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IF SOCCER IS "THE BEAUTIFUL GAME," WHY IS THE WORLD CUP IN QATAR?
In the very stadiums built with slave labor, in a country where 6,500 migrant workers have died and homosexuality is a crime, we are expected to ignore sportswashing and dutifully watch the World Cup
It was the Brazilian legend, Pele, who spoke the tribute into existence. “The beautiful game,” he called it, though football/futbol/soccer is closer to a religious sect that would convene for a World Cup even if the world no longer existed. The planet’s foremost sporting spectacle is upon us — the Super Bowl is a mere dirt speck on the almighty spherical ball — but this time, the cult is making a very big ask of the viewing billions.
We’re supposed to ignore that the host nation, Qatar, is engaging in the same sportswashing heinousness practiced by Russia and Saudi Arabia. We’re told to obediently overlook a record of human rights violations that prompts this contemptible truth: A month of 64 games involving 32 teams, including an ever-disappointing but hopeful U.S. side, should not be taking place amid the oil-soaked wealth and influence of a Middle East disruptor.
“Please, let’s now focus on the football!” harrumphed Gianni Infantino, the latest mob boss to serve as FIFA president, in a letter to participating nations. “We know football does not live in a vacuum and we are equally aware that there are many challenges and difficulties of a political nature all around the world. But please do not allow football to be dragged into every ideological or political battle that exists.”
Or death to us all!
“We will have two million people coming from all over the world and showing that humanity can live in peace together,” said Infantino, as he prepares to tally massive revenues from FIFA’s shadiest venture yet.
Mere hours before the opening match in the smallest nation to stage the quadrennial extravaganza, we’re only now figuring out Qatar’s approximate location (on a Persian Gulf peninsula). And what it represents politically (a conservative Muslim country). And how its name is pronounced (“kah-taar” is accepted). And how an alcohol-phobic nation the size of New Hampshire expects to handle two million visitors, including hooligans, when only 2.9 million live there (just 350,000 are Qatari citizens). What we do know and have known, as stench wafts across the globe, is the lingering corruption inside the country’s backrooms.
Tell me: How many migrant workers were killed, injured, unpaid and forced to live in squalor while building stadiums and infrastructure for the event? The death count has been estimated at more than 6,500 in the 12 years since Qatar was awarded the World Cup, with Amnesty International describing working conditions as “modern slavery.” And we’re expected to simply sit back and enjoy the action, in the venues built by slave labor, on stateside Fox broadcasts that make no mention of the horrors while the corporate likes of McDonald’s, Adidas and Coca-Cola remain sponsors.
Tell me: How can we ever keep an open mind about Qatar, in 2022, when anyone in a same-sex relationship can be arrested there? Only weeks ago, members of the LGBTIQ community were detained and roughed up by the authorities, a pre-Cup reminder that homosexuality is criminalized. Women have been treated no better, forbidden to drive or leave the country without the approval of a male “guardian.” And don’t think about wearing a revealing outfit or showing PDA, this being a state of Islam.
If you’re compelled to ask how such an oppressive, godforsaken address won rights to the World Cup, have a cup of alphabet soup and spell: F-I-F-A. The planet’s most corrupt sports organization — the International Olympic Committee, by comparison, is a gang of saints — doesn’t cut a hosting deal without receiving bribes. An FBI investigation led to U.S.-based accusations of vote-swapping involving three former senior FIFA officials, but, as usual, the governing body escaped any conviction for misconduct. Qatar bought itself a production considerably larger than its weight class, punching up — and paying up — as its sovereign wealth fund did in purchasing the Paris Saint-Germain football colossus and the prestigious Harrod’s store in London.
Even the dirtiest of the dirty, Sepp Blatter, said this week that Qatar is badly miscast as a host. Now 86 and no longer FIFA’s president, Blatter blames a suspicious meeting between Nicolas Sarkozy, then the French president, and Michel Platini, then a FIFA vice president and president of European soccer body UEFA, for tilting the bid vote away from an expectant U.S. Wait, wasn’t Blatter the president when Qatar cut the checks?
