this World Cup. But in any World Cup, really.

AHMED ASHOUR: But Alex, you know, indulge me in a little bit of suspension of disbelief here where I’m in the stadium premises right before the game and American fans are chanting and then come along with the Iranian fans and then they are together.

They’re singing, they’re chanting, and then they separate and they come back together and let’s be real. I’m not a US Iran relations expert. I’m never going to claim that I am, but I think I have a general understanding that, let’s just say US and Iran are not on the same page. But in that moment, to see those sorts of squabbles on a national – international level, if you will, be suspended for a moment and to just see people celebrating the sports. I mean, it was just one of those moments where I was like, huh, maybe for the span of these two to three hours, we can suspend the rules for a little bit. 

There was just something about it that felt very, idyllic and utopian, and I’m not saying that the world is rainbows and ponies because of football, even though I think that’s a very easy answer, and a lot of people would say that football is rainbows and ponies, but I must say, I was riding a pony on top of that rainbow that day.

BAN BARKAWI: I think before it started, like even up to like the day of the opening ceremony, I think based on coverage and things I’ve been seeing over the years, by the time you got to the opening ceremony I was like, this is not gonna go well. Honestly, this was my, like, this is not gonna go well for them. This is just gonna be like a complete mess and it’s going to fall apart and there’s so much bad coverage. And this has been a PR nightmare. This was a bad idea. But the more, I don’t know, like, again, not to do the whole ponies and rainbows thing. But it feels like the football has rescued them from that image a little bit. And part of it has been, yes, these like surprising outlandish moments from Arab teams impressing where you completely had zero expectations of them and I think from what I’ve been, at least from a lot of people I’ve spoken to, they have been quite impressed with the organisation. They’ve been impressed with the experience there. 

VOICE NOTE: The food is amazing. The people are so friendly, free visa. Free fan zone. DJs. Famous singers. Famous DJs, free transportation. Metro this way, metro this way.

BAN BARKAWI: Like the vibe, the atmosphere, everything that you are kind of like criticising from afar. People are really praising once they’re there, and I feel like it’s shifting a little bit as we go forward, and I think it will end up for better or worse, I think in the future this will definitely help Qatar whether – I think people will forget, a lot of things will dissolve as they work on their PR going forward, which now this has given them moment to do so. But in general, for the region, I don’t know that it’s gonna change anything necessarily. And I don’t think this like sense of like, Arab unity, Arabs cheering for Arabs you know, people bringing in Palestine into this World Cup unapologetically, for the first time ever on a world stage – that is unprecedented. Like all of this is so beautiful right now, but not to be a complete pessimist, but I think it’s gonna fade once the World Cup is done. I don’t think it’s gonna last much longer. 

ALEX ATACK: Well, I also just hope that it’s like, It makes people more comfortable in the future with criticising future World Cups because like, there’s been, obviously there’s been so much criticism of Qatar, which I think is justified to an extent. I have more of an issue with the tone of it and the way it’s delivered, but I think the actual content of it is is valid. But I sadly don’t see that happening with the North American World Cup next time but what I would hope that is that like this, everything that’s happened around Qatar and all the documentaries on Netflix we’ve seen and the podcasts and like everything that’s been written, I think in some ways it’s peeled back – if anybody was under any illusion that FIFA was not a corrupt organisation before this completely changed with this World Cup. And I just hope that some of the conversations that we’ve been having around this World Cup, continue for future World Cups. 

BAN BARKAWI: Definitely. And I think there’s just one thing to remember that I think the reason that at the end of the day, even people who are conflicted, who do have these moral dilemmas, continue to watch it because it’s still a people’s thing. It’s still a people’s sport. The footballers that are playing are probably people who have come from very humble backgrounds who are living out like an incredible dream that one in a bajillion people get to live. And then the people who are watching that are connected to that sentiment and that emotion of it all, that culture of it all, and that stays with the people regardless of what organising body or organising state, or all the drama behind it. And I feel maybe that’s what keeps people drawn and keeps them willing to watch despite these moral dilemmas that are happening in the background.

ALEX ATACK: So we need to overthrow FIFA, replace it with a people run –

AHMED ASHOUR: Love it. 

BAN BARKAWI: Socialist FIFA. 

ALEX ATACK: Yeah, a socialist revolution.

AHMED ASHOUR: Let’s have socialist FIFA. Oh my gosh. Well, folks on a – I guess to wrap on a lighter note I’m curious to hear, what’s been your favourite moment so far from the past couple of weeks of games?

ALEX ATACK: Well, it’s gotta be Morocco.

BAN BARKAWI: It’s gotta be Morocco. 

ARCHIVE: Oh! What a finish! And it is finished!

BAN BARKAWI: I mean, honestly at the start, like even in the, in the group stages, I was like, oh my gosh. Like they’re impressing. When they first beat Belgium, I think it was – 

ARCHIVE: The Atlas Lion finds its teeth!

