At Qatar’s World Cup, Where Politics and Pleasure Collide

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A smiling ghost emerged from the floor. La’eeb, the mascot of this year’s World Cup in Qatar, is a disembodied figure in a thobe, the white dress favored by men on the Arabian Peninsula. It materialized during the tournament’s opening ceremony, sometime after Morgan Freeman asked Ghanim al-Muftah, a Qatari YouTuber who was born without legs, if he was welcome in the country — he was — and before Jung Kook, from the Korean boy band group BTS, sent the mostly Qatari crowd into conservative ecstasy mode. La’eeb drifted across a floodlit plain populated by previous mascots, all the way to World Cup Willie, a teddy bear lion used by England fourteen tournaments ago. For soccer fans, every replay of the World Cup, first staged in Uruguay in 1930, brings immediate associations: Pavarotti singing “Nessun Dorma” in Italy in 1990; the vuvuzelas of South Africa, in 2010. The Qatari edition was born in corruption, paid for with hydrocarbons and built on the labor of hundreds of thousands of workers imported from the Global South and often mistreated in one of the smallest and richest countries on earth. According to FIFA, who owns the World Cup, La’eeb was from a “parallel-verse talisman that is indescribable.” Everyone was encouraged to find their own meaning, even if that meaning was death.

The first ten days of the World Cup in Qatar were football as it is, not as you want it to be. It was sales, closed and transactional. I saw great goals. I drank a coke and paid with my Visa card. I lined up for the adidas store. Everything was brand new, air-conditioned and covered in an almost invisible layer of pale desert dust. I was safe and sometimes happy, mostly from the people I met. It was a case of situational ethics, in which the spontaneity and empathy of the world’s most popular sport was disrupted and altered by the circumstances in which it was played.

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When I arrived for the opening match at Al Bait Stadium, which stands alone in the desert, a towering industrial Bedouin tent confection, I knelt down to pluck a sprig of perfect grass just to check if it was real. It smelled like nothing at all. (The World Cup pitch is a trademark marine paspalum imported from the United States; each pitch is irrigated with ten thousand liters of desalinated water a day.) There was camel shit, and it was real, too. At night in the capital, Doha, you’re never more than ten yards from a crowd marshal waving a green or red baton, showing you where to go. The scores of the current games were projected onto the hills of skyscrapers flashing across the city. It was like in a QR code.

Qatar is smaller than Connecticut. All but three teams were based in Doha and, unlike any previous World Cup, it was possible to attend more than one match per day. The whole world was there, generally in small proportions. I met a Mexican couple in the sparkling new subway grumbling about the lack of beer. “The beer is the atmosphere,” said one of them. Canadian fans discussed electronic surveillance rumors. (German officials advised visitors to wipe their phones after using Qatar’s Hayya app, which functioned as both a visa and a tournament pass.) Wales supporters were ordered to remove their rainbow hats.

To host, Qatar underwent a construction boom during which an unknown number of migrant workers died.

Doha is a city of six-lane highways and impassable sidewalks. There are compounds in every shade of beige. Away from the stadiums and malls, there was no one around, which occasionally gave the feeling of going to the World Cup alone. One morning I tried to find the Dutch team, who were training in a facility on the campus of Qatar University. The campus, a vast maze of roads and checkpoints, was closed. (School and university semesters in Qatar ended early to make way for the tournament.) No one knew where the team was. Instead I stopped at Caravan City, a fan trailer park where the windswept gravel plain was decorated here and there with simple stone mosaics of flowers. I ran into Jaime Higuera from New Jersey who was staying in a trailer with his brother. The trailer was cute enough, decorated with pictures of deer. Not a soul could be seen outside. “I’m like, ‘Are there other people staying here?'” Higuera said. “I do not know.”

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FIFA awarded Qatar the rights to host the World Cup on 2 December 2010. On the same day, the organization’s executive committee voted to award Russia the 2018 edition. Of the twenty-two men who voted, fifteen were later indicted by American or Swiss prosecutors banned from playing football accused by FIFAthe Ethics Committee or expulsion from the International Olympic Committee. Outside advisers have pointed out that Qatar does not have a single suitable stadium, that it is a potential security risk and that summer temperatures reach one hundred and ten degrees. (The tournament was originally scheduled for June and July.) Over the next twelve years, the World Cup catalyzed a breathtaking construction boom in Qatar, which relied largely on migrant workers from South Asia. Human rights groups have reported deaths, poor workplace safety and misery among unpaid workers trapped in Qatar’s unequal immigration system. Gay and trans people have expressed shock that the World Cup will be held in a country where homosexual acts and all forms of extramarital sex are punishable by up to seven years in prison. “It’s not just sad, it’s sick,” Thomas Hitzlsperger, a gay former member of the German national team, told guard.

On November 8, twelve days before the start of the tournament, Sepp Blatter, the former president of FIFA, admitted that Qatar was a “bad choice”. His successor, Gianni Infantino, said it would be the best World Cup ever. He wrote to the thirty-two participating teams and asked them to focus on football “without giving moral lessons to the rest of the world”.

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A day before the opening, Infantino addressed about four hundred reporters in an auditorium in Doha. “I have very strong feelings today,” he began. “Today I feel Qatari. Today I feel like an Arab. I feel African today. I feel gay today. I feel disabled today. Today I feel like a guest worker.” Infantino recalled his own struggles as a child of Italian migrants in Switzerland. He was bullied because of something red on his hands. He asked his communications director what these were called. “freckles” said Infantino. He scolded reporters for not writing more about people with disabilities. “Nobody cares,” he said. He mourned the deaths of African migrants at sea in the Mediterranean trying to reach a better life: “Where are we going? Where are we going with our way of working, guys?’

Whatever Infantino was trying to say didn’t make much more sense than the words to “Tukoh Taka,” the wildly catchy anthem of the tournament’s Fan Festival, held on a shadowless concrete patch not far from Doha’s waterfront: “Some say ‘football ‘, others say ‘football’ / Likkle shot go block-a (block-a).” Thank you, Nicki Minaj. Or a viral video on TikTok showing some England fans, apparently from Liverpool, having a good time in Doha — just drinking, they say — looking for beer, ending up at a rich Qatari’s house and playing with his pet lion.

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