meIt is one of those usual moments of harsh reality that takes you out of the illusion that this World Cup is. As the taxi driver leaves the group, a sudden plea is heard. Not for a five star rating.
“Can you give me some advice, please?” he asks. “I don’t have money to eat.”
The driver, of South Asian descent, sends almost everything he earns back to his family. This is supposed to be the long-awaited period when such workers can generate income due to the number of visitors to Qatar, but here is another one starving.
Anyone who has been in Doha during the first week of this World Cup will have had many similar stories before their eyes. The Business and Human Rights Resource Center said on Sunday that six cases of abuse of migrant workers had been reported in that time alone.
This is the side of the World Cup that Qatar would rather you ignore, but that is unavoidable as they are absolutely essential to the development of this tournament.
Much of this, however, has to do with perspective and stunning presentation. To walk in Qatar is to be blinded by the lights, deafened by the sounds.
There’s the shine of Lusail, the newly planned city built around the venue for the final. There’s the blaring stadium “entertainment”, clearly set to mitigate any lack of atmosphere, but occasionally, as in Argentina-Mexico, suppressing it. Birdsong can even be heard in some public parks, one of which is air-conditioned in Al Gharrafa.
That decadent, indulgent waste of energy makes recycling plastic bottles seem a bit pointless. Such concerns underscore almost everything about Qatar, at least as soon as you stop to think about it all amid the overwhelming assault on the senses.
Much of the area around Lusail still has construction work going on, with unfinished plots of land and hard-working migrant workers. Meanwhile, the announced attendances have attracted a lot of attention, especially since you see a lot of empty seats. He asserted that the claim that Argentina-Mexico was the most attended World Cup match since the 1994 final, with 88,966 to 94,194, required at least some reservation. Then there’s the vaunted claim that this will be the first carbon-neutral tournament. It was a statement already mocked by environmental groups like Greenly and it seems utterly absurd when you just walk around.
The truth seems much closer to the assessment of academic Mike Berners-Lee, who said that this World Cup “is going to be the most carbon-emitting event of any kind, other than war, that humans have ever staged.”
Meanwhile, there are no team sheets or official programs because this is a “green” tournament. That’s just as artificial as some of the surroundings. Even the Souk Waqif, which has an authenticity in the way that it has become one of the few public spaces where fans can gather, was rebuilt in the 1980s.
There are some genuine positives to this World Cup. There is deep pride in the first World Cup in an Arab country and a Muslim country. That is important. Many of the locals are very hospitable and friendly, an important reminder of the difference between a state and its people. The subway is shiny. Logistical issues have smoothed out as the competition has progressed. The stadiums look good.
And yet, especially regarding the last point, it’s impossible to sincerely praise most of this because of the deeply immoral way the whole thing was built. You cannot look at anything in Qatar, no matter how superficially impressive, without thinking about the systemic abuse of migrant workers on which it was built.
It’s the stain that can never be cleaned, no matter how many times those same workers are ordered to mop floors that haven’t had a chance to collect dirt. Discussion of any of these has led to increasing rejection of Qatar.
“Mention it and they will call you a racist,” says a soccer official who works in the area. “They told us how humble and welcome everything would be, but in some cases we have found the opposite.”
And now, as the tournament progresses, it has become a distancing in certain quarters. There has been a growing reluctance to participate. Even FIFA president Gianni Infantino has been less visible after his farcical opening press conference.
He points out another central theme with this World Cup, which reflects this question of image and artificiality. As a police state where the royal family has virtually absolute power, with no free press, they just aren’t used to having their perspective questioned.
It has made the entire World Cup an interesting and instructive meeting of worlds. It is a geopolitical event rather than a sports one.
Much of this has been distilled into one of the major tournament high points. The rainbow flag has amassed even more symbolism than usual.
There’s what it really stands for, in terms of showing support for the LGBTQ+ community, and then what it stands for with the running of the tournament itself, especially in regards to FIFA’s relationship with Qatar.
