It was a moment rife with symbolism. Lionel Messi, arguably the greatest soccer player of all time, finally lifting a World Cup trophy that had long eluded his native Argentina, the crowning achievement of a storied career.
But there were other symbolic victors in that moment too. Messi was clad in a Qatari bisht, a light cloak that had been placed on his shoulders by the emir of the country hosting the World Cup. The Qatari regime, whose human rights record and campaign to host the tournament had been subjected over the years to relentless scrutiny, was itself seen as triumphant. It successfully, and largely without incident, hosted one of the most exciting World Cups in recent memory, the one with the second-highest number of goals ever and culminating in arguably the best World Cup final in history between Argentina and France — a match whose script with its wild swings in fortune and drama evoked “Game of Thrones.”
And ironically, Qatar’s emir is himself the ultimate boss of the two legendary stars of the final. Both Kylian Mbappe of France and Messi play for Paris St. Germain, which was acquired in 2011 by a Qatari sovereign wealth fund dedicated to sports investments.
Of course, the bisht itself immediately became the subject of controversy in the ongoing culture war that marked much of the run-up to this tournament and went hand in hand with the actual football coverage.
Qatar of course was criticized for its treatment of the migrant workers who built the stadiums and other facilities for the World Cup. But it was also condemned for its laws criminalizing LGBT individuals as well as its stringent policies banning expressions of pride such as rainbow flags in the stands — a policy that soccer’s governing body, FIFA, also enforced against the competing teams, threatening undisclosed punishments for any expressions of LGBT solidarity on the pitch. Apparently, the punishments were so severe that none risked even innocuous expressions of solidarity.
The bisht controversy largely adopted two subtly distinct tracks. The first is that the Qataris had no business intruding with their own cultural overtones on a moment celebrating Argentina’s victory, that essentially the gesture was an ambush of Messi that somehow tainted his moment of glory. This was evident in the immediate response to “bishtgate” by a Fox commentator indicating that the Qataris should have let Messi have his moment and gesturing to the likely shame or disappointment he will have when he looks back at those photos. The second is that the symbolic gesture is problematic in and of itself, completing the sportwashing of the World Cup by allowing a symbol of a backward, oppressive culture to be a part of that celebration.
The first critique is somewhat reasonable if overstated, because the practice is not without precedent. Athletes in the Athens Olympics in 2004 wore olive branch crowns while being awarded medals for their feats in the competition, a practice that was not met with outcries at the intrusion of Hellenic culture on their special moment. The most iconic photograph from the 1970 World Cup in Mexico was of Brazilian legend and world champion Pele donning a sombrero while being paraded around the pitch by fans and teammates. Many of the fans attending World Cup matches in fact appropriated Gulf Arab traditional outfits, wearing ghutras, igals and dishdashas plastered with their own national colors, a practice that was in equal measure hilarious and wholesome, along with videos of Qataris helping foreigners adjust their traditional wear. The whole thing may well be a fascinating culture clash moment, with Arab exaggeration in offering respect to an honored guest and a Western instinct to let Messi celebrate in his own special, undiluted way, though Messi himself appeared untroubled by the imagery in the photos he tweeted later on his social media accounts.
(Moreover, if anyone was worried about Qatar’s achieving a picture-perfect ending to its World Cup, it is worth noting that the second-most iconic photo of the final ceremony, besides Messi lifting the World Cup while draped in a bisht, is a meme-worthy photo of goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez pretending the golden glove award he received for his heroics during the tournament is a penis.)
The second track of the critique is more problematic. In the mainstream press and social media, the notions that Arabs are backward and that the West is obsessed with gay rights have been a detestable undercurrent of a lot of the commentary about the World Cup outside of the actual soccer being played on the pitch. Qatari laws prohibiting public displays of affection or public consumption of alcohol (despite some news reports that this contributed to overall lower cases of sexual harassment at venues) and those discriminating against LGBT individuals become symbolic of a broader cultural backwardness. In the meantime, Arab homophobes (and there are many) took pleasure in mocking the German team after its loss to Japan because the players covered their mouths in their pre-game photo to symbolize the gagging of the athletes on the LGBT rights issue. Some derisively called them “muntakhab al-alwan” (“team of colors”) as in the colors of the rainbow flag, a play on the word “alman,” which means Germans. Many Muslim social media users celebrated France’s defeat on the back of unverified reports that the French team planned to raise the Pride flag if they won. For some, the bisht was the anti-Pride symbol, of triumph over what they saw as a Western cultural import.
There was far less anodyne commentary on both sides in the swamps of the metaverse.
Most mainstream outlets were circumspect in their outrage, describing the gesture as a “bizarre” act that ruined Messi’s crowning moment. As usual, French media delivered by saying out loud what they were actually thinking, with commentators on BFM TV, one of the largest news networks in the country, describing the bisht as a bathrobe and a rag.
The comparison is of course offensive, even racist. But it’s telling that such a gesture would be interpreted through the lens of identity once again. Many who were outraged on social media by the derisiveness with which media outlets described the gesture took pains to explain that it was one meant to honor the recipient, even to treat them as royalty when the one doing it was the ruler of the country.
In one fell swoop, a symbol of honor and hospitality was transmogrified into another lightning rod of the culture war surrounding this World Cup. The bisht does not have any of the usual negative connotations surrounding other Arab and Muslim symbols like the hijab. It is only Arab. And that association in and of itself is enough to indicate an inherent flaw and tarnish.
This World Cup was beautiful, a preeminent symbol of what soccer fans adore about the sport, with its drama, heartbreak, passion and grit. The world’s greatest footballer crowned a breathtaking career with the sport’s greatest trophy. Saudi Arabia beat the eventual world champions. Morocco became the first Arab and African team to reach the semifinals. Ill-tempered Uruguayan players knocked over VAR cameras. Teams clawed victory from the jaws of certain defeat. Goalkeepers saved penalty kicks. Cristiano Ronaldo’s international career drew to a close. The final was the most spectacular display of soccer prowess to ever grace television screens. It was a great show, perhaps the greatest on Earth.
The glare of the world was also an opportunity to highlight injustices and press for universal rights. It should not be objectionable to demand dignity for all human beings. And it should be possible to do that without losing oneself to the impulses of prejudice and racism.