The beauty of the Qatar World Cup does not excuse the ugliness at its core
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There is a morbid observation that occasionally does the rounds on social media; none of us would willingly get into a swimming pool with a dead body, but we’re quite happy to paddle about in the ocean where we all know that there are incalculable corpses floating in the depths. As such, it stands to reason that there is an exact ratio of cadavers to water at which we as humans will take exception and stay away from the drink. You would imagine that the Qatar World Cup came pretty damn close to that threshold.
Never before has a tournament been so overtly doused in ugliness. From the moment that FIFA decided to prostitute its conscience at the altar of an impractical, exploitative vanity project, there were fears about the human cost of their Middle Eastern venture. In such a small nation, where everything from infrastructure to social freedoms were sorely lacking, somebody was always going to have to absorb the mangling pressure of it all, and it was always going to be the most vulnerable. Indeed, absorb it they have, like a matchbox full of ants in a car compactor.
Before we go any further, let us make one thing perfectly clear; Qatar is not unique, nor even particularly rare, in its status as a problematic World Cup host. Four years ago we all watched as Vladmir Putin smirked and waved like the Cheshire Cat’s sickly cousin at an opening ceremony in Moscow. In four years’ time, the vast majority of the tournament will be held in the USA, with all of its pernicious international meddling and persistent internal divisions. By 2026, all bets are off on who the leader of the free world will even be. It could be Joe Biden. It could be Donald Trump. Hell, it could be Sauron.
Immorality does not exist in a vacuum, as much as it might be convenient for us to pretend otherwise. But none of that excuses Qatar, nor does it lessen the need for some kind of accountability. A thousand wrongs don’t make a right.
By now, you will likely be familiar with the grave details. An estimated 6,500 migrant workers died during the construction of the stadiums which hosted this winter’s tournament. Countless others have been underpaid, mistreated, or both. As recently as September, Qatari authorities are alleged to have arbitrarily arrested and detained members of the LGBTQ community, while one prominent ambassador for the event described homosexuality as ‘damage in the mind’ just days before proceedings got under way. Ludicrously ill-judged comments from FIFA president Gianni Infantino, in which he claimed to feel ‘gay’, ‘disabled’, and like a ‘migrant worker’, did little to quell the din of anger, while away from the football, Qatar itself has been implemented in a scandal in which it is accused of attempting to influence EU policy by bribing European parliament officials.
These, sadly and inevitably, will be the lingering legacies of the 2022 World Cup for many. And that is a shame because in spite of everything, there were moments of beauty and joy. Whether it be Lionel Messi’s personal fairytale unfurling itself in celestial splendour, or Morocco’s momentous slog to the latter stages, it was a tournament that constantly offered so much on the pitch. Japan kneecapping both Germany and Spain, Saudi Arabia humbling eventual champions Argentina, Tunisia and Cameroon jolting France and Brazil respectively in thrilling dead rubbers; these are all fleeting sketches that have etched themselves onto collective psyches like crude schoolyard graffiti. In the stands, the Japanese were as whimsical and immaculate as ever, while on the other side of the world, Melbourne fan parks erupted and trembled in the bewitching boondocks of the early hours as Australia slipped their handcuffs in a group of no hope.
We have been treated to colour and spectacle and kindness as the transcendent camaraderie that only the World Cup can evoke reminded us of the richness in commonality. A planet came together in bucket hats and fezes and those frighteningly-realistic anthropomorphic lion heads that seem to do a roaring (no pun intended) trade in Senegal, and from the first shrill of the referee’s whistle to its oft-delayed concluding crow, things were... alright.
But football does not and cannot inhabit a daydream, distant from the nefarious forces that influence its every twist, turn, and ethical death spiral. This World Cup, perhaps more than any other before it, lingered in a constant state of duality. And for all of the good, there has simply been too much greed, too much arrogant delusion, and too much disregard for human life for the tournament to be considered anything other than a disgrace. Qatar can construct as much elaborate artifice as it likes, when the legacy of its time in the spotlight comes to be written, that is how it will be remembered.