“It’s a country that’s too small. Football and the World Cup are too big for that,” Blatter said. “It was a bad choice. … Thanks to the four votes of Platini and his (UEFA) team, the World Cup went to Qatar rather than the United States. It’s the truth.”
The truth is that Blatter, acquitted with Platini in federal court, knew and knows all. It doesn’t stop him from deflecting more culpability to his successor, pointing out that Infantino moved his permanent residence to Qatar. “What can FIFA say if its president is in the same boat as Qatar?” Blatter said.
If only the players could be shrouded from the toxicity. That won’t be possible, amid widespread demands that they openly protest the Qatar regime. France captain Hugo Lloris, speaking for many, thinks FIFA should bear the burden of criticism. “There's too much pressure on the players. We are at the bottom of the chain. If you have to apply pressure, first of all it had to be 10 years ago,” Lloris said. “Now it's too late. You have to understand that for players, this opportunity happens every four years and you want every chance to succeed. The focus has to be on the field. The rest is for politicians. We are athletes.”
France, a favorite to repeat as champion, is among 13 European teams supporting an anti-discrimination initiative. But Lloris says he won’t wear the “OneLove” armband that is part of the campaign, which would counter a rule requiring players to wear FIFA-issued equipment. “When we are in France, when we welcome foreigners, we often want them to follow our rules, to respect our culture, and I will do the same when I go to Qatar, quite simply,” Lloris said. “I can agree or disagree with their ideas, but I have to show respect.”
The U.S. men’s national team, which opens Monday with a favorable draw against a Wales team making its first World Cup appearance since 1958, won’t wear a rainbow crest designed to support LGBT rights. But the rainbow colors are on full display at the five-star team hotel and inside the media room at Al-Gharrafa Stadium, where the Americans are training. Said U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter: “We’ve been talking to the team for the last 18 months about Qatar, about social issues in Qatar, and we think it’s important when we are on the world stage — and when we are on a world stage like Qatar — to bring awareness to these issues.”
Already, Fox is playing up the impossible-dream angle for Team USA. For the uninitiated who pay attention once every four years, the Group B litmus test comes the day after Thanksgiving against powerhouse England. As you prepare your lungs, please note that the U.S. failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup and has returned with a new movement: the second-youngest team in the field, with an average age of 23.8.
Consider it another reminder that the World Cup is the one global event where the U.S. is a prohibitive underdog, despite the efforts of David Beckham, Jurgen Klinsmann, Landon Donovan and soccer moms sea to shining sea. But once upon a time, a team of American kids and castoffs did beat the Russian Red Army team in Lake Placid. We know it as The Miracle on Ice. When the Americans qualified in Costa Rica, Berhalter told his players, “We’ll be the youngest team in the World Cup, boys. And guess what? We’re going to do some f—ing damage.”
Christian Pulisic, an old soul at 24, has been the face of U.S. soccer for years. He has struggled to win stardom and appropriate playing time with Chelsea, a giant of the Premier League. You don’t think he’d love to whip England’s ass, knowing how the Brits like to knock him because, well, he’s an American playing their game. “I just don’t think it’s about age,” he said. “We have a hungry team — a hungry bunch of guys who are playing at top-level clubs across the world. And I think we can go in with confidence no matter what and no matter our age.”
Pele, a beautiful human being, would love the story line. I’ll never forget when he repeated the mantra — “the beautiful game” — as he dribbled a ball through aisles filled with working sportswriters at a media center. This was in Copenhagen, during the selection process for the 2016 Summer Olympics. Pele was stumping on Brazil’s behalf. Barack Obama, just beginning as U.S. president, brought Oprah Winfrey to Denmark as they lobbied for Chicago’s cause against the likes of Rio de Janeiro.
Guess who won? Not America, which serves to this day as a parable for our lack of clout in the sport.
But even if the kids fall to Harry Kane and England, as expected, they’ll face a politically charged challenge. On Nov. 29, they play Iran. The U.S. hasn’t had a diplomatic relationship with that Islamic nation in 42 years. Doha, the capital city and center of the football universe, is a short flight for Iranian fans from Imam Khomeini Airport in Tehran, making this the ultimate road gauntlet for the United States of America.
Why is the World Cup in Qatar, again? The beautiful game, this is not.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.