Opinion: political cartoons about the World Cup and its host country have been making some powerful points about death, football and capitalism

By Victoria McCollum, Ulster University

Since the 18th century, political cartoons have been dismissed by academics, critics, historians, and artists as "not serious," "inconsequential," "irrelevant," "marginal," "harmless," "frivolous," "a benign-even childish-indulgence," "immoral," "nothing but a cheap joke, a space filler" and "silly". Political cartoons have been causing controversy for centuries, but it wasn't until 2005 that we collectively came to realise the enduring power of the political cartoon.

That was when Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 political cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad, sparking global carnage, Such images speak volumes and elicit powerful emotional responses from their audience, who they are designed to enrage, upset, and amuse. Yes, they’re in poor taste at times, often the poorest taste the most powerful, "discombobulating otherwise rational people and driving them to disproportionate-to-the-occasion, sometimes violent, emotionally charged behaviour."

Just last week, a political cartoon by fairly respectable French newspaper Le Canard enchaîné sparked global outrage due to its cruel depiction of the Qatar national football team at the 2022 FIFA World Cup. In the cartoon, a band of turban-clad, bearded, hooked-nose 'savages’, wearing traditional thobes and angry expressions, chase a football around a sand dune, while packing bullets, knives, rifles, and rockets.

It doesn't take a giant cognitive leap to read the cartoon as blatant Islamophobia, a form of cultural racism that overlaps with anti-Arabism. Yet we have become so accustomed to such caricatures, especially from European news outlets, that they have become part of a visual shorthand used to communicate complicated ideas quickly and effectively. At the same time, the cartoon is harmful and reductive. Yet for every political cartoon that panders to racial stereotype and sets out to fuel prejudice and furious resentment, there’s another that punches up against those in power.

Despite global outrage and many calling for a boycott, the World Cup will kick off in Qatar this weekend. David Beckham, of course, is urging us all to "focus on football." Despite claiming to feel sick to his stomach when Qatar won hosting privileges in 2010, Beckham is now the official ambassador for Qatar ahead of the tournament, describing the country as "perfection" and "an incredible place" in a recent, nauseating 30-minute ad campaign.

It's not just the extreme heat, or the disruption to European leagues that’s vexing people about Qutar. It’s the host country's lack of football tradition and infrastructure (the most expensive tournament of all time, costing the state $300 billion).

It’s the persistent and significant human rights abuses carried out in Qatar every day, and the fact that eight new state-of-the-art stadiums of suffering have been built on the back of migrant workers (read: slaves), thousands of whom died during the construction. You only need glance at recent political cartoons depicting the tournament’s trophy to quickly ascertain how Qatar has treated the migrant workers responsible for making its World Cup a reality for the equivalent of £1 an hour (on a good day at the labour camp).

New political cartoons casting a powerful interpretation on the issues with hosting the tournament in the Arab world are emerging across the globe every day. Such cartoons offer a colourful and engaging alternative to traditional news reporting, providing light relief from the ever-increasingly gloomy political discourse. We process images 60,000 times faster than slabs of text and vivid colours also stimulate our emotions, mind clarity and energy levels.

The cartoons themselves are absolutely harrowing, a target-rich environment of death, football and capitalism. Political cartoons about the World Cup echo the opinion of their 'readers', becoming the pressure release valve of public opinion. They are some of the best signifiers of the concerns of the average person, capturing the very sentiments one may have trouble articulating. These cartoons compensate for space limitation and maximise visual efficiency. They aim to cut deep via their clever execution of symbolism, exaggeration, irony, labelling, proportion, pun, satire, and analogy.

This World Cup has inspired particularly violent imagery; ink reminiscent of blood, and stinging visible action lines that chime in tandem with the violent aggression being depicted. In Zach's cartoon, the tournament’s official logo, a design that’s said to embody "the vision of an event that connects and engages the entire world and allusions to the beautiful game," has morphed into a cement fist, puppeteered by a bloodied kaffiyeh, crushing a migrant worker to death. In Morhaf Youssef's cartoon, a troop of emaciated bodies are forcefully chained together to make a football, subdued under the foot of a fat-cat in a suit.

While Youssef's cartoon undoubtably speaks to the intensifying criticism toward migrant death in Qatar, its imagery (there’s potential that the bodies are female) has also been shared in association with a recent report from The Athletic warning that female fans attending the tournament risk flogging and prison for reporting any kind of sexual violence in Qatar. In February 2022, a female World Cup official fled Qatar to avoid a sentence of lashing and jail after being charged with illicit extramarital sex, after reporting that she was raped. Lawyers recommended she marry her attacker to avoid conviction, so she made for Mexico, as her "dream job" curdled into a nightmare.

Such images of pain, horror, and atrocity use narrative and framing devices that confer upon images most of their meaning. Yet, as Susan Sontag might say, there's no "we" shared between the one suffering and the observer of sufferin. Those who have not lived through such things "can't understand, can't imagine" the experiences such images represent.

Political cartoons of the 2022 FIFA World Cup are powerful spaces in which negotiations of power and resistance are expressed. Cartoonists are outsiders, and their semi-separated position within the hierarchy of newspapers is matched by their detachment from the petty concerns of institutional or economic pressures of their journalistic counterparts. In other words, they gain no benefit from nurturing sources and should be free to deride, slight and critique issues without regard for governmental and corporate sensitivities.

It’s uncomfortable to stare at the ugly truth behind the beautiful game. We’re all well aware that European clubs are now owned by Gulf states. Manchester City, Paris-Saint Germain (PSG), Newcastle United and others are providing an excess of economic and social benefits to Gulf nations keen to exert soft power and improve their reputation and public image. 2022 is the un-official year of the great sportswash, a year bookended by the Beijing Winter Olympics (where human rights abuses clearly violated the Olympic spirit) and the World Cup in Qatar, a high point of authoritarian regimes desperate to camouflage cultures of cruelty.

Corruption is the common thread of every major sporting event. The point is, we already play in the kicktatorship. Will people and their fundamental rights fare better in an isolated, internationally outlawed, and boycotted Qatar? No. But how can we enjoy a tournament that others have suffered so greatly for? If not watching the matches expresses solidarity toward the victims, then what does watching them express? A blind eye?

In a move borrowed from Kim Jong-il at the 2010 FIFA World Cup (where he hired 300 Chinese people, with state-approved hairstyles, to act as ecstatic North Korean fans in the stands), it was reported last week that Qatar has hired around 100 England and Wales fans to attend the tournament. "You will be expected to stand up, sing the song/chant, wave your flags, cheer and shout," states the terms of employment (read: there’s no crying in football). So, there you have it, humans being paid, during a cost-of-living crisis, to smile for the PR machine in a stadium haunted by the ghosts of migrant workers. What fresh hell is this?

Dr Victoria McCollum is a Senior Lecturer in Cinematic Arts at Ulster University


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