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How Lionel Messi’s ‘bisht’ once again exposed the racism of Western media

Billions of people collectively turned their eyes to the Lusail Stadium in Qatar on Sunday as Argentina were crowned World Cup champions after a brilliant final against France.

However, instead of focusing on the majesty of football that the world had just witnessed, the Western media chose to focus on how the emir of Qatar dressed Lionel Messi, the Argentine captain, in the traditional Arab cape known as “bisht”. .

The reactions of various experts and journalists have reflected the same racism and Islamophobia that have prevailed throughout the tournament and in the years leading up to it. But they also underscore the lack of diversity that characterizes most Western newsrooms, limiting their ability to understand much of the world beyond forced stereotypes.

“The strange act that ruined the greatest moment in World Cup history,” read one, now redacted, headline in the British newspaper The Telegraph. “Absolutely bleak,” declared the Fox Sports headline, and “embarrassing,” read Yahoo Sports.

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Others went for clearly racist statements, with Mark Ogden, a senior ESPN journalist writing: “All the photos are ruined by someone making him wear a cape looking like he’s about to get a haircut.” Similarly, Dan Walker, a football TV presenter, wrote, in a now-deleted tweet: “I bet Mbappe is delighted he managed to deflect the weird gold-trimmed mesh cape,” suggesting that losing a final of the World Cup would have been better.

A bisht, also known as an aba or abaya in other Arab countries, is a garment that symbolizes prestige, honor, and stature. It is worn on special occasions and only by high level religious figures, political or tribal leaders, representing great success.

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The honor of wearing a bisht, especially if borne by a person of standing, let alone the leader of Qatar, is a rare privilege, a knighthood or coronation in many ways. On Sunday, he added to the grandeur of the occasion and was in recognition of what Messi has achieved.

Well, this World Cup not only represented the victory of Argentina. It also sealed Messi’s status in the eyes of many as the “GOAT” (greatest of all time) of soccer, not just above his peer Cristiano Ronaldo, but perhaps even the game’s greatest previous icons, like Pele and Diego Maradona. He has now won all the eminent trophies the sport has to offer, including seven Ballon D’Or titles, awarded to the best player annually.

Now I do understand that since he was a child Messi’s dream has been to play in Argentina. Part of that dream probably included the hope of one day lifting the solid gold World Cup trophy in an Argentina jersey like Maradona before him. It is reasonable to wonder if Messi’s wishes were overtaken by events on stage. But the outrage in the Western media is not about Messi’s dream. It is about an unwillingness, steeped in racism and Orientalism, to accept that football and celebrations can look different in different parts of the world.

At no time did Messi appear to show disdain for the bisht. Neither was his Argentina number 10 jersey, a jersey so iconic that it sold out around the world before the final, was covered beyond recognition.

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It is not uncommon for victorious athletes to receive gifts or clothing that reflect local cultures. The most apt example is Pelé’s victory at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, where a hat was placed on his head. Was Pelé’s moment “hijacked”, as claimed by 7 News Australia in the case of Messi?

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In fact, since the day Qatar was granted the right to host the World Cup, the Western media have shown their “shock”. Eurocentric and hypocritical objections persisted in the build-up to and continued through the momentous tournament. The outrage over Messi’s bisht was a final display of ignorance.

The success of the Moroccan team in the World Cup was a source of pride for many Arabs and Africans around the world. For me, as an Iraqi Arab, it was truly inspiring to see another Arab nation triumph and witness their culturally similar celebrations. But, as with bisht, the Western media once again displayed anti-Arab ignorance after Morocco’s string of stunning victories.

After they finally bowed out against France in the semifinals, ESPN published a photograph of the prostrate Moroccan players, a symbol of humility before God for billions of Muslims around the world. But the caption read: “Moroccan players and staff bow in gratitude to their supporters who turned out in force.”

A German media outlet, Welt, compared Moroccan players celebrating by pointing their fingers skyward at ISIL (ISIS) fighters. No western media draws such parallels with Messi when he celebrates by pointing his finger towards the sky after scoring goals. The tender images of the Moroccan players celebrating with their mothers, reflecting the importance of the family in African and Arab cultures, were mocked by a Danish television channel: Moroccans were compared to a family of monkeys.

However, such racism, ignorance and outright incompetence in journalism is not entirely surprising given the lack of representation in most Western newsrooms. In the United States, 40 percent of the population is non-white. But a 2020 Reuters Institute study found that nearly 90 percent of top publishers are white. Improving diversity at the top levels of newsrooms will help Western media outlets create safeguards against displays of ignorance, though that would require these organizations to come to terms with their failure to dismantle barriers to growth for non-white journalists. .

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In the Arab world, some enthusiastically call the bisht-wearing Argentine captain “Sheikh Messi.” That too is a reflection of the affection he enjoys. Let’s not stain his glorious victory -and that of Argentina- with a racist fury over a gesture of admiration and respect.

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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.

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