As the Russia 2018 World Cup heats up in the final rounds, the intertwined history of soccer and its impacts on political, social and religious issues remain present. Throughout history, soccer has been a source of camaraderie and nationalism, especially during international matches like those in World Cup. According to James Dorsey, a columnist and author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, soccer rivals religion in terms of widespread support and size. It’s “the second religion of the Middle East.”

These international matches are frequently sources of conflict and can lead to violent clashes between teams, often representing political sides. The tense environment has created a viable platform for political debate—soccer matches were extremely influential in the Arab Spring, beginning in 2010 with the Tunisian Revolution. In 2011, riots in Egypt’s Tahrir Square in Cairo led to the collapse of authoritarian regimes. After the 1998 qualification of Iran into the World Cup, celebratory gatherings morphed into protests against the nation’s restrictions on women as sports fans, as well as the mixing of genders. In response, in some countries, such as Algeria, government officials have suspended soccer leagues or limited fan attendance at matches.

The Morocco bid for the 2026 World Cup was unsuccessful for the fifth time in its history, leaving room for many concerns from critics worldwide. Among these concerns include human rights issues, LGBTQ concerns, labor standards and lack of government support. Ultimately, the United States, Mexico, and Canada 2026 bid won, the first World Cup to be hosted by three nations together.

In 2022, Qatar will host the World Cup. While concerns are typically expressed about any nation hosting the World Cup in terms of the potential financial burden, more than the standard amount has been expressed for Qatar. Criticisms about social restrictions that World Cup visitors may face include freedom of speech, consumption of alcohol, and LGBTQ issues. Additionally, Qatar has very few permanent citizens, as most are migrant workers of the controversial Kafala System. To date, this is the biggest soccer event to be hosted in the Middle East.