Sportswashing and spectacle as Qatar’s World Cup of conflicts kicks off

Qatar’s World Cup kicks off on Sunday  (AFP via Getty Images)
Qatar’s World Cup kicks off on Sunday (AFP via Getty Images)

As Lionel Messi and the Argentine squad arrived in Qatar this week, driving through a £220bn infrastructure project built on “modern slavery”, there was unmistakable excitement. The players can’t quite believe the World Cup is suddenly here again. “Another chance” at victory, and immortality. It was much the same in the England camp, where the 14 players who have never been to the competition were almost just saying to each other: “It’s the World Cup!”

And one like no other, for reasons way beyond the fact it is starting in November.

The disrupted calendar has at once made this World Cup one that has suddenly come out of nowhere and yet also weighed over the game for over a decade. It is a mere week’s preparation that goes back 12 years.

That apparent contradiction appropriately reflects so many conflicts running through this World Cup.

There is not a moral conflict, it should be stressed. It is unchallengeable: this World Cup should not be taking place in Qatar.

That is down to one simple truth, before you get into any debates about moral relativism or any of the rest of the pushback. No sporting competition should involve any human suffering or death, let alone the unquantifiable abuse of migrant workers in Qatar or the thousands of deaths that literally cannot be counted because the state refuses to investigate.

“The bottom line is that these human rights abuses are not normal for a World Cup host,” says Minky Worden, the director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch.

There’s then a second essential truth. For all the World Cup’s many historical problems, one of its positives is how it has grown into a global party that is a celebration of humanity. It was best seen on the Copacabana and in Cape Town, and even Nikolskaya Street in Moscow, where people from all over the world came together. This very universal revelry has been recognised by Fifa’s tenets of inclusivity. Despite that, a lot of the planet doesn’t feel comfortable going to Qatar, since homosexuality is illegal in Qatar and many LGBTQ+ groups have said they just do not feel safe.

And yet it is that image of the global party, the great festival of colour around stadiums as nation-defining moments take place on the pitch, that makes it almost impossible for the players and fans not to feel some excitement.

The US national crest branded with Pride colours (Reuters)
The US national crest branded with Pride colours (Reuters)

This is the real conflict, and something else such states are aggressively taking from us.

You only have to see images of a Diego Maradona run in Mexican heat. This is the “magic” of it, as Patrice Evra says, that first got so many of us into football. This is what the players play the game for, as Gareth Southgate says.

This is still what the winning team will celebrate, from what is one of the most open World Cups ever in terms of the football.

This, crucially, is what Qatar is buying. It’s that excitement, that captive audience. It’s that innocence and beautiful joy.

It’s just one more element this World Cup has taken from us, even if that is the least of this competition’s problems. The biggest sportswashing event in history is expressly using our own love of the game. It has even sullied one of the potentially nobler elements of this tournament, as it is the first World Cup held in the Middle East. That is overdue and should have been something to celebrate. But it’s not worth this.

There’s an old line that many people measure their lives in World Cups. This World Cup can instead be measured in lives.

Or, it would be if Qatar would do the workers’ families the basic decency of investigating deaths. And yet it’s equally impossible not to think that, even in a sport as ubiquitously relentless as football – where there is always another big game – some of this has affected attitudes to this World Cup.

Excitement just isn’t as high as usual. There isn’t the same giddiness about old songs and themes, the competition’s capacity for nostalgia too muted by present concerns. While most of the world will watch, the feeling is that many are doing so grudgingly.

Is that what it’s all for? Is that what so many migrant workers have died for, and what Qatar has spent a reported £220bn on?

Well, that and much more. One of many calculations the host has made is that most of these concerns will fade into the background once the football begins. Qatar will start to be associated with historic sporting moments. That’s what happened with Russia – but it may not necessarily happen in the same way now.

The world feels too attuned to all of this. It’s all too embedded. Even the lack of full citizenship of many of the Qatari players, who will open the World Cup against Ecuador at 4pm UK time on Sunday, reflects issues that migrant workers have faced. Will they be the least popular host team in history?

Workers walk past the Khalifa International Stadium (AFP via Getty Images)
Workers walk past the Khalifa International Stadium (AFP via Getty Images)

It should be acknowledged that, like Russia, much of this will resemble a Potemkin village. A Qatari government circular has reportedly already gone around companies directing them to reduce workforces, which essentially means sending many migrant workers home. While hundreds of thousands will still be visible throughout this World Cup – since they are required to make it happen – it is very difficult for them to speak freely. This is a surveillance state, where no dissent is tolerated. It took the crew for The Workers Cup – a documentary that should really be watched by every squad – months to build up trust with workers.

