A small coastal nation, little known to much of the world, hosts a remarkable soccer tournament. Fueled by a growing export economy and the labor of a sizeable population of foreign-born migrants, the country is building the basic infrastructure to host an event that takes place primarily in its capital. For the host country, this World Cup is not just an exercise in sporting entertainment, but an opportunity to put itself on the map, demonstrate its prosperity and prowess and gain global prestige.
I am writing about Uruguay in 1930, where the first World Cup was held. But the same setup will apply to Qatar as the 2022 World Cup kicks off on Sunday. Of course, there is no shortage of differences between now and then. In the sporting dimension alone, Uruguay entered the first tournament on the back of the golden football triumphs of the Olympics and won the first World Cup on home soil. Despite the expensive and careful development of Qatar’s national football program, it is not expected to be competitive or even make it out of the group stage.
Yet, as the self-deprecating axiom in Uruguay goes, while other countries have their history, we have our football. Qatar is playing something like this: “No country has ever put sport in general, and the World Cup in particular, at the center of its foreign policy and economic development” as uniquely as Qatar, soccer historian David Goldblatt recently wrote. Half a century ago, the former British protectorate was an unknown backwater in the Persian Gulf, known for pearl diving and little else. But vast wealth in hydrocarbons, especially liquefied natural gas, has changed its fortunes, fueled its rise as an influential regional power and bolstered its bid for the 2022 tournament.
Qatar’s ruling monarchy has staked a generation’s worth of political capital in staging the first World Cup in the Middle East and Arab world. It funded an astonishing $220 billion in construction, creating new stadiums, roads, train systems, hotels and other infrastructure. And it weathered the wrath of neighboring Gulf monarchies, whose displeasure with Qatar’s 2022 showing was hidden under a wider economic and political blockade of the peninsula nation between 2017 and 2021.
Political debate swirls around the FIFA World Cup in Qatar
He also weathered what Qatar’s emir described as an “unprecedented” level of scrutiny and scorn ahead of the tournament. Activists and journalists have come out on the Qatari monarchy’s checkered human rights record, the harsh working conditions associated with massive construction projects, the dismal status quo for LGBTQ people and the murky deals that surrounded Qatar winning the World Cup bid in the first place.
On all these fronts, Qatari authorities have fired back, accusing critics of misinformation when it comes to reporting the death toll of migrant workers and hypocrisy when criticizing Qatari politics and society. There is also no clear chain of evidence linking Qatari authorities to an act of fraud or bribery in the 2022 World Cup bid process – although a number of prominent FIFA officials have been implicated in unrelated corruption allegations.
As the tournament’s 32 national teams made their final preparations for Qatar, FIFA president Gianni Infantino – a controversial figure in his own right – sent a letter to each team urging them to avoid taking overtly political positions. “We know that football does not live in a vacuum and we are also aware that there are many challenges and difficulties of a political nature around the world,” Infantino wrote. “But please don’t let football be dragged into every ideological or political battle that exists.”
That’s easier said than done, and some participating national teams will engage in bouts of virtue signaling before the games begin. Team USA, for example, was among several teams that trained this week with groups of migrant construction workers. It will also use a rainbow flag on its coat of arms to support LGBTQ rights.
With the World Cup in Qatar approaching, the USMNT is using its platform to push for change
Of course, no World Cup is immune to the ideological and political battles of the day. The tournaments themselves are the most anticipated events in the global sporting calendar, now attracting billions of eyes and the attention of a vast international public. They are always crucibles for the trends and tensions shaping the globe.
Immediately following Uruguay’s debut, the interwar years were dominated by Benito Mussolini’s fascist project, with Italy winning at home in 1934 and then again in France in 1938. Italian coach Vittorio Pozzo recalled the hostile reaction in Marseille, France, when the team of Italy performed the fascist salute in their first game against Norway. “I entered the stadium with our players lined up in military style and stood on the right,” he said later. “At the greeting we were predictably met with a solemn and deafening barrage of boos, insults and remarks.”
As their hands fell, the raucous reaction of the anti-fascist fans in the stands died down. Pozzo then urged his players to make the fascist gesture once more. “Once we won the intimidation battle, we played,” he said.
Other forces shaped subsequent tournaments. The dominant multiracial countries of Brazil came on the scene as decolonization swept Asia and Africa and soon developed a cult following in the developing world from the slums of Kolkata, India, to the streets of Nairobi. Argentina’s 1978 tournament was an embarrassing propaganda showcase for its military dictatorship, which faced boycotts from some countries in Europe. France’s 1998 victory on home soil with a team made up largely of communities with roots in former French colonies crystallized the changing identity of the European nation.
World Cups can also cause false dawns. The international furor against the 2018 tournament in Russia had faded by the time the tournament began. Journalists and foreign fans, including Today’s WorldView, were enthralled by the spirit of exuberance and openness that swept across Russia’s cities during the tournament, which saw a mediocre Russian side power through to the quarter-finals. But activists knew even then what was coming, as one LGBTQ rights activist in Moscow told me in 2018: “We’re going to be kicked out as soon as the World Cup is over.”