So as this is being typed action is finally underway in Doha, Qatar and the 2022 men’s soccer World Cup is being contested for the first time on that country’s soil. The fact that this is occurring five days before Thanksgiving is a concession to the intense heat that this region’s climate has, which during the traditional summer window would have made such a tournament physically impossible. The fact that this is occuring in a country like Qatar at all is a sobering reminder of exactly what does motivate FIFA, the global organization governing the sport.
And in case that fact had been lost along the way of the anticipation of 23 of the world’s best national trams, plus Qatar, about to do battle in a sprint to Christmas that will crown one of them with perhaps the most coveted trophy on our planet, FIFA president Gianni Infantino held a presser yesterday which, as Sky’s Rob Harris reported, essentially reinforced what makes this World (Cup) go round:
He was determined to call out what he perceives as critics’ hypocrisy – delivering a moral lecture of his own.
There seemed to be a reference to colonialism when he claimed Europeans had no right to criticise Qatar – and should be apologising instead for their own conduct for the next 3,000 years.
An attempt to show empathy appeared performative when he said, bizarrely: “Today I feel gay… today I feel [like] a migrant worker.”
He even tried to equate his own family’s experience, migrating from Italy to Switzerland, with the workers who came to Qatar for low-paid jobs, often in brutal conditions.
Countless died prematurely. The lack of post-mortem examinations means we will never know the full human cost of Qatar hosting the World Cup with £200bn of new infrastructure.
Mr Infantino’s rambling tirade – lasting more than an hour before questions were taken at the news conference – drew fresh attention to Qatar’s suitability as tournament host.
With no local officials speaking to the media this week, he seemed to be the voice of the Middle Eastern country.
But while he dismissed criticism of Qatar, scrutiny he considers to be hypocritical has produced changes leading to improved working condition for migrant workers.
This is a World Cup host implausibly chosen by FIFA 12 years ago.
Corruption investigations were fended off by Qatar, ensuring the eight stadiums are now ready to stage 64 World Cup matches and, maybe, the last international tournament for Portugal star Cristiano Ronaldo and his Argentine rival Lionel Messi.
After taking 12 years of attacks, Qatar hopes to celebrate as a nation – projecting a power eclipsing the tiny size of this nation.
And that’s how the 51st ranked country in world soccer prowess gets to play three games against the world’s best and not only get a sport to interrupt the seasons of a majority of its actual qualifiers, but also impose its moral standards as well. Heck, Budweiser is being banned from selling beer here. But Qatar has paid more than enough for these rights to make up that shortfall, which had Infantino add “They can make do without a drink for three hours” when asked about this during yesterday’s admonishments.
Many of those who have lamented Qatar’s blatant money grab to grab the world’s spotlight in spite of these perceived transgressions compare them to the Saudis who have bought off many of the world’s top golfers with the LIV tour, and this week its public face, Greg Norman, strongly hinted that a woman’s tour may soon be next. FOX has quietly begun to secure rights to this tour, with its former sports czar David Hill now brokering these conversations, and Hill is only too quick to point out similar hypocrises in judgment that complainers make. And for any sports fan to question the overarching role money plays in sports at any level in any country, one need look no further than college football as proof that, uncomfortable as Infantino’s views may appear to be, they are hardly unique nor, frankly, not supported by harsh realities of what this is all about.
World Cup is, of course, the most-viewed sports spectacle on the planet. Airing it during a time of year where the majority of said planet is colder and more homebound (anyone from Buffalo reading this?) is actually a boon to the chances of audience upside. Has anyone here ever put down a larger security deposit, slipped an usher a twenty to get a better seat, or even donated to a college to get a marginal student enrolled? Well, those actions may not necessarily have human consequences, but they are exemplary to how much money ultimately dictates policy in sports.
And, whether or not the moral compass in us would care to differ, the facts bear out that once action begins, much of this noise is forgotten. To be sure, Qatar’s on-field presence will likely be minimal, as this is being written, they have already looked feeble in a 2-0 loss to Ecuador, and may consider even scoring a goal a pyrrhic victory. We will thrill to the incredible Andres Kantor yet again calling goals with his impeccable Spanish timber, transcending language and culture. We will cling to the hope that the young United States team may yet advance beyond the round of 16. We will follow the emotional storyline of Messi and Ronaldo seeking to return the Cup to the Southern hemisphere. We WILL watch. And, safe at home, many will still drink Budweiser.
Even though Infantino actually was quoted as saying at some future date the concept of North Korea hosting a future tournament would not be ruled out. Because, hey, that reality of money…
As Harris reminds, with such reality may often come comeuppance. After all, it was a mere four years ago where FIFA also made a controversal choice to host the Cup:
…(H)e was flattering 2018 host Russia and Vladimir Putin despite the concerns of human rights activists.
FIFA then had to ban Russia from this World Cup for invading Ukraine.
So I guess we may have to ban Qatar. Good news for country #52, I guess.
And for those who may fear North Korea down the road, consider who’s hosting the 2026 World Cup. And who, scarily, might be the leader of that country when it begins back in the summer.
Now you can worry. And maybe have a second Budweiser.