BAN BARKAWI: I was like, oh, cool. Impressive. But we have to keep in mind that there were a couple of like Arab teams that were also surprising in the group stages. Like I think Tunisia beat France, we’ve mentioned Saudi before beating Argentina, so it was kind of like, I felt like, oh, okay, here’s another, here’s another round of exciting football that is just gonna go nowhere. But then…

ARCHIVE: Hakimi, their superstar full back. Oh how about that for a penalty!

BAN BARKAWI: It’s just insane watching this unfold in our lifetime.

ARCHIVE: Moroccan mayhem!

ARCHIVE: Malsalaamei bye bye! Malsalaamei bye bye! Bella ciao! Bella ciao!

BAN BARKAWI: I mean generation after generation, world Cup after World Cup. We’ve been watching and there’s always like this little bit of hope that we cling onto and nothing really comes. But then Morocco steps in, in 2022 

VOX POP: Pinch me, is this real?!

BAN BARKAWI: And boom. Explosion.

VOX POP: This is like a dream for us. I mean, before the World Cup started we were thinking we’d go and play three games and come back. It’s a feeling that I cannot describe for now. But when the World Cup is over, we need to change the mentality of just being pessimistic, oh we’re going to play three games and come back. You know, why we’re not going to reach the final? Why not win the World Cup? Just because we’re an African country or an Arab country doesn’t mean we can’t do it. 

BAN BARKAWI: But I think the other, the other really beautiful thing about watching Morocco excel and actually kind of achieve a milestone in football for an Arab nation, the first time we see an Arab country advance to this stage of the World Cup, and that has created this insane reaction from fans across the Middle East. I don’t think I’ve ever seen. So many people cheer for the same team at the same time across the whole region. And, and I think it’s also, it’s kind of – it’s triggered this, this sense of Arab identity that I think has been lacking for a very long time.

And you see that solidarity and, and you see it. I think, I mean, Ahmed you can probably speak more to this since you were in Doha, but you can see it in the fan base there. I mean, it’s insane the videos that are coming out of there in the fan zones and in the streets. 

AHMED ASHOUR: Yeah, between the videos that we were getting from a couple of our team members in Morocco and the sights and scenes in Doha, it felt like a celebration like no other, you know, obviously being the first Arab nation to get this far in the tournament, it was, I think, something we all could take pride in and be a part of. You don’t get that. You don’t get those kinds of moments a lot these days.

ALEX ATACK: Would you go as far to say that this World Cup moment has topped Shakira’s Bambo remix of Hips Don’t Lie as your new favourite World Cup moment?

AHMED ASHOUR: You know what Alex? I think it has. I think it has. But I guess one moment that really, really stuck with me at the end of the game when the team huddled together and a lot of them had the Moroccan flag on their backs and obviously you, it was a very beautiful moment of national pride, but then it seemed like they were waiting for a moment before they had their team picture taken where they’re waiting for a flag to unfurl. And before you know it, it’s not the Moroccan flag, it’s the Palestinian flag. And to witness that, to have that victory be celebrated with the presence of the Palestinian flag, I think was something that was just so, I don’t know what the word is.

BAN BARKAWI: I think what makes that moment so epic is that I think for it to then enter the stadiums at a moment that is historic. For the very first time, this will be on your Wikipedia pages forever more that Morocco has advanced this far and when they did, they were carrying the Palestinian flag. That is going down in history, for it to be such a point of focus on a global stage is amazing, and I think the Moroccan fans have already demonstrated that. Now their team is also demonstrating that, which is huge. I don’t know if people can grasp that, but it’s massive. I mean, I think you put those two things together and it’s poetry.

VOX POP: You know, what to tell my kids? They’re going to grow up – 

VOX POP: I know what I’m going to tell them – I attended every single game, and 2022 was a special one for Morocco.

VOX POP: We’re living the dream.

DANA BALLOUT: This episode was produced by Ban Barkawi, Alex Atack and Ahmed Ashour, with help from Sarah Risheq, Al Shaibani, Shahd Bani-Odeh, Maher Ali, Soumaya Bouabdellah, Youssef Douazou, Sara Kaddouri and Zeina Dowidar. It was edited by Sarah Risheq and me, Dana Ballout. Sound design was by Monzer El Hachem. Our team also includes Nadeen Shaker and Finbar Anderson.

Our sister podcast – Masafat – has also released an episode about Qatar’s World Cup in Arabic. To hear that – and other incredible stories like this one from the Middle East and North Africa, search Masafat – M A S A F A T – in your podcast app.

We’ll be back with a new episode next week. Thank you so much for listening. And I hope you enjoyed this World Cup madness as much as we did.

