World Cup Qatar Will Be Great Football But an Ugly Game


The sense of fair play in the West will be inflamed when the World Cup kicks off next weekend, as a country without any home-grown tradition in the game has won the right to host the World Cup through financial muscle. Insults also added to the hurt – the World Cup was not played during the usual summer break but in November due to extreme temperatures in Qatar, suspending domestic football in the northern hemisphere for six weeks. Fans and players just need to generalize.

The next few weeks will be a reminder of how the clash of values ​​between the free West and wealthy Arab nations can play out on the international stage, leaving everyone unhappy.

First, Qatar has a mixed human rights record. The country is democratic in name only, ruled by the authoritarian Al Thani dynasty, which jails LGBTQ people who engage in consensual sex. Britain’s tireless human rights activist Peter Tachel was kicked out of the country last week after he staged a one-man demonstration outside Qatar’s National Museum. On German television last week, Khalid Salam, Qatar’s official World Cup ambassador, chose that moment, calling homosexuality a “psychological injury”.

Then there are casualties. Some 6,500 migrant workers died while building the championship’s shiny purpose-built infrastructure in Qatar, including highways, hotels and eight display venues (one designed like a Bedouin tent, the other built from 974 recycled shipping containers) . Authorities say they have since cleaned up the labor practices.

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Even former FIFA president Sepp Blatter now describes his decision to award the 2010 World Cup to Qatar as “a bad choice”. Blatter recently told Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger: “This country is too small. Football and the World Cup are too big for this.”

The decision was mired in controversy and corruption allegations. Blatter himself was cleared of fraud charges by a Swiss court in July. The Justice Department also believes that FIFA members were bribed to vote for Qatar, despite the country’s repeated denials.

However, when you consider Qatar’s point of view, things don’t look much better. Qatar competes with the UAE for commercial dominance in the Gulf, so winning the right to host the World Cup is a huge propaganda coup. Al Thanis has billions of dollars to spend, and the West wants their money and LNG. Qatar already has several Major League Soccer clubs; why shouldn’t the kingdom deserve their prize?

Power-hungry Western bureaucrats who manage international sporting events such as the World Cup and the Olympics are happy to oblige. As long as the game goes on schedule, these staff don’t care about politics. It’s just business.

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The World Cup was used for propaganda by Mussolini’s Italy in 1934, Argentina’s vicious junta in 1978, and Vladimir Putin’s Russia in 2018. So why choose poor little rich Qatar, which wants to be friends with everyone and promises its 300,000 citizens that life is comfortable as long as they keep their heads down?

Plus, tournament bureaucrats know what autocracy can offer. Their grand construction project avoided all the messy compromises and tortuous delays involved in democratic planning. Think how long it would take to build a railway line in the UK or an airport in Germany. Never mind Qatar’s historical support for the Muslim Brotherhood, tourists can relax (slightly) normal Islamic restrictions on drinking in Qatar with a flick of the ruler’s solid gold pen during the tournament.

Western greed and hypocrisy go hand in hand. Celebrities, models and sports figures who showed up to take pictures at Gay Pride events and support liberal causes at home were happy to take Qatari money to promote the World Cup. To al Thanis, it seems that everything and everyone in the West is on sale.

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In any case, if the West wants to influence the Arab monarchy, it needs to get involved. As Lord Charles Powell told several British Prime Minister’s diplomats, “the days of the Gulf being a no-go zone for the United States and, to a certain extent, the United Kingdom are over.” China and Russia are increasingly important to the region trade and security competitors. In the east and west, Iran and Israel maneuver for advantage. We cannot ignore these relationships. Yet one minute Washington is clamoring for the human rights record of friendly regimes, the next it is begging them to help control oil prices.

Of course next week I will be cheering for England with my compatriots. But please don’t doubt that while you will see great football, winning the World Cup is an ugly game.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Martin Ivens is editor of The Times Literary Supplement. Previously, he was editor and chief political commentator for The Sunday Times in London.

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