Qatar 2022 WTF: How the World Cup got lost in the desert of the real

This World Cup is a farcical disaster, but that's not Qatar's fault. Call it punishment for the sins of capitalism

Published November 20, 2022 12:00PM (EST)

A mosaic made of thousands of photographs of the workers who built the World Cup stadium in Lusail, Qatar, decorates the stadium’s exterior. (GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP via Getty Images)
A mosaic made of thousands of photographs of the workers who built the World Cup stadium in Lusail, Qatar, decorates the stadium’s exterior. (GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP via Getty Images)

By the time this article is published on Salon, the opening match of the 2022 World Cup tournament will have reached halftime. That match is between teams from Qatar and Ecuador, two nations whose citizens — at least before this week — might have had difficulty finding the other one on a world map. (UPDATE: Just to prove I'm paying attention, Ecuador dominated from beginning to end, winning 2-0. Many Qatari fans left before the game was over, not exactly an encouraging sign.)

That is without doubt the most random and least star-powered opener in World Cup history; even hardcore soccer nerds would be stretched to name more than one or two players on either team. (Qatar almost certainly would not have qualified if it weren't the host nation, and Ecuador is the lowest-ranked Western Hemisphere team in this year's tournament.) 

But perhaps a low-resonance contest between two obscure nations is exactly the right way to launch the world's biggest sporting event, which in this instance has become so overloaded with symbolic meaning and offers such a vivid illustration of the predicament of late-stage global capitalism that the on-pitch spectacle of a bunch of ripped young millionaires playing games for national glory almost seems beside the point.

No, I don't entirely mean that, of course. Setting aside a few high-minded boycotters — themselves a persistent epiphenomenon of late capitalism — the world will still watch the games. This will almost certainly be the final World Cup for several of the world game's biggest current stars, including Lionel Messi of Argentina, Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal and Robert Lewandowski of Poland. Many knowledgeable observers expect a Latin American team — either Brazil or Argentina — to claim the championship after several cycles of European domination. 

Defending champions France will be somewhere between magnificent and godawful, and can never be counted out despite missing several key players. Belgium, Croatia and the Netherlands are the other European teams clearly capable of making it to the final four. There's an outsider team in every World Cup tournament that captures the globe's attention and pulls off a few surprises  — if you want to lay down a few bucks on a long shot, take a look at Canada and Cameroon.

As for the young and erratic U.S. men's team, it's burdened by grossly inflated expectations in its return to the world stage after failing to qualify in 2018. Honestly, winning at least one game and getting out of the group stage would be significant progress. But this team should offer long-suffering Yank fans an exciting glimpse of the future, in which a rising generation of American players honed in Europe's top leagues — yes, media darling Christian Pulisic, but also Gio Reyna, Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams and several others — can compete on an equal footing with almost anyone. Make time on Nov. 25 (yes, that's Black Friday) for the U.S.-England match, one of the highlights of the opening round. Sure, the English are a better team on paper, but the difference is not astronomical and they have a long tradition of lackadaisical play against lesser opponents; the potential for an upset is very real.

Yes, the world will watch the games, and so will I. That was the promise baked into the pie of Qatar 2022 from the beginning, along with lots of blood, sand and money: Once the action starts for real (at least three matches a day, starting with England v. Iran early on Monday morning U.S. time), all the ugliness and stupidity suffusing this bizarre episode of sports history will be shoved to one side, labeled in passing by world-weary commentators as "politics" or "controversy."  

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But make no mistake: This World Cup is haunted, both metaphorically and in the most tragic and literal sense. Qatari organizers have denied human rights activists' claims that more than 6,000 foreign workers — mostly from Nepal, Bangladesh and India — died building the nation's infrastructure for this tournament over the last 12 years, laboring in blistering desert heat for low wages in conditions similar to indentured servitude. But the substance of those denials seems to be that the true number is much lower and that many of those deaths had nothing to do with the World Cup, which might strike reasonable observers as a less than compelling response. 