BLEEP

OUTTAKE

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DANA BALLOUT: I’m Dana Ballout, and this is Kerning Cultures. Today – we’re doing something a little different.

ARCHIVE: What about that for a penalty! 

ARCHIVE: Goal! Goal! Goal Goal!

ARCHIVE: A monumental moment for Morocco! 

ARCHIVE: The golden boy of Saudi Arabian football has put his national ahead against Argentina!

DANA BALLOUT: As you might’ve heard – there’s a football tournament (or soccer, depending on where you live) going on at the moment.

Really, it’s a world cup like nothing we’ve ever seen. 

It’s the first time the competition has been hosted in the Middle East. 

For thousands of people across the region, its the first time they’ve been able to see the games up close.

ARCHIVE: Richarldason again! What a goal.

ARCHIVE: GOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAALLLLLLLLLLLL!

DANA BALLOUT: And it’s the first time a team from the Middle East or Africa has gotten this far in the tournament…

ARCHIVE: A genuine tilt in the axis of world football, because Morocco have smashed through that glass ceiling!

DANA BALLOUT: But it’s also a world cup that’s left us with mixed feelings. Hosting the tournament in Qatar has put a spotlight on the fact that thousands of migrant workers have died during the construction for the World Cup. And, on the ways that the Qatar and other GCC country’s laws exploit workers and discriminate against migrants and the LGBTQ+ community.

But these stories have also played out in the world’s media in a way that’s felt to a lot of people like its unfair, lacking nuance, and even racist.

VOX POP: Well, now we’ve gotten used to the hypocrisy and double standards of the Western countries. And as we all noticed based on the massive anti-Qatari coverage, the Western media have an orientalist view on Qatar hosting the world’s biggest football event.

DANA BALLOUT: We didn’t quite know where to land on this – how we should form an opinion about this World Cup. Frankly, its been complicated.

VOX POP: I think – keep politics out of sport, but when it comes to human rights its a bit different.

DANA BALLOUT: So, since it started, and because we’re such a global team, we’ve been going out to speak with fans across the globe.

VOX POP: I can see both sides of the debate, and I’m very present on the social media topic, the controversies that happen, but it didn’t affect my opinion on it, because its just fake woke. To be honest.

DANA BALLOUT: To get a sense of what people make of it all – the personal highs and lows of the tournament itself…

VOX POP: Saudi Arabia went so strong today. I’m so proud of Saudi Arabia, oh my god.

DANA BALLOUT: And – in a World Cup like this – asking if its really possible to separate politics from the sport…

VOX POP: I feel like we’re here for the game, we should just try to enjoy the game, and that’s it.

DANA BALLOUT: I’m going to hand over to our wonderful producers: Ban Barkawi in Jordan, Ahmed Ashour in Bahrain, and Alex Atack in the UK.

BAN BARKAWI:  Before we get into the nitty gritty of this World Cup, I wonder if we can go back, like way back, and try to think of your earliest memory of the World Cup or of watching the World Cup. Or if not the earliest memory, then at least the one that seems to – that stuck with you for a long time that resonates with you still today?

ALEX ATACK: My one’s really easy I don’t know why I remember this so clearly, but I – so 2002…

ARCHIVE: Heskey. Owen sprinting away to the left here against Lucio. Michael Owen for England, it’s a great chance! And he’s scored! Michael Owen!

ALEX ATACK: England got through to the quarter finals and I must have been like nine or ten and I’d like had a sleepover at a friend’s house and I still remember like where he lived. He lived in the Hyatt Regency apartment building in Deira in Dubai and we’d stayed up – and we’d stayed up all night, I guess with excitement because I think the game started really early in the morning in Dubai. And I remember we were supposed to go to sleep and we couldn’t, and were kind of delirious from lack of sleep as 10 year olds and, I don’t know if you remember Ronaldinho’s free kick in that game that sent England out?

ARCHIVE: They’re taking up the far post position, those two. 

ALEX ATACK: He’s really far out. David Seaman, the England goalie is not expecting him to shoot at all. And he’s completely off his line. Ronaldinho takes the free kick and…

ARCHIVE: Oh, and Seaman’s been beaten! It’s a goal! 

ALEX ATACK: It hits this weird arc and sort of just like sail completely over David Seaman’s head. 

ARCHIVE: He scored direct from the free kick! Ronaldinho has made it 2-1 Brazil! And everybody was watching those in the penalty area, maybe Seamen was as well. The ball went over his head!

ALEX ATACK: But that was my first memory of the World Cup with this sort of concoction of like devastation that England are clearly going out – and I think we deserve to lose that game – but also the like I guess the beauty of it. 

