Global Leaders Mix Sports and Diplomacy at the FIFA World Cup

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DECEMBER 17, 2022

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken during the United States game against Wales. – Carl Recine/Reuters

They have shown up in the shiny soccer stadiums here in Qatar one after the other, popping up more frequently than yellow cards or penalty goals.

There was President Emmanuel Macron of France cheering his team “les Bleus” on Wednesday as they beat the pugnacious underdog Morocco to advance to the men’s World Cup final this weekend.

Representative Ilhan Omar, Democrat of Minnesota, posted a photograph of her and David Beckham at the United States versus Wales match last month — “It was fun watching a World Cup game with him,” she wrote online.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken was at that match too, the night before he met with Qatari officials for policy talks. He watched as Tim Weah, the son of the president of Liberia, who was in the box with Mr. Blinken, scored the American team’s first goal of the tournament. This past Tuesday, at a summit with African leaders in Washington, Mr. Blinken referred to that moment when he introduced the Liberian president, George Weah, himself a soccer legend.

“The best part of that was turning around and getting a quick look at your face as you watched your son score that goal, and I could see the extraordinary pride that was there and an entire stadium cheering him on,” Mr. Blinken said. “So I guess the apple just doesn’t fall too far from the tree in this case.”

The tournament, which takes place every four years, has always been a draw for dignitaries, but this one has been more remarkable because the host, Qatar, a tiny, wealthy kingdom in the Persian Gulf, set out more than a decade ago to elevate its stature by holding a global showstopping event. It has succeeded, despite persistent criticisms of bribery, abuses of migrant laborers and criminalization of homosexuality.

The World Cup also magnifies Qatar’s role as a diplomatic broker. Even before the games, President Biden declared Qatar a “major non-NATO ally,” and U.S. officials had come to rely on it to facilitate exchanges with Iran, the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Palestinians.

The event is another example of how politics and sports often mix. World leaders and top officials have been streaming through Qatar since the World Cup began on Nov. 20 to watch matches and hold meetings, sometimes literally on the sidelines.

A few leaders, including Mr. Weah, have been spending so much time in Doha that citizens of their countries are asking sharp questions about their priorities. Mr. Weah said he secured funding for a highway project at a meeting with the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. Eva Kaili, the Greek politician and recent vice president of the European Parliament who has been charged in a bribery scandal involving Qatar, was in a marble-floored V.V.I.P. box at the first game.

This World Cup is taking place at one of the most fraught moments in recent world history, with many nations grappling with Russia’s war on Ukraine, the pandemic, inflation, a food shortage and climate disasters. The tournament has provided a setting where foreign leaders can discuss those issues while being part of soccer fandom.

Mr. Macron met with Qatari officials in Doha on Wednesday and said he would have more talks on Sunday, when he returns for the final. James Cleverly, foreign minister of Britain, said he had “difficult conversations” with the Qataris about human rights. Bob Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, discussed Afghanistan, Libya and Lebanon with Qatar’s foreign minister.

More than a dozen heads of state, mostly from the Middle East, attended the opening ceremony. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia was there in a show of unity with the emir of Qatar, after having led a 43-month regional blockade of Qatar that ended last year.

“The impact of the World Cup extends beyond the soccer community,” said Ali al-Ansari, a Qatari government spokesman. “The world has never been more divided, so events like this are a timely reminder that we have far more in common than we think.”

American officials have seized on this opportunity. Besides Mr. Blinken and Ms. Omar, other officials who have cheered from the stands include Senator Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut; Todd Young, Republican of Indiana; Representative Darrell Issa, Republican of California; and Mayor Eric Adams of New York.

Ms. Omar was part of a delegation that included Democratic and Republican elected officials, said Jeremy Slevin, a spokesman for Ms. Omar. He said she raised human rights while there, but he did not answer questions about who paid for the trip.

Some trips by congressional officials have been paid for by Qatar, which is allowed under certain rules, a U.S. official said.

