I know what it is to dream remotely for your region at the FIFA World Cup. I know what it’s like to see those hopes come true before your eyes.
So I know why the 2022 edition will be special for Qatar – and why millions of other people across Africa and the Middle East will savor it too.
When it comes to the most memorable football tournaments in history, the 1986 World Cup, played in Mexico, is my sentimental favourite.
Argentina beat Germany 3-2 in the final to win the 13th edition of the competition, which is best remembered for the exceptional and inspiring feats of one player: Diego Maradona. His sublime and flamboyant performances left me completely speechless and dazzled. Especially when he scored the so-called ‘goal of the century’ in Argentina’s quarter-final game against England.
I was just an 11-year-old boy from Harare, Zimbabwe, and had started to enjoy and follow international football on TV. The pint-sized Argentine captain seemed superhuman at times, and his skills and strength of character certainly captured the world’s imagination.
Four years later, when Italy hosted the World Cup, my school colleagues and I fell in love with Cameroon’s national team – the Indomitable Lions – who emerged as the surprise of the tournament. Cameroon beat Maradona-led Argentina, Romania and Colombia en route to becoming the first African side to reach the quarter-finals, where they lost 3-2 to England in a thrilling game. This team included Roger Milla, a stylish and highly skilled 38-year-old striker who scored four extraordinary goals.
Zimbabwe hadn’t reached the World Cup, but Cameroonian players represented us and millions of Africans. Their achievements have made us so proud to be black and African. They made us love the World Cup.
My experiences came full circle when South Africa became the first and only African nation to host the World Cup in 2010.
I attended several matches, including Algeria against Slovenia in Polokwane. I saw my long-time favourite, Cameroon, led by the talented Samuel Eto’o, fall 2-1 against Denmark in Pretoria. Later I went back to Polokwane to watch Argentina play against Greece. To my delight, Lionel Messi was the captain of Argentina and Maradona was the coach.
The night Ghana beat the United States, I socialized with Ghanaians and South Africans at a hangout in Rustenburg, a major mining town 173 km (107 miles) outside of Johannesburg. .
Apart from the highly entertaining matches, I embraced the priceless camaraderie of football. That it happened in South Africa – in Africa – made it even more enjoyable.
Football, I believed, had finally come home.
I witnessed it when South Africans celebrated ‘Football Fridays’ wearing the colors of the national team every Friday from September 2009. I felt it in the pride and joy that radiated on people’s faces before and especially during the tournament. I felt the mass of unity that developed between South Africans and Africans when they came together for the Ghana national team quarter-finals. And when Spain won against Germany in the final team, I was convinced that every football-loving nation deserved to host the World Cup.
I am therefore delighted to see Qatar hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup, a first for a country in the Middle East. I understand what this means for Qatar and football fans in the Middle East and Africa.
Sepp Blatter, the former FIFA president, recently criticized the decision to grant Qatar the right to host the 2022 tournament. Blatter said: “Qatar is a mistake” and called it “a small ” country.
Clearly, brazen fanatics like Blatter are unsettled by the constant evolution and democratization of football. For years, the “small” countries of the South have unreservedly supported the world game by participating in numerous competitions.
For decades, millions of people in “small” countries like Liberia, Gabon, Burkina Faso and Morocco have supplemented FIFA’s substantial revenue by buying TV subscriptions, merchandise and match tickets. The Qatar World Cup might be the organization’s most profitable event ever.
Yet, for the most part, FIFA bosses have ignored our widespread passion for football. Germany, Italy, France, Brazil and Mexico, for example, have each hosted it twice. And European countries have collectively hosted 11 of the 22 tournaments.
Suffice it to say, Blatter’s feelings are tainted with white privilege and extreme indifference to the unquestionable need for fairer representation and participation in all spheres of football.
Since FIFA was founded in 1904, seven of its eight presidents have been white, male and European. One, Issa Hayatou – an African – served as interim president for 141 days in 2015-2016.
But despite their dubious efforts, the Europeans cannot claim any particular contribution to international football. African and Arab countries have long produced world-class teams and players, despite the socio-economic consequences of colonialism.
Football has benefited enormously from the talents of stars such as Mozambican Eusebio, Algerian Mustapha Dahleb, Liberian George Weah, Ghanaian Abedi Pele, Moroccan Aziz Bouderbala, Senegalese Sadio Mané and Egyptian Mohamed Salah, to name a few. cite just a few.
Qatar’s World Cup is just as special and historic as South Africa’s in 2010. The football establishment should not discriminate against blacks and browns from African and Arab countries. Or disparage Qatar’s ability to put on a world-class event.
I am confident that this year’s World Cup will impress many Arab and African 11-year-old boys and girls, just as the 1986 competition wowed me. And I firmly believe that most Africans will support Qatar as they host the World Cup.
This too, remember, is our tournament to cherish.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.