BAN BARKAWI:  That’s pretty poetic. That is, that’s such a vivid memory. I don’t know if I have – I mean, my first memory was the ‘94 World Cup. It was the final. And it’s so funny, you know how you talk about staying up late as a ten year old? That was exactly me. It must have been later than we were allowed to stay up. But there were lots of people, I couldn’t tell you who now. Family friends? I didn’t grow up in Amman, so I wasn’t living here, but we were here for the summer because World Cups, except for this one, usually happen in the summer. And my parents dragged out this like giant, huge square cuboid television set to the balcony somehow. I don’t know where they found their tech savviness from. And we were all gathered watching it outside at night. And I remember being allowed to stay up really late, and I remember at halftime, kind of pretending to be the Brazilian footballers and we were playing downstairs in the garage and then…

ARCHIVE: Roberto Baggio, the saviour of Italy throughout this tournament. He’s missed it! And Brazil win the World Cup!

BAN BARKAWI: Just remembering how ecstatic everybody was when Italy missed that penalty and were out of the tournament – it was a penalties final – and Brazil won, and I remember cheering and just being like, oh, I guess I cheer for Brazil. Like not really understanding why, right? Which is really ironic because later in life I would go on to support Italy in every World Cup. But it was just, it was so, it was like from that moment on, you knew, right? Like you knew you were always going to be emotionally attached to this one thing. 

ALEX ATACK: But do you remember what it was about as a kid watching teams that you – you weren’t from either of those countries? Like what is it about the World Cup that has that effect?

BAN BARKAWI: I don’t think there was an alternative. I think in our minds there was – other than Saudi, funnily enough, I don’t really remember us even expecting an Arab team – forget team Jordan – but any Arab team to actually be featured. Like for us it was, oh, the World Cup was not really a World Cup. It was exclusive to European countries and Latin American countries. And that more or less continues to be the case. Although, who knows, I have a feeling maybe this World Cup is changing how we think about that a little bit. Ahmed what’s your earliest memory?

AHMED ASHOUR: Oh yeah, oh…

BAN BARKAWI: Qatar 2022?

AHMED ASHOUR: I’m not gonna lie – I’m not that young! But I will say my favourite World Cup memory is not related to the World Cup or to the football at all.

Because my earliest memory is of Shakira performing the Bamboo remix of Hips Don’t Lie at the closing ceremony of the 2006 World Cup. And if anyone asks me, what is the performance that made you say that culture – in general – culture was a thing that I would be interested in as a human being. It would be that one performance by Shakira at the 2006 World Cup ceremony.

And I kid you not, for that performance, I genuinely thought that football must be the greatest event on earth if the outcome of that sport would be a performance by Shakira.

So I think this gets me thinking, this year specifically, where have you been watching the proceedings from this year?

ALEX ATACK: Yeah. Well, I gotta say, so being in the UK at the moment, it’s a bit weird because I think in the UK at least the World Cup is so synonymous with the summer and I think it feels a little bit this time, like the UK doesn’t quite know how to do a Winter World Cup. Like, it’s kind of weird. You go to like a pub or something that would show the game. And I mean a lot of them have kind of been like pretty quiet. I dunno if I’m just going to the wrong places. But it definitely – I haven’t found a place yet that’s been like full.

BAN BARKAWI: It’s so true that – it’s funny, you talk about it being synonymous with the summer. I will say this whole idea of it being in the winter is really bizarre. And it’s so funny because I was out and about talking to people while they were watching the matches and I ended up talking to this ninth grader who was really excited to talk..

VOX POP: In school, we put the games on the screen and we all watch together.

BAN BARKAWI: What grade are you in? 

VOX POP: Nine. 

BAN BARKAWI: Oh, no way! That’s so cool. They have it up in school?

VOX POP: Yeah…

BAN BARKAWI: And she’s like, yeah, we all watch the Saudi Argentina game at school. And I’m like, in school? Are they playing World Cup matches for you at school? Like nobody ever did that for us. And then I realised that we were always out for the summer because school was out in the summer, so we never had that. And it was just so funny that you’re seeing this new generation being fully invested during school hours.

VOX POP: So I’m a teacher so we put it for our students to watch, but I didn’t get to watch it because I had to watch the students.

BAN BARKAWI: Hold on a second, you put the World Cup – I was just talking to a ninth grader and she’s like, yeah, all the World Cup is up in schools. I’m like, what? That never happened. 

VOX POP: Yes, of course it is. The kids wanted to leave, they wanted to go home to watch the game, so…

AHMED ASHOUR: So my journey with the World Cup has started in Dubai. 

AMBI: Testing one, two. Testing one, two. 

AHMED ASHOUR: I was there when the opening ceremony match happened. And the Dubai experience is marked by collective fan zones. So there are a lot of open air spaces where people are gathering. It’s very loud and there’s a whole pomp and circumstance to it.

VOX POP: This is an amazing experience for us, like us if we have gone to Qatar and watching the real football, that’s a really good vibe. 

