A World Cup to melt Middle East tensions

By the Monitor's Editorial Board

At an Oct. 9 qualifying match for the 2022 World Cup, Israel's goalkeeper gathers the ball under pressure from a player from Scotland.

The head of world soccer’s governing body was in Israel this week – the first visit by a FIFA leader – and hinted at the possibility of Israel co-hosting the 2030 World Cup with the United Arab Emirates or other Arab states. “Why not Israel?” said Gianni Infantino, president of FIFA. “The World Cup is magical in that it brings people together, is such a uniting event, and transcends every notion of negativity.”

His idea builds on last year’s Abraham Accords, which saw four Arab states, including the UAE, sign deals to normalize ties with Israel. In particular, the UAE and Israel are racing to find areas of cooperation, from water technology to religious coexistence. This diplomatic momentum even led Saudi Arabia, which did not sign the accords, to hold a video conference this month with Israel’s sports minister to discuss cooperation. Saudi Arabia has its eye on hosting global football’s quadrennial event in 2030.

The 2026 World Cup will be hosted by three neighboring countries – Canada, Mexico, and the United States – so the idea of Middle East nations sharing the responsibility is not far-fetched. The host of the 2022 World Cup, Qatar, is welcoming Israelis to attend matches in the Gulf state. “We do not mix sport and politics, but we would hope that Palestinians are able to make it too,” said a Qatari official in 2019.

Hosting a mega-sporting event like the World Cup or the Olympics is often driven by nationalism. It is used to gain international prestige and display dominance. In the competitions themselves, players from Arab nations or Iran have sometimes snubbed Israeli players. The notion of Israel and an Arab state cooperating to host the World Cup would help turn sports into a platform to melt stereotypes and build bridges of trust. Instead of seeing sports as simply “war by other means,” sports could be a means of peace.

In the hot spots of the world like the Middle East, sharing a sporting event can be a welcome icebreaker between peoples.

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