A small coastal nation, little known to much of the world, hosts a landmark football tournament. Driven by a growth in the export economy and the work of a considerable population of foreign migrants, the country is building a large infrastructure to stage an event that takes place mainly in its capital. For the host nation, this World Cup is not just an exercise in sports entertainment, but an opportunity to put itself on the map, show its prosperity and prowess, and win global prestige.
I write about Uruguay in 1930, the place of the first World Cup. But the same setup would hold true for Qatar as the 2022 World Cup kicks off on Sunday. Of course, there are no shortage of differences between now and then. In a sporting dimension only, Uruguay participated in the inaugural tournament after the gold medal football triumphs in the Olympics, and won the first World Cup at home. No matter Qatar’s expensive and careful development of its national football program, it is not expected to be competitive or even get out of the group stage.
However, as the axiom of self-deprecation goes in Uruguay, while other countries have their history, we have our football. Qatar is playing something similar: “No state, until now, has placed sport in general, and the World Cup in particular, at the heart of its foreign policy and economic development” as unique as Qatar, football historian David Goldblatt recently wrote. Half a century ago, the former British protectorate was a dark backwater in the Persian Gulf, known for diving pearls and little else. But an immense fortune in hydrocarbons, particularly liquefied natural gas, has transformed its fortunes, turbo-charged its rise as an influential regional power and sealed its bid for the 2022 tournament.
Qatar’s ruling monarchy has staked a generation of political capital on staging the Middle East and Arab world’s first World Cup. He financed an amazing $220 billion construction bonanza, conjuring up new stadiums, roads, train systems, hotels and other infrastructure. And it has withstood the wrath of neighboring Gulf monarchies, whose resentment of Qatar showing itself in 2022 is expected to come under a wider economic and political blockade of the peninsular nation between 2017 and 2021.
The political debate revolving around the World Cup in Qatar
He also withstood what the Qatari emir described as an “unprecedented” level of scrutiny and scorn ahead of the tournament.. Activists and journalists have blasted the Qatari monarchy’s record on human rights, the harsh working conditions linked to its mammoth construction projects, the dire status quo for LGBTQ people and the shady dealings that surround Qatar winning the World Cup bid in first place.
On all these fronts, Qatari officials have fired back, accusing critics of misinformation when it comes to reporting migrant worker deaths and hypocrisy when criticizing Qatari politics and society. There is still no clear chain of evidence linking the Qatari authorities to any act of fraud or graft in the 2022 World Cup bidding process – although a number of key FIFA officials have been implicated in allegations of unrelated corruption.
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 a stand openly political. “We know that football does not live in a vacuum and we are equally aware that there are many challenges and difficulties of a political nature all over the world,” Infantino wrote. “But please don’t allow football to be dragged into any ideological or political battle that exists.”
That’s easier said than done, and some participating national teams engage in bouts of virtue signaling before the games begin. The US team, for example, was among a number of teams that trained this week with groups of migrant construction workers. He also wears a rainbow flag on his crest in support of LGBTQ rights.
As the Qatar World Cup approaches, the USMNT is using its platform to push for change
Of course, no World Cup has been immune to the ideological and political battles of the day. The tournaments themselves are the most anticipated events in the world’s sporting calendar, now attracting billions of eyeballs and the attention of a vast international audience. They are always crucibles for the trends and tensions that shape the globe.
Immediately after Uruguay’s debut, the interwar years were dominated by Benito Mussolini’s fascist project, with Italy winning at home in 1934 and then in France in 1938. The Italian coach Vittorio Pozzo recalled the hostile reaction in Marseille, France, when the Italian team played fascist. greeting in his first match against Norway. “I entered the stadium with our players, lined up military style, and stood on the right,” he said later. “On greeting, we were presumably met with a solemn and deafening flurry of whistles, insults and remarks.”
As his arms fell, the noisy reaction of the anti-fascist fans in the stands subsided. Pozzo then encouraged his players to repeat the fascist gesture. “Having won the battle of intimidation, we played,” he said.
Other forces formed subsequent tournaments. Brazil’s dominant multiracial sides arrived on the scene as decolonization swept across Asia and Africa, and soon developed cult followings across 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 victory in 1998 on home soil with a team largely drawn from communities rooted in former French colonies crystallized the changing identity of the European nation.
The World Cup can also summon false dawns. The international furor over the Russia 2018 tournament has faded by the time the tournament has started. Foreign journalists and fans, including today’s WorldView, were charmed by the spirit of exuberance and openness that swept through Russian cities during the tournament, which saw a mediocre Russian side go into the quarter-finals. But activists even then knew what was coming, as an LGBTQ rights activist in Moscow told me in 2018: “They will kick us immediately when the World Cup ends.”