Why this has been a culturally unique World Cup

CNN — 

This was never going to be a traditional World Cup.

Breaking ground in the Middle East and played for the first time in the European winter, it was always going to look and feel different.

Qatar was described by some as the most controversial World Cup tournament host, with criticism ranging from alleged corruption in the bidding process to a callous disregard for human rights.

It is undoubtedly right to shine a light on the deaths and conditions endured by migrant workers to make this tournament happen, and LGBTQ and women’s rights too, although some Qataris might wonder why their country came under such intense criticism when countries with questionable human rights records, or laws that curtail the freedoms of certain members of society, have also hosted major sporting events in recent years.

The last World Cup was held in Russia, for example, a country that has made it illegal for anyone to promote same-sex relationships or suggest that non-heterosexual orientations are “normal.”

But the world is complicated and full of contradictions, and hosting a major sporting event is about more than a country’s politics. It’s also about its culture and its people, their hopes and their dreams.

Over the last four weeks, this tiny Gulf State truly became a global village. Fans of all 32 teams, along with supporters from many other countries, mingled cheek by jowl in a way that was never possible in previous tournaments, which were spread across much larger geographical areas.

Sometimes it was hard to tell who was cheering for who as processions of cheering fans would follow drummers through Souq Waqif, a marketplace in downtown Doha, drunk only on the joy of the shared experience.

“The atmosphere here in Qatar is like a Moroccan wedding,” one supporter told CNN in the thick of the festivities. “When everyone is enjoying the music and singing, it’s like a big party.”

Morocco’s thrilling run to the semifinals was a watershed moment for the sport, the first time that a team from outside Europe and South America had made it to the final week in the tournament’s 92-year history.

But even before the Atlas Lions’ stirring win against Portugal, it was already Africa’s most successful World Cup, as it was for Asia, too, which saw three teams – Japan, South Korea, and Australia – make it to the round of 16 for the first time ever.

There have certainly been matches that will be remembered for years to come.

Saudi Arabia scored a result for the ages, beating Argentina in its opening match, while Iran managed to shine, despite the protests and violence in their homeland with admirable performances against Wales and the US.

This was a tournament in which the underdogs challenged the old-world order, and won universal respect for doing so.

Moroccan supporter Boubker Benna told CNN that he believes the message of this World Cup has been self-determination.

“You may be an underdog,” he said, “but if you do your work, you can achieve big, big things. That’s what [Morocco head coach] Walid Regragui is trying to prove. And that’s what Morocco is trying to prove.”

It’s not unusual to see African fans rooting for other teams from their continent, but it has been particularly striking to witness the shared joy in Qatar, where CNN spoke to fans from Egypt, Syria, Sudan, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, and the Palestinian territories, all cheering for Morocco in the later stages.

“If France is playing, you will find only French people supporting their team, never England or Germany behind them. And I don’t know why,” explained Moroccan fan Adam Marzoug.

He continued: “That’s why it’s special for the Arab and Muslim and African countries. That’s what makes us strong in every tournament, this is just the beginning.”

His friend, Oumaima Amallah, added: “Despite all the political and historical problems, Muslims, Arabs and Africans love each other and they are like brothers and sisters and everyone is happy for us, like they would be happy for their own nation.”

It was almost poetic that Morocco overturned two of its former colonizers, Spain and Portugal, and went toe-to-toe with a third, France. But any score settling was done politely, with respect.

Supporters who spoke with CNN would always praise Qatar for hosting the World Cup and express gratitude and thanks for bringing it to the region.

And although there was surprise, even an outcry in some media establishments, when Budweiser vending stations were removed from the stadium concourses on the eve of the tournament, did anyone really miss the alcohol?

Certainly, many that we spoke to, including the former player turned broadcaster Ally McCoist, agreed that the atmosphere among the crowds was much more congenial as a result.

We watched security personnel in the stadia respectfully asking shirtless Argentina fans to cover up, humbly gesturing with their palms closed by their chest. Local customs were followed and cultures exchanged. The sea of humanity that flowed from every stadium to Metro station passed by a series of musicians and dancers.

What might have once been described as a culture clash felt more like a cultural exchange here in Qatar.

“We must be open minded,” said another Moroccan fan, David Hamriri, an engineer who currently works in Europe. “I am very rich, culturally, because I am open minded.

“We have emotions,” he continued, “We have many conflicts in the world. But when we enjoy football, we forget this problem. We forget the economic crisis, and we return to the origin. A value of humanity, shared between Occidental and Oriental society. I find it amazing.”

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