World Cup Qatar Will Be Great Football But an Ugly Game


When the World Cup kicks off next weekend, Western sense of fair play will be outraged that a country without any indigenous tradition in the game has won the right to host the tournament through financial effort. Adding insult to injury, because of the extreme temperatures in Qatar, the World Cup is not being held during the usual summer break, but in November, interrupting domestic football competitions in the northern hemisphere for six weeks. The fans and players just have to pull it together.

The next few weeks will be a reminder of how the clash in the values ​​of the liberal West and rich Arab states can play out in the international arena to widespread discontent.

First, the human rights record in Qatar is patchy. A democracy in name only, the country is ruled by the autocratic Al Thani dynasty, which imprisons LGBTQ people who have consensual sex. Tireless UK human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell was expelled from the country last week after staging a solo demonstration outside Qatar’s National Museum. On German television last week, Qatar’s official World Cup ambassador Khalid Salam chose that moment to call homosexuality a form of “mind damage”.

Then there are human casualties. Some 6,500 migrant workers died building the tournament’s glittering, purpose-built infrastructure in Qatar, including superhighways, hotels and eight demonstration stadiums (one designed as a Bedouin tent, another built from 974 recycled shipping containers). Authorities say they have since cleaned up labor practices.

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Even Sepp Blatter, the former president of FIFA, soccer’s highest international authority, now describes his decision to award the 2010 World Cup to Qatar as a “bad choice.” Blatter recently told Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger: “This is too small a country. Football and the World Cup are too big for that.”

The decision was mired in controversy and allegations of corruption. Blatter himself was acquitted of fraud charges by a Swiss court in July. The US Department of Justice also believes that FIFA members were bribed to vote for Qatar, although the country has repeatedly denied this.

Yet things don’t look any better when you consider Qatar’s perspective. Qatar has been competing with the UAE for commercial supremacy in the Persian Gulf, so winning the right to host the World Cup is a huge propaganda coup. The Al Thanis have billions to spend, and the West wants their money and liquefied natural gas. Qatar already owns several European major league football clubs; why should not the kingdom receive its reward?

The power-hungry Western bureaucrats who run international sporting events like the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics are happy to oblige. These officials don’t care about politics as long as the games are on schedule. It’s just business.

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The World Cup was milked for propaganda by Mussolini’s Italy in 1934, Argentina’s evil military junta in 1978 and Vladimir Putin’s Russia in 2018. So why pick on poor little rich Qatar who wants to be friends with everyone and guarantee its 300,000 citizens a very comfortable life as long as they keep their heads down?

Also, the tournament bureaucrats know that autocracies get results. Their grandiose building projects avoid all the messy compromises and excruciating delays involved in democratic planning. Just think how long it takes to build a railway line in the UK or an airport in Germany. And regardless of Qatar’s historical support for the Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar’s normal Islamic restrictions on alcohol can be relaxed (slightly) for tourists during the tournament with the stroke of the ruler’s golden pen.

Western greed and hypocrisy go hand in hand. Many of the celebrities, models and athletes who show up to be photographed at gay parades and support liberal causes at home are happy to take Qatari money for World Cup advertising. To Al Thani, it must appear that everything and everyone in the West is for sale.

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In any case, if the West wants to influence the Arab monarchies, it must engage. As Lord Charles Powell, a diplomatic eminence to several British prime ministers, says, “the days when the Persian Gulf was a restricted access zone for the US and to some extent for the UK are over.” China and Russia are becoming increasingly important trade competitors and security in the region. To the east and west, Iran and Israel are maneuvering for advantage. We cannot afford to ignore these relationships. Yet one moment Washington is calling for respect for the human rights of friendly regimes, the next it is asking them for help in holding down oil prices.

Of course I will be supporting the England team next week along with my compatriots. But make no doubt, even though what you’re watching will be great football, winning the World Cup is an ugly game.

This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Martin Evans is editor of the Times Literary Supplement. He was previously editor and chief political commentator of the Sunday Times of London.

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