AHMED ASHOUR: I was there on the opening ceremony for the opening game and a lot of the people that I talked to interestingly, were very pessimistic about the way that Arab teams were going to perform in the games. And one of the people that I spoke to…

VOX POP

AHMED ASHOUR: She spoke to me in Arabic and she said, ‘oh, the Saudi game is happening in two days. I know we’re going to lose because it’s against Argentina, but all we can hope for is that we make our exit from the tournament with grace’. And you know, for the plot twist to come two days later and for KSA to win against Argentina. It was quite funny to see that journey reach an end.

ARCHIVE: KSA v Argentina commentary

BAN BARKAWI: Watching these Arab teams surprise and sort of crush our sense of defeatism that we are so attached to as Arab spectators. You know, you ask like what was it like watching teams that didn’t represent a country that I come from and having to support them and being like over the moon – I think because we are kind of like accustomed to watching other teams, and in addition to Arab teams that are playing, or Middle Eastern teams that are playing in the World Cup. So we feel like we kind of maybe have, maybe a slightly better understanding of what a big deal it is for Saudi to then beat Argentina or like just how insane it is, how meme worthy it is, and maybe when your country is always being represented or countries from your continent or your region are always being really well represented on the world stage then the attention’s always only been there and really nowhere else. But I also feel like this is a chance to kind of shift that.

ALEX ATACK: Did you see the video of the South Korean fan surprising the Qatari news presenter when he could speak Arabic?

AHMED ASHOUR: My god, so wonderful. So good.

ARCHIVE: South Korean fan on Qatari TV

BAN BARKAWI: I think one of my favourite things is that humour that’s being captured, like the very Arab sense of humour that’s being captured as a cross section with other cultures, and then being documented all over like social media platforms. Like, I can’t believe TikTok is part of this experience, but that is special because we’ve always watched the World Cup in really distant locations, at least when I say distant, distant to where I’ve grown up and where I’ve lived. And it’s always seemed like something so intangible. You know, Brazil, oh my goodness. All the way in Brazil. Wow. What a dream. It’s just a dream. It’s not something that’s tangible. And then now it’s kind of made its way next door. So even though I’m not there and, and in fact, I don’t think I was ever even that excited about the idea of Qatar hosting it for various reasons that we’ll get into next. But the idea now that it’s happening and I’m watching all of this and there’s like all these moments of Arab sense of humour that’s being that’s embedded into the legacy of this World Cup or the identity of this World Cup is, is so much fun to watch.

ARCHIVE: Saudi fans asking TV presenter, where’s Messi?

BAN BARKAWI: I don’t think there’s a single Saudi fan who did not go up to a reporter from whatever the country and ask where is Messi? 

ARCHIVE: Saudi fans asking TV presenter, where’s Messi?

BAN BARKAWI: And then to watch the world actually be part of that is such an experience in and of itself. It’s nice to export that for a change. And, I don’t know, I think we’ve got a good sense of humour.

AHMED ASHOUR: I think you know, flip side of that coin is also, you know, going into this game there was a lot of – how do I say this? Lack of clarity about how people should feel towards this year’s games.

BAN BARKAWI: I don’t think there’s – I don’t think the coverage is lost on anyone anymore. I think it’s – there’s accusations of human rights violations, of corruption, of discrimination against LGBTQ people. And I think criticism is valid I don’t know that it is entirely reflective or the way that the criticism is being covered, it seems like it’s lacking something. Speaking for myself, I was conflicted. I didn’t know how to feel about what anymore. I find myself very drawn to the World Cup in general, I always have been. But I care about the things, right? I care about the issues. I care that they’re happening in my region. Something needs to change. But there was something that felt like an attack, and there’s some – part of it felt like it was an attack and it was a bit misdirected. And I think that’s where we all kind of had our conflicting opinions and I didn’t know how to form an opinion about this. And so we went out and we kind of tried to get a sense from people all around the world, how are they feeling? What are they – because you’ve also seen a reaction to this, and I don’t know if this is being translated to the world at large, but you’re seeing a very strong reaction mainly from the Middle East.

VOX POP: I think the scrutiny is much more heightened when it’s an Arab country. And I get it. There’s a lot to say. And that’s not to eradicate Qatar’s faults. I’m sure there’s shortcomings and plenty some. But please keep the same energy, hold all countries to the same standard and then we can talk. Keep that same energy for past hosts – for Russia, for Brazil, and for future hosts like the United States and others.

BAN BARKAWI: It doesn’t stop you guys from watching a sport? 

VOX POP: It does not stop me one bit because it’s virtue signalling. It’s biassed…

BAN BARKAWI: And I don’t know that I agree with that either, right? Like there’s, there’s somewhere where this conversation needs to be a little bit more, I dunno what the word is, like more a specific conversation. I don’t know how, I still don’t know. I still don’t think I have an answer.