Qatar 2022 is also haunted in the Ebenezer Scrooge-on-Christmas Eve sense, and the specters on parade don't have much to do with the desert kingdom itself. First of all, of course it is grotesque, farcical and disastrous that the world's biggest sporting spectacle is being staged in a Persian Gulf autocracy the size of Connecticut which has no discernible soccer tradition and where daytime high temperatures routinely break 110℉, homosexuality is illegal, women are second-class citizens and roughly 85 percent of the population consists of manual laborers or service-sector workers imported from other Asian countries. 

Furthermore, the vigorous campaign of whataboutism, finger-pointing and media gaslighting conducted over the last couple of weeks on behalf of both the Qatari regime and FIFA (world soccer's governing body), built around irrelevant arguments that plenty of other countries do bad stuff too and slightly-more-relevant arguments that hosting the World Cup is forcing Qatar to engage in global citizenship and serving the larger cause of humanity, is embarrassing neoliberal horseshit and everyone involved in spreading it should be deeply ashamed.

Current FIFA president Gianni Infantino — who wasn't in charge back in 2010 when the Qatar decision was made — did not improve matters with his hourlong monologue during a Saturday press conference, accusing Western human rights advocates of "hypocrisy" and saying that he understood discrimination because as a child in Switzerland he had been bullied for having red hair and freckles. No, really, he said that. Then he said this:

Today I feel Qatari. Today I feel Arab. Today I feel African. Today I feel gay. Today I feel disabled. Today I feel a migrant worker.

Well, none of us has the right to question how another person "feels," up to and including a formerly-redheaded millionaire sports executive. Setting aside Infantino's limitless capacity for empathy, let's concede the apparent substance of his argument, which is that it might be racist or hypocritical, or just ignorant, to claim that Qatar is a uniquely terrible place and end the conversation there. Saudi Arabia is right next door, after all; to my knowledge the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, has not literally ordered any dissident journalists chopped into pieces. The 2018 World Cup was held in Russia, a decision described at the time as an invitation to Vladimir Putin's nation to buddy up with the global community. (The Russian team was barred from qualifying this year for obvious reasons, marking a distinct policy shift for FIFA.) 

In fact, it's not Qatar's fault that this travesty has unfolded the way it has. That nation's ruling caste, sitting atop uncountable piles of money and one of the largest natural gas fields in the world, pursued what economists would deem an entirely rational course of action. They correctly perceived two kinds of opportunity, or vulnerability, back in 2010. One was that the world's most popular sport was nowhere near maxed out, and was actually about to experience explosive market growth, thanks largely to the spread of globalized telecommunications and social media. (Subscribe to a few streaming services these days, and you can legally watch league matches from England, Italy, Germany, France, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Turkey, Belgium and Denmark — I'm sure there are others I'm forgetting.) The other was that the FIFA bureaucracy in Zurich, which conceived of itself as the guardian of soccer's integrity and the preachers of its gospel of global brotherhood, could be bought — and bought pretty cheap, at that. 

Honestly, it's not Qatar's fault that this travesty has unfolded the way it has. That nation's ruling caste, sitting atop one of the world's largest natural gas fields, perceived the market vulnerability of global soccer and seized the moment.

Last week a columnist for the Washington Post — in an especially egregious example of the whataboutism mentioned above — made the astonishing claim that there was "no clear chain of evidence" proving that FIFA's selection of Qatar for the 2022 Cup was the result of corruption. That's a lot like saying there's no clear chain of evidence proving that Donald Trump incited the Jan. 6 insurrection — I mean, we've never heard a recording of him saying, "Go break into the Capitol and fuck up Mike Pence," have we? Also, it depends what we mean by "corruption": Both FIFA and the U.S. Justice Department concluded after the fact that Qatari officials had bribed members of the selection committee, and also convinced other members they didn't bribe, for unclear reasons, to ride along.

My conclusion is this: If you want to understand how the world got here — and I don't just mean the risible decision to hold the biggest sports event in the dumbest place imaginable, but here, in a larger sense — consider the now-infamous photograph of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, earlier this year, worshipfully gazing at Sam Bankman-Fried, the no-longer-billionaire behind the now-bankrupt cryptocurrency exchange FTX. Or you could consider Clinton's fulsome praise of Elizabeth Holmes, the just-convicted con artist behind Theranos, as the paramount example of doing well by doing good. (Honestly, you could consider Bill Clinton's entire career as a public figure, in which he probably did this country more harm than Donald Trump. But I digress.)