The visit by Mr. Menendez was funded by the U.S. government and supported by the State Department, as was a separate trip by Mr. Murphy and Mr. Young on which they met with Qatari officials and spoke with Mr. Blinken in the stadium during the U.S.-Wales match.

Mr. Adams, who watched the United States play the Netherlands, told reporters he paid for his own lodging — “It’s on my dime.” Mr. Adams’s schedule did not list with whom he was meeting, but he posted a photo of himself with the American team’s coach, Gregg Berhalter, and said in a phone briefing from Doha that he was visiting in part to look at the transit system and study how New York could help host the 2026 World Cup, set to take place across the United States, Canada and Mexico.

The new U.S. ambassador to Qatar, Timmy T. Davis, has attended many matches and done a steady stream of social media posts on the tournament, including a video of him and the Dutch ambassador cooking breakfast together before their teams faced off.

In the run-up to the World Cup, Mr. Davis spoke to Bella Hadid, an American model, at a cultural event in Doha. Ms. Hadid, whose father is Palestinian, visited an exhibition of Palestinian embroidery, and said on Instagram, “This show brought tears to my eyes.” Qatar is a strong supporter of the Palestinians, and Arab soccer fans and the Moroccan team have displayed the Palestinian flag in the streets and stadiums.

Mr. Davis said in an interview that Qatar had “prepared for the opportunity to tell their story,” meaning the narrative of the kingdom, and “invited people specifically and generally so that they could come and see Qatar. I have no doubt that a great deal of business was done.”

Mr. Davis noted that Americans were the second-largest group of ticket buyers, and that attendees had come from the fields of entertainment, development, humanitarian assistance, technology and energy.

When different people talk in the stands, he said, “this conversation cannot be a bad thing.”

But the conviviality has its limits. During the U.S.-Iran match, Mr. Davis found himself in the same section as Ali Bagheri Kani, a deputy foreign minister of Iran and the country’s lead negotiator with the Americans and other diplomats in tough discussions on a nuclear deal. Mr. Davis said the two did not talk, and that to his knowledge, “there was no official work with Iranians around that match.”

“You know, they sit you with other dignitaries, and it’s a very polite crowd,” he said. “But when the United States scored their goal, I was very much out of my seat and jumping around.”

Mr. Davis’s boss, Mr. Blinken, has encouraged American diplomats to use the World Cup as a backdrop for diplomacy. Mr. Blinken is perhaps a bigger soccer fan than any predecessor in decades. He played it while growing up in France (he says he was “mediocre”) and fervently supports French teams.

When Mr. Blinken was on a diplomatic trip to Italy in June 2021, members of his security team thought he might be under threat when they heard yelling coming from his room — then realized he had gotten excited during a France-Switzerland match, a State Department official said.

As this World Cup has progressed, Mr. Blinken has taken every chance he can to merge soccer with diplomacy. At a NATO meeting in Bucharest last month, he hosted Mr. Cleverly, the foreign minister of Britain, and Dmytro Kuleba, the foreign minister of Ukraine, during a watch party for the U.S.-Iran match at a hotel sports bar. (Iran is militarily supporting Russia in its war on Ukraine, while the Americans and the British are backing the Ukrainians.) The next morning, after the American victory, Mr. Blinken praised both the American and Iranian teams at a news conference.

It was no surprise, then, that Mr. Blinken and the Qataris scheduled a strategic U.S.-Qatar dialogue on security and economic issues during the World Cup.

Sports was part of the diplomacy: Before he attended the U.S.-Wales match on Nov. 21, Mr. Blinken showed up at a park in Doha for an event with officials from Qatar, Mexico and Canada where they touted youth soccer exchanges. Soccer, he said, is “an incredibly powerful way of bringing people together.” But in another appearance, he criticized FIFA, the sport’s governing body, for its threats to penalize tournament players who wore a “One Love” rainbow armband symbolizing inclusion.

On Sunday, Mr. Blinken plans to watch the final, France versus Argentina, with his family at home, which means he will miss a chance to intersect with Mr. Macron in Doha. Both men, though, have shouted the same phrase to express their loyalties: “Allez les Bleus!”


Courtesy/Source: NY Times