AHMED ASHOUR: Yeah, it is  a vicious cycle, I will say. There’s criticism pointed at Qatar for all of the human rights violations. Or the continued discrimination of the LGBTQ+ community in Qatar, in the Gulf and in the Arab world, et cetera, et cetera. But then what that leads to is many members of the Arab community here being like, ‘you are pointing your finger at us, but you haven’t held a mirror to yourself,’ which is absolutely correct. And so, I don’t know. It’s a hard one. I spoke to a fan…

VOX POP: My name is Jonathan…

AHMED ASHOUR: A nice Irish fan that I met at a fan zone in Dubai. 

VOX POP: Oh, you gotta cheer on Brazil. Brazil never harmed anybody. They’ve got their rainforest – that gives us life! 

AHMED ASHOUR: He articulated what I have been feeling so well, which is: It’s a hard one.

VOX POP: So I’m torn because on one hand, freedom of speech, freedom of expression, gay rights, they’re all great things and they should be promoted. But on the other hand, if it’s someone’s religion that something is a sin, how do you approach it? So I’m very torn, I think. If it was my call, I would say allow everything, because it’s just the right thing to do. But how do we go to someone else’s country and tell them what to do? Right. So that’s why I’m torn.

AHMED ASHOUR: The discourse, I think, will die down. And before you know it, I think the next mega event is gonna roll around wherever. Criticism is going to be levelled at it. And it’s just gonna repeat itself. And I don’t know. I just feel like the lifespan of this discourse is never really long lasting in such a way it’s actually makes it significant in the long run.

ALEX ATACK: But wouldn’t it be good if it was in a way, I mean, I feel like part of the problem here is that the organisers of the World Cup both on the Qatari side and from FIFA – like a complete sort of unwillingness to engage in any of the criticisms. I totally agree that there’s definitely been a lot of anti-Arab racism in the way that it’s been talked about and portrayed in at least the UK media, like the BBC’s decision to not even broadcast the opening ceremony, I think was unprecedented. And instead they started it with a thing highlighting all of the issues of the World Cup.

ARCHIVE: It’s the most controversial World Cup in history and a ball hasn’t even been kicked.

ALEX ATACK: I still don’t how I feel about that, but I almost feel like – wouldn’t it be good if it was like an opportunity to engage with some of the issues that have come up during the construction of the World Cup instead of shutting it down? And I feel like when you try and shut it down, it makes it worse in a way.

BAN BARKAWI: I feel like that’s totally fair. And I feel like that the ideal right should be that you do both, right? We’ll have to see how accountability becomes a part of this in future World Cups. And I hope it does. I think one of the things that is worth thinking about is this idea of separating the sport from the host and from sporting nations, and can you really do that? Is that a thing that, that is even attainable?

DANA BALLOUT: We’ll be right back, after a quick break.

[MIDROLL]

ALEX ATACK: Well, so Iran have been one of the teams who have had lots of like political sort of discussions surrounding their football team this World Cup, and me and Al Shaibani, who’s another producer at Kerning Cultures, went to an Iranian cafe in North London to watch the game with a bunch of really lovely middle aged and older Iranian guys…

VOX POP: I support Iran because I’m originally from Iran, but you know the people in Iran, they are interested in the football and soccer. But unfortunately in this situation, I don’t know – you know what’s happening in Iran right now?

ALEX ATACK: We found that on display immediately that you can’t separate the politics from the football. Like we had an idea that we want to just sort of watch the game with them and talk to them about the football and talk to them about what it means for them to be watching Iran in the World Cup. But immediately people would spend five seconds talking about that and then would turn to the politics of it.

VOX POP: This World Cup is a good opportunity for the players. They have this opportunity to talk on behalf of the people and say, what’s happening in Iran right now? 

ALEX ATACK: I mean, I think for everyone, at least in that café it was really difficult because, on the one hand, they wanted their team to win because obviously you want your team to win. But on the other hand, a lot of them told us that if Iran won and if Iran did well in the World Cup, it would be used as a win for the regime that all of them were against, especially with all of the protests and the violence that’s been directed towards protestors in Iran over the last couple of months. 

VOX POP: To be honest, for 90 minutes, we try to not look at the game as a politic, you know, but the thing is, our heart with our people. We are confused. But the thing is, we want to win the football as well, but we know if we win the football, the regime in Iran, use this for themself as a propaganda. 

ALEX ATACK: Yeah. It’s like really fraught and really difficult because at half time everyone was telling us like, oh, we don’t even want Iran to win. Like, if they win, it’s a win for the regime. And then like the game would start and they’d be like standing up in their chair like, that was offside! That’s a penalty!

BAN BARKAWI: I love that.

ALEX ATACK: So, yeah, I don’t know. I think that whole thing of separating the politics from the football, I think any attempt to do that is kind of misguided, especially in this World Cup. But in any World Cup, really.

