Messi's honouring with Arab cloak draws 'racist' commentary in UK press

Messi's honouring with Arab cloak draws 'racist' commentary in UK press
The gifting of a traditional Arabian garment by Qatari officials to World Cup champion Lionel Messi during the tournament's closing ceremony has stirred commentary in the British press that observers have called 'racist'.
4 min read
19 December, 2022

A traditional Arabian garment gifted to Lionel Messi following Argentina’s World Cup final win on Sunday has drawn "racist" commentary from the British press.

Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani offered a bisht - a cloak the royal was also wearing at the time - to Messi after Argentina’s historic win against France following a tense penalty shoot-out.

The bisht is a cloak made of light material with trimmings sometimes made of real gold, and is often worn by top officials and high-status individuals, or on special occasions.

The offering of the gown by the emir symbolised appreciation and respect for Messi's footballing achievements.

"It is a dress for an official occasion and worn for celebrations… this was a celebration of Messi," Hassan al-Thawadi, secretary general of Qatar’s World Cup organising committee told BBC Sport.

However, British media outlets and sports pundits were quick to mock the garment, accusing al-Thani of disrespecting Messi by "covering" his Argentina shirt.

The Telegraph deemed the gesture a "bizarre act that ruined the greatest moment in World Cup history".

"Seems a shame in a way that they covered up Messi in his Argentina shirt," BBC commentator Gary Lineker said during a live broadcast of the ceremony, as other members of his panel asked "just why", stating there’s "no reason to do that".

ESPN writer Mark Ogden wrote in a now-deleted tweet: "All the pics are ruined by somebody making him wear a cape that looks like he’s about to have a haircut."

The criticisms were called "ignorant" and "racist" by many who understood the cultural significance of the bisht, as fans remarked that Messi appeared pleased to be wearing it.

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"The 'garment of clothing' is a bisht and the intention is to honor and respect Messi not to cover his shirt. Plus, I don't see Messi complaining so why are you?" Twitter user Gee wrote.

British-Iranian actor and comedian Omid Djalili also weighed in on the debate.

"Messi was given the 'bisht', a status garment worn on special occasions by Arab men associated with royalty... not explained on the UK commentary. You’re welcome," Djalili wrote.

Some also called out a "double standard" in media reactions, pointing to the lack of outrage over former Brazilian footballer Pelé wearing a sombrero during Brazil's World Cup win in Mexico in 1970.

"They made... Pele wear a Mexican hat and... considered it a cultural coexistence... but when Qatar did it the hypocritial [sic] West went crazy," Twitter user Turbo wrote.

In contrast to the outrage of the British press, many Argentinian news outlets have highlighted the cultural significance of the emir's gesture.

Argentine newspaper Telam wrote: "The bisht that Messi wore when lifting the cup is part of the Qatari and Arab culture. Its dedication in Arab culture is similar to the gifting of the key to the city in Latin culture."

Los Andes reported: "The Emir of Qatar has dressed Messi in the popular Qatari mantle that he wears himself".

Videos posted to social media after the match also showed Argentinian fans purchasing the cloaks in Qatar's markets.

The criticism of the emir's gesture follows weeks of negative coverage of the Qatar World Cup by Western media outlets.

The World Cup opening ceremony, which drew praise as a showcase of Arab culture, was not shown on television by the BBC. The state broadcaster also opted to omit Sunday's closing ceremony from its coverage.

Negative coverage has also taken a more sinister form, with some media outlets publishing racist and xenophobic caricatures of Arabs and Muslims as terrorists and thieves, while others compared players from Arab teams to animals.