That is one of many reasons, mind, that activist groups are expected to use the global spotlight as an opportunity to finally protest properly in Qatar. The policing will be instructive, as will be what happens when everyone goes home.

There’s then what the players will say. The Independent has been told that many federations were aggravated by Gianni Infantino’s letter asking them to stick to football, when it is Fifa’s persistence with this World Cup that has brought so many uncomfortable questions.

Bruno Fernandes and Southgate have already admirably illustrated many will talk about what they see fit. Not everyone is going to follow Hugo Lloris’s lamentable approach of silence, although many will.

The French goalkeeper’s comments, just as everyone arrives, do raise a more complicated question over what the attitude amongst squads should be. It should be stressed that human rights groups have never called for boycotts, for a multitude of reasons, mostly related to the use of the World Cup itself for the reform agenda. There is also sympathy for athletes, given they suddenly have this immense social burden placed on them for decisions they had no part in.

Worden says they are “effectively hostages” to the situation. For many, this is their only chance at a World Cup, or their only chance to win it. These are life moments and career dreams that have the misfortune to coincide with a controversial host and the consequences of other people’s bad decisions. These questions should be put to Fifa and the federations rather than the players.

That said, they can’t plead ignorance. It is to the benefit of their careers to play in this World Cup, so they should at least use the immense power of their voice to put pressure on Qatar for reform. That is still possible. Qatar can still be embarrassed into action. It is why Lloris is wrong. Many players have already laudably taken the knee against racial inequality in the past, and you couldn’t have a greater illustration of racial inequality than Qatar’s entire migrant worker infrastructure.

A further shame of everyone being forced to discuss these grave issues is that there was a new purity to the international game compared to club level. It hasn’t been dictated by money in the same way. It hasn’t been driven by the sport’s various commercial interests in the same way. It doesn’t have teams as state-run sportswashing projects, something all the more ironic given it involves nations competing.

International football had instead become about the talent a football culture can produce, the emotion of representing your country, and what a coach can do with all that. That’s what should define a World Cup in 2022.

Instead, Fifa has failed to protect one of the sport’s few remaining purities, to go with the governing body’s failure to leverage significant reform in Qatar as a whole.

This is almost the biggest shame of this World Cup. One of football’s justifications for staging this tournament, and one that human rights groups actually looked upon optimistically, was that it could have pushed genuine reform in Qatar that set a precedent for the rest of the Gulf. Bringing a World Cup somewhere has that kind of power.

The chance has been squandered. Reform has been superficial, with changes in law not properly implemented, meaning abuses have continued. Every group from Amnesty to the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre is talking of a “lost opportunity”.

There’s even been the inability to properly confront the political strife in Iran. Carlos Queiroz’s fractious press conference about his decision to manage the Iranian team was perhaps the first of those flashpoints that form the story of every World Cup. It’s just all the more acute here because this is a World Cup with a difference.

That applies to the football, too. For it will be played, and watched. It will be part of the competition’s historical record.

Before you even assess the effects of the club schedule and a mid-season staging, though, there’s the fact this is the first World Cup since 2006 that doesn’t have a super-favourite going in.

There is no Spain 2010, Germany 2014, France 2018 or any truly great side that looks like it’s coming to a peak in that way. None of the top teams are complete, let alone perfect. All have at least one major flaw, and some have a few. There’s almost a split between squads of precocious talent but still a key part missing – such as Spain, Germany and Netherlands – and those who look like they could be going stale, such as Portugal, Belgium, maybe even England and defending champions France.

It is a World Cup there to be seized, all the more so because there’s a potential vacuum

That points to how it is an oddly old-fashioned World Cup in terms of the continental divide. Both Brazil and Argentina look a level above the European teams for arguably the first time this century. That isn’t through anything systemic, it should be said, but is instead circumstantial and through the individual effect of figures like Tite, Lionel Scaloni and Messi. It is skewed, however, by the anachronistic way that South American sides have barely played anyone from Europe for three years. It will be a World Cup of discovery in that sense, even though we’re in an era of more tactical homogeneity across continents than ever before.