AHMED ASHOUR: But Alex, you know, indulge me in a little bit of suspension of disbelief here where I’m in the stadium premises right before the game and American fans are chanting and then come along with the Iranian fans and then they are together.

They’re singing, they’re chanting, and then they separate and they come back together and let’s be real. I’m not a US Iran relations expert. I’m never going to claim that I am, but I think I have a general understanding that, let’s just say US and Iran are not on the same page. But in that moment, to see those sorts of squabbles on a national – international level, if you will, be suspended for a moment and to just see people celebrating the sports. I mean, it was just one of those moments where I was like, huh, maybe for the span of these two to three hours, we can suspend the rules for a little bit. 

There was just something about it that felt very, idyllic and utopian, and I’m not saying that the world is rainbows and ponies because of football, even though I think that’s a very easy answer, and a lot of people would say that football is rainbows and ponies, but I must say, I was riding a pony on top of that rainbow that day.

BAN BARKAWI: I think before it started, like even up to like the day of the opening ceremony, I think based on coverage and things I’ve been seeing over the years, by the time you got to the opening ceremony I was like, this is not gonna go well. Honestly, this was my, like, this is not gonna go well for them. This is just gonna be like a complete mess and it’s going to fall apart and there’s so much bad coverage. And this has been a PR nightmare. This was a bad idea. But the more, I don’t know, like, again, not to do the whole ponies and rainbows thing. But it feels like the football has rescued them from that image a little bit. And part of it has been, yes, these like surprising outlandish moments from Arab teams impressing where you completely had zero expectations of them and I think from what I’ve been, at least from a lot of people I’ve spoken to, they have been quite impressed with the organisation. They’ve been impressed with the experience there. 

VOICE NOTE: The food is amazing. The people are so friendly, free visa. Free fan zone. DJs. Famous singers. Famous DJs, free transportation. Metro this way, metro this way.

BAN BARKAWI: Like the vibe, the atmosphere, everything that you are kind of like criticising from afar. People are really praising once they’re there, and I feel like it’s shifting a little bit as we go forward, and I think it will end up for better or worse, I think in the future this will definitely help Qatar whether – I think people will forget, a lot of things will dissolve as they work on their PR going forward, which now this has given them moment to do so. But in general, for the region, I don’t know that it’s gonna change anything necessarily. And I don’t think this like sense of like, Arab unity, Arabs cheering for Arabs you know, people bringing in Palestine into this World Cup unapologetically, for the first time ever on a world stage – that is unprecedented. Like all of this is so beautiful right now, but not to be a complete pessimist, but I think it’s gonna fade once the World Cup is done. I don’t think it’s gonna last much longer. 

ALEX ATACK: Well, I also just hope that it’s like, It makes people more comfortable in the future with criticising future World Cups because like, there’s been, obviously there’s been so much criticism of Qatar, which I think is justified to an extent. I have more of an issue with the tone of it and the way it’s delivered, but I think the actual content of it is is valid. But I sadly don’t see that happening with the North American World Cup next time but what I would hope that is that like this, everything that’s happened around Qatar and all the documentaries on Netflix we’ve seen and the podcasts and like everything that’s been written, I think in some ways it’s peeled back – if anybody was under any illusion that FIFA was not a corrupt organisation before this completely changed with this World Cup. And I just hope that some of the conversations that we’ve been having around this World Cup, continue for future World Cups. 

BAN BARKAWI: Definitely. And I think there’s just one thing to remember that I think the reason that at the end of the day, even people who are conflicted, who do have these moral dilemmas, continue to watch it because it’s still a people’s thing. It’s still a people’s sport. The footballers that are playing are probably people who have come from very humble backgrounds who are living out like an incredible dream that one in a bajillion people get to live. And then the people who are watching that are connected to that sentiment and that emotion of it all, that culture of it all, and that stays with the people regardless of what organising body or organising state, or all the drama behind it. And I feel maybe that’s what keeps people drawn and keeps them willing to watch despite these moral dilemmas that are happening in the background.

ALEX ATACK: So we need to overthrow FIFA, replace it with a people run –

AHMED ASHOUR: Love it. 

BAN BARKAWI: Socialist FIFA. 

ALEX ATACK: Yeah, a socialist revolution.

AHMED ASHOUR: Let’s have socialist FIFA. Oh my gosh. Well, folks on a – I guess to wrap on a lighter note I’m curious to hear, what’s been your favourite moment so far from the past couple of weeks of games?

ALEX ATACK: Well, it’s gotta be Morocco.

BAN BARKAWI: It’s gotta be Morocco. 

ARCHIVE: Oh! What a finish! And it is finished!

