Saudi Arabia achieved a stunning 2-1 comeback win over Argentina in the soccer World Cup on Tuesday. In terms of individual quality and experience, this result is truly historic. Yet it serves a useful metaphor for how, at the 2022 Qatar World Cup, just about everything positive is being delivered by foreign visitors.
Fans from across the world have sung in a strong voice and camaraderie as they support their 32 respective teams. Even England’s sometimes unreliable fans have behaved well thus far, some crusader comedy aside.
Yet Qatar’s leaders aren’t having it so easy. They must surely have winced as their erstwhile Sunni Arab nemesis secured victory against Lionel Messi’s men. Qatar was soundly defeated in its own opening game against Ecuador. Equally problematic has been Qatar’s defective fan management. The fan zones, very rare oases of beer thanks to Qatar’s capricious last-minute ban on beer in stadiums (outside of the corporate suites, that is), have seen chaos, with riot police deployed to restore access control. Fans have also been banned from wearing clothing bearing the gay rights rainbow at games.
The problem with this strict approach is that it unveils Qatar’s false commitment to a global community of soccer fans from all walks of life. There’s a distinct arrogance to the manner by which Qatar is holding to its stance. Responding to a fan’s complaint that he was prevented from entering a stadium wearing a shirt with a rainbow emblem, a prominent Qatari professor, Nayef Nahar al Shammari, responded, “As a Qatari I’m proud of what happened. I don’t know when the Westerners will realize that their values aren’t universal. There are other cultures with different values that should be equally respected. Let’s not forget that the West is not the spokesperson for humanity.”
What Shammari conveniently leaves out of his philosophy lesson is that World Cup fans aren’t simply tourists attending a Qatari national soccer tournament. Instead, they are attendees of a global soccer tournament that Qatar committed to hosting in that global context. Fans have the legitimate expectation of reasonable free expression. Moreover, as evinced by its political cover to China over Xi Jinping’s genocide against his Uyghur Muslim population, Qatar has shown it can be very flexible in applying its Islamic principles.
Again, Qatar’s problem is that even where this tournament is succeeding, that success has very little to do with Qatar per se.
Take the stadiums constructed for this monthlong sporting extravaganza. Thus far, they’ve delivered an impressive foundation for the world’s best soccer players. Whether watching inside the stadia or via television (except, perhaps, in India), fans have also been blessed with good noise atmospherics, pristine pitches, and good overall vision. While foreign architects played a central role in their development, Qatari designers can take credit for some of these stadiums.
Of course, the major tribute must go to the migrant workers who toiled to build this infrastructure. Seeking only the prospect of a better life for their families, these workers found themselves denied not just their passports and thus their freedom, but the most basic of human needs. Forced to work grueling hours under the unrelenting Qatari sun, these workers were denied water and rest. Impoverished undesirables that Qatari society wanted out of sight and mind, the workers were then forced to live in overcrowded and often squalid accommodations. As the Guardian reported in 2021, at least 6,500 of these innocents died before the World Cup stadiums became a reality.
True, Qatar shouldn’t shoulder the blame alone. The stadium blood toll also underlines the putrid reality of FIFA’s corruption. And while corruption might be a favorite FIFA word, contrition is not in the soccer governing body’s dictionary. FIFA President Gianni Infantino’s absurd rant over the weekend underlined his utter disregard for human rights and soccer fans alike.
Yet the top line is clear. This World Cup has been good watching thus far. But money aside, Qatar has had very little to do with that.