When stories piled up about fans having rainbow-colored items taken away, federations complained directly to the governing body. They had been told before the World Cup that this would not be a problem. FIFA then contacted Qatar and the Safety and Security Operations Committee again, who in turn gave them assurances that this would no longer be a problem. Missives had been sent.
It must be recognized there that apart from a few authentically “localized incidents”, such as when a cameraman was told to remove his rainbow strap, this missive has mostly been followed through. The fans have not had the rainbow elements removed.
However, the most relevant point is that there has been a feeling of unease about it. FIFA officials insisted on stressing to the associations that they could not actually give guarantees themselves and were only passing on the guarantees they had received from Qatar.
One line read that “we can’t keep an eye on the police.” Some figures within the governing body talk about how a decision can be made in one part of Qatar’s power structure, only to have someone with greater influence elsewhere decide otherwise.
In other words, the World Cup is a whim of the state. Everything made one thing very clear: the tail does not wag the dog here.
So the history of alcohol was about much more than being able to sell beer in stadiums. It’s entirely fair for a predominantly Muslim country to ban alcohol in stadiums, but why decide just two days before the tournament starts?
He left FIFA fighting, in a situation he is not used to. “This shows that Qatar is really running this tournament,” a senior official confessed to the independent.
It also points to another complication with this World Cup, beyond the layers of the State. There is a growing feeling within some of the European federations that FIFA is making decisions conditioned by Qatar, rather than requested by them.
One such example is the OneLove armband controversy, and especially FIFA’s threat that there could be what one source describes as “unlimited liability” if England and other European nations had worn them in Qatar. the independent he has been told that Qatar had nothing to do with it; It was all FIFA. What is surprising is why FIFA officials were willing to be so harsh when there was no precedent for that. Fifa, for its part, would say that it only reminded the federations of its regulations. The federations would say that the possible sanctions were not contemplated in those regulations.
It is impossible not to conclude that FIFA’s position was due to concern about offending local sensibilities.
I would agree with a charge by Michael Posner, former US Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor: “FIFA President Infantino is trying to shield the Qatari government from legitimate criticism of how the companies it has contracted to build the World Cup infrastructure have exploited poor migrant workers, mainly from South Asia.”
That is why the key line of Infantino’s opening speech, which showed that there was some calculation behind it, was about the “3,000 years” of Europe. The FIFA president was appealing to a new power base, one that has partly resisted “Western” criticism of how this World Cup has been built.
Hence a World Cup, as Gareth Southgate described it, characterized by “external noise”. Therefore, everyone throws everything into every debate at the expense of the issues at hand. Apparently, a World Cup based on “modern slavery” can’t be wrong. It’s “orientalism”.
This is how Iran coach Carlos Queiroz can go from questions about the Iranian state to diversions like: “Why don’t you ask Southgate about Afghanistan?”
One of the greatest legacies of this World Cup could be how it has articulated a growing divide between the global South and the West. Then there’s been the bizarre intersecting dynamic of the Gulf blockade, where Saudi Arabia and Qatar have apparently gone soft on each other only for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman to once again ban BeIn Sports in the kingdom.
Infantino will undoubtedly claim the thaw but his words have sparked friction around this new division of the game.
“It is disappointing that he has not calmed the situation,” says the same source. “That is why the line about inheriting this World Cup no longer has credibility. If the original sin was to give Qatar the World Cup, the problem now is how badly they are handling it, making a bad situation worse.”
There have also been legitimate complaints from FIFA within Qatar. Some locals have found the resale system difficult to work with, which perhaps explains some of the empty seats.
Another irony is that this is the last World Cup with a local organizing committee. After this, FIFA will have 100 percent control.
Meanwhile, Infantino is running unopposed for re-election, with almost 100 percent support. Only a handful of federations, including Denmark and Germany, refuse to accept that.
The Football Association and the Football Association of Wales plan to endorse him, although it has been repeatedly stressed that their support is not unconditional and comes with caveats. A lot depends on Infantino’s approach to Europe and above all on the congested football calendar.
Officials are prepared to change their minds.
Football, for the moment, has not changed the debate on Qatar. Quite the opposite.