BAN BARKAWI: I mean, honestly at the start, like even in the, in the group stages, I was like, oh my gosh. Like they’re impressing. When they first beat Belgium, I think it was – 

ARCHIVE: The Atlas Lion finds its teeth!

BAN BARKAWI: I was like, oh, cool. Impressive. But we have to keep in mind that there were a couple of like Arab teams that were also surprising in the group stages. Like I think Tunisia beat France, we’ve mentioned Saudi before beating Argentina, so it was kind of like, I felt like, oh, okay, here’s another, here’s another round of exciting football that is just gonna go nowhere. But then…

ARCHIVE: Hakimi, their superstar full back. Oh how about that for a penalty!

BAN BARKAWI: It’s just insane watching this unfold in our lifetime.

ARCHIVE: Moroccan mayhem!

ARCHIVE: Malsalaamei bye bye! Malsalaamei bye bye! Bella ciao! Bella ciao!

BAN BARKAWI: I mean generation after generation, world Cup after World Cup. We’ve been watching and there’s always like this little bit of hope that we cling onto and nothing really comes. But then Morocco steps in, in 2022 

VOX POP: Pinch me, is this real?!

BAN BARKAWI: And boom. Explosion.

VOX POP: This is like a dream for us. I mean, before the World Cup started we were thinking we’d go and play three games and come back. It’s a feeling that I cannot describe for now. But when the World Cup is over, we need to change the mentality of just being pessimistic, oh we’re going to play three games and come back. You know, why we’re not going to reach the final? Why not win the World Cup? Just because we’re an African country or an Arab country doesn’t mean we can’t do it. 

BAN BARKAWI: But I think the other, the other really beautiful thing about watching Morocco excel and actually kind of achieve a milestone in football for an Arab nation, the first time we see an Arab country advance to this stage of the World Cup, and that has created this insane reaction from fans across the Middle East. I don’t think I’ve ever seen. So many people cheer for the same team at the same time across the whole region. And, and I think it’s also, it’s kind of – it’s triggered this, this sense of Arab identity that I think has been lacking for a very long time.

And you see that solidarity and, and you see it. I think, I mean, Ahmed you can probably speak more to this since you were in Doha, but you can see it in the fan base there. I mean, it’s insane the videos that are coming out of there in the fan zones and in the streets. 

AHMED ASHOUR: Yeah, between the videos that we were getting from a couple of our team members in Morocco and the sights and scenes in Doha, it felt like a celebration like no other, you know, obviously being the first Arab nation to get this far in the tournament, it was, I think, something we all could take pride in and be a part of. You don’t get that. You don’t get those kinds of moments a lot these days.

ALEX ATACK: Would you go as far to say that this World Cup moment has topped Shakira’s Bambo remix of Hips Don’t Lie as your new favourite World Cup moment?

AHMED ASHOUR: You know what Alex? I think it has. I think it has. But I guess one moment that really, really stuck with me at the end of the game when the team huddled together and a lot of them had the Moroccan flag on their backs and obviously you, it was a very beautiful moment of national pride, but then it seemed like they were waiting for a moment before they had their team picture taken where they’re waiting for a flag to unfurl. And before you know it, it’s not the Moroccan flag, it’s the Palestinian flag. And to witness that, to have that victory be celebrated with the presence of the Palestinian flag, I think was something that was just so, I don’t know what the word is.

BAN BARKAWI: I think what makes that moment so epic is that I think for it to then enter the stadiums at a moment that is historic. For the very first time, this will be on your Wikipedia pages forever more that Morocco has advanced this far and when they did, they were carrying the Palestinian flag. That is going down in history, for it to be such a point of focus on a global stage is amazing, and I think the Moroccan fans have already demonstrated that. Now their team is also demonstrating that, which is huge. I don’t know if people can grasp that, but it’s massive. I mean, I think you put those two things together and it’s poetry.

VOX POP: You know, what to tell my kids? They’re going to grow up – 

VOX POP: I know what I’m going to tell them – I attended every single game, and 2022 was a special one for Morocco.

VOX POP: We’re living the dream.

DANA BALLOUT: This episode was produced by Ban Barkawi, Alex Atack and Ahmed Ashour, with help from Sarah Risheq, Al Shaibani, Shahd Bani-Odeh, Maher Ali, Soumaya Bouabdellah, Youssef Douazou, Sara Kaddouri and Zeina Dowidar. It was edited by Sarah Risheq and me, Dana Ballout. Sound design was by Monzer El Hachem. Our team also includes Nadeen Shaker and Finbar Anderson.

Our sister podcast – Masafat – has also released an episode about Qatar’s World Cup in Arabic. To hear that – and other incredible stories like this one from the Middle East and North Africa, search Masafat – M A S A F A T – in your podcast app.

We’ll be back with a new episode next week. Thank you so much for listening. And I hope you enjoyed this World Cup madness as much as we did.

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OUTTAKE

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