A protester carrying a rainbow flag and a shirt with the words “Respect for Iranian Women” on the back and “Save Ukraine” on the front ran onto the pitch during the World Cup game between Portugal and Uruguay in Qatar. It demonstrated that protesting in a major sporting arena is perceived to be a powerful tool for attracting global attention, regardless of your cause or whether you combine issues like LGBTQ+, Iranian women’s rights, and Ukraine.
Even before the tournament began, the Qatar World Cup was mired in controversy. Musicians such as Dua Lipa, Shakira, and Rod Steward refusing to perform in the opening ceremony sent a powerful message, indeed.
Politics and sports often mix. And, sometimes, the mixture does rock the world. The Iranian footballers declined to sing their national anthem in their opening game against England, in a possible protest against the violent suppression being unleashed in their country. Germany’s players covered their mouths with their right hands for their team photo before their opening World Cup match in an apparent rebuke of FIFA’s clampdown on the seven European federations, including Germany’s, on plans to wear colourful “One Love” armbands as a symbol for inclusion and diversity. Such a photograph, circulated all over the globe, induces much more magic for the cause for which the armband was planned, in addition to putting FIFA and the host country on the receiving end. One of the world’s most-watched sporting events has that much power, for sure.
As history would suggest, taking the protest through the national anthem is not something that Iran’s footballers have done for the first time. The England football team routinely kneels before their games. However, it’s worth noting that this practice was popularised by NFL star and San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who began kneeling during the American national anthem in August 2016 to highlight what he called the US’s ongoing oppression of black people.
It certainly ignited a global sporting and political movement, but the protest also angered NFL owners. While we don’t know what’s going to happen to Ehsan Hajsafi and his teammates in Iran, even in a country like America, Kaepernick has not played in the NFL since January 1, 2017. However, the “Black Lives Matter” movement would not have gained such traction if it had not been supported in the sporting arena!
Throughout the years, numerous immensely impactful protests have been staged by players, performers, and spectators at major sporting events around the world. Not everybody would agree to each of them, for sure.
What about the “Black Power Salute,” which is regarded as one of the most overtly political statements in the history of modern Olympics? At the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, while on the podium, as the Star-Spangled Banner began to play, two black Americans, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, winners of the gold and bronze medals, respectively, in the 200-meter event, raised their black-gloved fists in the black power salute. This symbol of resistance and defiance was seared into 20th-Century history.
However, Smith and Carlos were largely ostracised at that time. The then IOC president, Avery Brundage, had them expelled from the Olympics. Well, the world’s outlook toward Smith and Carlos has changed considerably over time.
All protests may not be pre-planned, though. Even amid stringent restrictions, some acts may be spontaneous, but they may hit the headlines like a protest movement. Although public kissing is banned at the Qatar World Cup grounds, when Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois kissed his fiancée after his team’s victory over Canada, pictures of the couple sharing a sweet peck went viral. Such an act of defiance, however unintended, is no less powerful, for sure.
The writer is Professor of Statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata