An ugly side to the beautiful game

An ugly side to the beautiful game

When the World Cup kicks off next weekend, a Western sense of fair play will be outraged that a country without any native tradition in the game has won the right to host the tournament through financial muscle. Insult is added to injury too -- due to Qatar's extreme temperatures, the World Cup isn't being staged during the usual summer break but in November, disrupting domestic soccer competitions in the northern hemisphere for six weeks. Fans and players just have to lump it.

The next few weeks will be a reminder of how the clash in values of the liberal West and the rich Arab states can play out in the international arena to everyone's dissatisfaction.

First off, Qatar's human rights record is patchy. A democracy in name only, the country is ruled by the autocratic Al Thani dynasty, which imprisons LGBTQ people who engage in consensual sex. The UK's indefatigable human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell was kicked out of the country last week after he mounted a one-man 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 "damage in the mind".

Then there is the human toll. Some 6,500 migrant workers reportedly have died while building the tournament's gleaming, purpose-built infrastructure in Qatar, including superhighways, hotels and eight showcase stadiums (one designed like a Bedouin tent, another built out of 974 recycled shipping containers). The authorities say they have cleaned up labour practices since.

Even Sepp Blatter, the former president of Fifa, football's top international authority, now describes his decision to award the World Cup to Qatar in 2010 as "a bad choice". Mr Blatter recently told Swiss paper Tages-Anzeiger: "It's too small a country. Football and the World Cup are too big for this."

The decision was mired in controversy and allegations of corruption. Mr Blatter himself was cleared 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 it.

Yet things don't look better when you consider the Qatari perspective. Qatar competed with the UAE for commercial primacy in the Gulf, so winning the right to stage a World Cup is a huge propaganda coup. The Al Thanis have billions to spend, and the West wants their money and liquid natural gas. Qatar already owns several major league European soccer clubs; why shouldn't the kingdom get their prize?

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

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

Besides, the tournament's bureaucrats know that autocracies deliver. Their grand construction projects avoid all the messy compromises and tortuous delays involved in democratic planning. Just think about how long it takes to build a single railway line in the UK or an airport in Germany. And never mind Qatar's historic support for the Muslim Brotherhood, normal Islamic restrictions on booze in Qatar can be relaxed (slightly) for tourists at the tournament with a flick of the ruler's solid gold pen. Western greed and hypocrisy go hand in hand. Many of the celebrities, models and sporting types who turn up to be photographed at Gay Pride events and support liberal causes at home are happy to take Qatari money to promote the World Cup. To the al Thanis, it must seem that everything and everybody in the West is up for sale.

In any case, if the West wants to influence the Arab monarchies, it needs to engage. As Lord Charles Powell, diplomatic eminence to several British prime ministers says, "the days when the Gulf was a restricted area for the US, and to a degree the UK, are over". China and Russia are increasingly important trade and security competitors in the region. To the east and west, Iran and Israel manoeuvre for advantage. We cannot afford to neglect these ties. Yet one minute Washington is calling out the human rights record of friendly regimes, the next it is begging them for help in keeping the lid on oil prices.

Of course, I will be cheering on the England team next week along with my compatriots. But be in no doubt, although what you are watching will be great football, winning the World Cup is an ugly game. ©2022 Bloomberg


Martin Ivens is the editor of the Times Literary Supplement. Previously, he was editor of the Sunday Times of London and its chief political commentator.

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