People like Clinton and Blair were eagerly, gleefully ready to be hoodwinked by somebody like Bankman-Fried. Indeed, they were self-hoodwinked, since all three of those people were sky-high on their own supply and believed the bullshit that came out of their mouths. What they believed in was the promise of neoliberalism. (It's a bad word; I'll stop saying it now.) They believed that globalized "free markets," globalized capital and globalized communications, largely or entirely unregulated, would lead to "innovation," which would lead to (this is the cult-religion part) inexorably rising global prosperity, an end to conflict between nations and the worldwide victory of what they considered "democracy," which might more accurately be described as a managerial state where every few years a modest proportion of the public gets to choose between slightly different flavors of technocrats and fiscal strategies.

Do you see where I'm going here? With some of the FIFA folks, the Qatari emir and his pals went old-school, simply stuffing their pockets with cash. (That seems to have been the case with delegates from Latin America, for instance, who had considerable experience with right-wing and left-wing governments universally oriented around greasing the wheels.) But in a larger sense, the Qataris were offering something more seductive than pure spondulicks. Bringing the World Cup to a thumbnail-shaped peninsula of sand which had no actual soccer stadiums was "innovative." It was "disruptive." It was "blue sky" and "outside the envelope" and "thinking long-term." It was a bold step forward into the Arab and Muslim world that would unleash unexpected synchronicities and invite a slightly backward but not altogether irredeemable small nation (which BTW had shitloads of money) to join the modern world, perhaps dragging its neighbors along with it.

The Qataris offered FIFA, and the neoliberal world order, something more seductive than cash. Bringing the World Cup to a thumbnail-shaped peninsula of sand which had no actual soccer stadiums was "innovative." It was "disruptive." It was a bold step forward. LOL.

I mean, phrased like that it almost sounds convincing, right? But the thing is, Sam Bankman-Fried was convincing too. His Monopoly-money business model, drooled over by the lords of neoliberalism, appears to be on the verge of collapse. World soccer is not on the verge of collapse, but as extensive reported features in the Washington Post and New York Times have explored, the tsunami of Arab money unleashed by Qatar's World Cup bid has transformed and distorted the global soccer business. 

Five of the top six European club teams — which dominate the professional game more than ever before — are heavily dependent on petrodollars from the Gulf. Two of those teams, Manchester City in England and Paris Saint-Germain in France, have become dark-money superteams with effectively unlimited budgets, overpaying for both unproven young talent and established superstars. It's a tribute to the unpredictable nature of soccer on the pitch that neither of them has yet won a European championship — but Manchester City have been champions of the English Premier League four of the last five years, and PSG have won the French championship eight of the last 10 years.

There is clearly some discomfiture among global football fandom about all this stuff, but not much indication that either the butt-ugly context of the Qatar World Cup or the whacked-out finances of the big European teams are doing any serious damage to the sport's global reach and popularity. LGBTQ fan groups in the U.K. — and there are a bunch of them — are officially staying away from this year's World Cup. Some national teams, including England, Denmark and the U.S., will wear uniform badges or armbands meant to express solidarity with migrant workers or the entirely invisible LGBTQ community of Qatar. (The U.S. "rainbow crest," which will be worn on practice uniforms but not during games, has, of course, already become the focus of manufactured right-wing outrage about intolerable wokeness.)

But still, a million or so fans from all over the world will descend on Doha over the next few weeks. They won't be able to buy beer in or near any of the eight newly-constructed stadiums (thanks to a last-minute reversal by Qatari authorities that was greatly displeasing to Budweiser, a major FIFA sponsor), they had better not hold hands with someone who appears to be the same gender and, in my judgment, they will be playing supporting roles in the tragicomic next-to-last act of neoliberal ideology, which was a scam when it first appeared and is a much less innocent and more deeply cynical scam today. But as the well-known gay Asian migrant worker Gianni Infantino, who knows the trauma and oppression of being a Person With Freckles, just told us, everybody's guilty here. At least we've got something to watch on TV.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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