It is far from the only unknown about this tournament, as Southgate has said. The minimal preparation will cause disruption, to both tactical approaches and form. That may mean a lot of early surprises, as there was with a similarly abrupt start to Euro 2020. The intense first week could bring chaos, and a battle for survival.

If the big teams do get through, though, it could be where there is another split in the tournament. The feeling among many camps is that the last 16 will be where the “real” World Cup begins because squads will by then have had two weeks together. That will only be accentuated by the fact the players don’t have the same “physical load” as they do in June, even allowing for the relentless schedule.

We may by that point see international teams at a greater level than we’ve seen in decades. It could be where the few top coaches really assert their ability. Luis Enrique and Hansi Flick are after all the only managers at this World Cup to have enjoyed recent elite club success, let alone the trebles both have won.

That’s if they survive that far. The nature of the group stage may mean it’s more influenced by key 1990s strengths like individual inspiration and squad psychology.

Didier Deschamps is greatly respected among the French camp for rallying team spirit in that way, which gives the defending champions an edge even as they lose their 2018 midfield to injury. The question is whether he can incorporate their endless line of young talent to the same effect. Southgate, for his part, is just as adept in this area. It might also be where tournament-experienced mid-tier teams like Wales, Uruguay and Croatia enjoy an early advantage.

The schedule could work another way there, too. Its intensity has admittedly left stars like Son Heung-Min at risk of not showing their true level, sadly diminishing otherwise optimistic sides like Korea. But the fact its midseason means that all of Messi, Neymar, Robert Lewandowski, Vinicius Junior, Kylian Mbappe, Jamal Musiala, Pedri, Kevin De Bruyne and Dusan Vlahovic are looking fresher than most stars have for modern tournaments.

It is a World Cup there to be seized, all the more so because there’s a potential vacuum. This could have been the last grand showdown between Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. It still might be. It just doesn’t look likely.

The circus of Ronaldo’s interviews dominated the brief lull between the club games and the World Cup, but all of that comes from self-denial over the forward’s diminishing powers, and oddly puts a player of his historic legacy under more pressure.

He has created a situation where he now has to perform. It’s all the more pressing since a much-criticised Portuguese management has so based the team around Ronaldo rather than so much excellent young talent. It isn’t impossible that Fernando Santos comes to a point where he has to decide whether to drop Ronaldo for the good of their campaign.

It similarly can’t be ruled out that the 37-year-old defies everyone again, in the manner he has made a habit of throughout his career. It’s just that career has never seen an ineffectiveness like the last few months.

This isn’t Ronaldo as we know him. This is once more, however, the Messi that became revered.

In contrast to the Portuguese, everything seems to be falling for Messi. He’s in superb physical and footballing form, with the controversial decision to join Qatar’s Paris Saint-Germain actually ensuring he’s kept ticking over in prime condition without being stretched. That now corresponds with a remarkable upturn for Argentina. Scaloni has developed a system that fits the squad but especially Messi, who is now able to work much closer to goal and with attackers like Lauturo Martinez running off him.

Messi is, literally, in the best possible place.

Lionel Messi training in Abu Dhabi ahead of the tournament (EPA)
Lionel Messi training in Abu Dhabi ahead of the tournament (EPA)

He is also in his best form going into a World Cup since 2010, with Argentina in by far their best shape going in since 2006. It’s a potent combination. It is at least possible, after an entire career striving through this grand quest, that Messi’s great moment might just come at the last.

The unknowns of this tournament may of course undermine that. So much of it is unpredictable. It would nevertheless afford Qatar 2022 a romance it doesn’t deserve; a romance that would be used.

Regardless of who wins, the inescapable reality is that sportswashing has won. The tournament is happening, and without any significant reform.

The world will tune in. It is likely to be watching the end of an era.

That isn’t just because this is the last 32-team tournament, or the end of the vintage four-team groups that enrich World Cups.

The very arrival of the tournament after a 12-year build-up adds to a fin de siecle feel. It is like this is the last of an old-fashioned form of sportswashing, and we are now set to move into one where football is truly dominated by the state-run clubs. The top of the Champions League may well become Qatar’s PSG against Abu Dhabi’s Manchester City against Saudi Arabia’s Newcastle United in the coming years. It would be symbolic if one of them won the European Cup in June, after this.

The World Cup and international football could have stood as a last bastion of relative purity against all that. That hasn’t been allowed to happen. We are about to find out what it was all worth.