The FIFA World Cup is probably the biggest event in the world. A global festival that attracted over 3.5 billion viewers in 2018 – that’s half the planet. The stakes are high. Stardom for footballers, pride for nations, bragging rights for supporters, brand recognition for sponsors, money for FIFA ($7.5 billion this year) and football and sports legitimacy for the host nation. But perhaps most of all, inspiration and unity for the world.
However, the road to Doha has been rocky. It started in 2010 with the contentious decision to award Qatar the 2022 World Cup. Corruption investigations within FIFA swiftly followed as well as human rights issues in Qatar, making this the most controversial World Cup since Argentina in 1978, when the military junta ruled Argentina and several countries called for a boycott. As a result, people like previous FIFA president Sepp Blatter, Manchester United legend Eric Cantona, and many others have spoken out against the choice for Qatar. Interestingly, Blatter was FIFA president when the bid was awarded to Qatar. Despite everything, the ball has started rolling in Qatar and we are a week underway. Let’s have a quick look at the issues that made the headlines, before we focus on the game itself.
Qatar as a Football Nation
The choice for a nation with a tiny population (3 million of which the vast majority are migrant workers and expats) with no football legacy or football future is a curious one, to say the least. At the time of the bidding, there was only one stadium, and no supporting infrastructure to move and host 1 million football fans. Having said that…if you zoom out and see Qatar as part of the Arab world and Middle East then one can make the case it will inspire a future generation of athletes in (larger) neighbouring countries such Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, etc. Especially since this is the first time the World Cup is being hosted by a Middle Eastern nation.
Qatar has been steadily building its football influence since the World Cup was awarded to them in 2010. The state has acquired French football club PSG (2011) and launched BeIN Sports (2012), a sports network with various TV rights for football competitions around the world. No money nor effort has been spared to organise the tournament. Bloomberg estimates the investment to be at least $300 billion. Seven new stadiums have been built and one has gotten an upgrade. All stadiums are within a range of 50 km from Doha’s main strip. Hotels, accommodation, and facilities have been added, although it’s still not enough. But fans can stay in, cheaper retrofitted containers or in neighbouring countries, especially in its more relaxed Gulf neighbour Dubai.
As a result most things are well organised, the facilities, infrastructure and stadiums are beautiful and the Qatari seem generally welcoming and helpful. Within limits of course. Supporters with extreme outfits, either sexually or religiously insensitive have been spoken to by the authorities. The decision to allow beer sales in stadiums was reversed last minute.
The World Cup is usually played in the, northern hemisphere, summer. While there have been World Cup matches played in scorching heat before… the Gulf climate in the summer is of a whole different level. As a result the tournament was moved to November and December. It does feel weird watching World Cup matches next to the Chrismas tree but there is an upside. Players, especially those in the European top 5 leagues, are normally exhausted after a full season of local and international matches. Now they should be in their peak fitness. Downside is that the coaches did not have a 3-week preparation time you normally have in the summer. So perhaps we’ll see fitter players but in less well-oiled teams.
One can argue about the definition and number of deaths related to preparing Qatar for the World Cup, but the circumstances under which the workers had to labor were extreme and generally perceived as inhumane. Although footballers were not allowed to play in the heat, workers still built the stadiums under harsh conditions. Many foreign workers never returned home to Nepal, India or Bangladesh, leaving their families with questions and deprived of their main income earner. Some media have reported that more than 6,500 workers have died in Qatar since the World Cup was awarded. Those that survived or those that are still working seem happy to work in Qatar; they earn money for their families back home. For people living in poverty and not having an alternative, the income is critical to their survival. Nonetheless, because of the investigations into working conditions in Qatar and all the media attention, changes have been made in labor laws, salaries and treatment of the workers.
Another contentious issue that some football associations, media, and personalities in, mostly western, countries are bringing up is women- and LGBTQ rights in Qatar. They want to do so by speaking out publicly. Some players were planning on wearing the One Love armband, which stands for diversity and inclusion. What started as a local initiative by the Dutch FA to fight discrimination, has become an international campaign. Danish player Eriksen, the one who had a cardiac arrest last summer during the Euro Cup, said he would wear the band no matter the consequences. That was before he found out that FIFA drew a line in the sand and would punish him and others wearing the armband with a yellow card. As a result some TV presenters have started wearing the armband on TV. Belgium player Vertonghen feels uncomfortable with all the FIFA rules. The German team took their team photo while covering their mouths with their hands, indicating that FIFA is muzzling them. Their Minister of Interior wore the One Love armband while sitting next to FIFA President Infantino. Unfortunately for them, they lost their opening match against Japan and the team photo became a meme for different reasons. But there were also those who remained diplomatic, France’s captain Lloris announced he would not wear the armband out of respect for the host nation.
Viva la FIFA?
Some of these issues have increased scrutiny on FIFA and the process of selecting a host nation for the tournament. Much has been written about the role of FIFA officials, FIFA president Infantino (who lives in Doha), the French government, the corruption investigations around the bid, etc. As a result, the press is extra critical of FIFA’s decisions around the tournament. The sudden decision not to allow beer sales in stadiums is probably not what beer sponsor Budweiser had signed up for when they made the deal with FIFA. Beer is not a must perhaps, but the decision to reverse it a few days before the opening feels like FIFA and Qatar have not discussed everything in detail.
Some countries, again mostly European, are getting more and more frustrated with the FIFA. Denmark for instance announced it will investigate withdrawing from FIFA and is looking for support from other nations. Interestingly, Infantino’s presidency is up for voting next year although he is the only candidate for the role.
For the Fans
A nation where alcohol consumption is limited, does not seem a great fit for a World Cup, since football is intrinsically linked with beer. However that is from the perspective of beer drinking fans. Luckily for them beer is available in Qatar, at selected places and not cheap, and so far the reports from fans is that it has not been a major problem. Beer is not served in and around stadiums which makes the whole stadium experience less ecstatic perhaps. But again, that’s from a beer drinking fan’s point of view. Fans of Morocco for instance had a great time during their match against Belgium. Other fans have mentioned how relaxed it is not having to deal with loud drunken supporters.
It is perhaps unreal that 8 large stadiums are present in one city, but for the fans it’s ideal. They don’t have to change accommodation and take planes for the next match (think Brazil in 2014 or North America in 2026) but they can just hop on the new metro or take an Uber.
Unfortunately for the fans of the host nation, its team was the first to be out of the tournament and they are now the only host nation in history to lose its first 2 matches. In contrast, all previous host nations, with the exception of South Africa in 2010 who scored 4 points and a win over France, have survived the group stage. Some of course went on to win the World Cup. What Qatar and football will win after the dust has settled and the World Cup has finished remains to be seen, but for now, let’s enjoy this beautiful game because the tournament is heating up.