lIt’s one of those solid moments of harsh reality that takes you out of the illusion that is this World Cup. When the taxi driver drops the group off, a plea suddenly sounds. It’s not for a five star rating.
“Can you please tip me?” he asks. “I have no money to eat.”
The driver, of South Asian descent, sends almost everything he earns back to his family. This should be the long awaited period when such workers can generate income due to the number of visitors to Qatar, but here’s another one just starving.
Anyone who spent the first week of this World Cup in Doha would have seen many similar stories. The Business & Human Rights Resource Center said on Sunday that six cases of mistreatment by migrant workers had been reported in that time alone.
This is the side of the World Cup that Qatar prefers to ignore, but that is inevitable as they are absolutely vital to running this tournament.
However, much of this is about perspective and dazzling presentation. To walk around in Qatar is to be blinded by the lights, to be deaf by the sounds.
There’s the glitz of Lusail, the newly planned city built around the venue for the finale. There’s the stadium’s blaring “entertainment”, clearly set up to soften, but occasionally – as in Argentina-Mexico – quell any lack of atmosphere. 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 a little pointless. Such concerns underline almost everything about Qatar, at least once you think about it amid the overbearing assault on the senses.
Much of the area around Lusail is still under construction, with unfinished land and migrant workers still doing carpentry work. The announced turnout is now attracting a lot of attention, especially because so many empty seats are visible. It made the claim that Argentina-Mexico was the best-attended World Cup match since the 1994 final – with 88,966 to 94,194 – require at least some caveats. There is then the vaunted claim that this will be the first climate neutral tournament. It was a statement that has already been derided by environmental groups like Greenly and seems utterly ridiculous just walking around.
The truth seems much closer to the assessment of academic Mike Berners-Lee, who said this World Cup “will be the highest carbon event of any kind, barring a war, that humans have ever staged”.
There are no team sheets or official programs in the meantime because this is a “green” tournament. That’s as artificial as some of the environment. Even the Souk Waqif, which has an authenticity in how it has become one of the few public spaces where fans can congregate, was rebuilt in the 1980s.
There are some real positives from this World Cup. There is a deep pride in the first World Cup in an Arab country and a Muslim country. This is important. Many of the locals are very welcoming and friendly, an important reminder of the difference between a state and its people. The subway flashes. Logistical issues have been ironed out as the competition has progressed. The stadiums look good.
And yet, especially on that last point, it’s impossible to sincerely compliment most of this because of the profoundly immoral way it was all constructed. You cannot look at anything in Qatar, however superficially impressive, without considering the systematic abuse of migrant workers on which it is built.
It’s the stain that can never be removed, no matter how many times those same workers are instructed to mop floors that haven’t had a chance to accumulate dirt. The discussion of all this has led to growing opposition from Qatar.
“Bring it up and you’ll be called a racist,” says a football official who works in the area. “We were told how humble and welcome it would all be, but in some cases we’ve found the opposite.”
And as the tournament progresses, it has evolved into aloofness in certain circles. There is a growing reluctance to participate. Even FIFA president Gianni Infantino was less visible after his tour de farce opening press conference.
It points to another core problem of this World Cup, reflecting this issue of image and artificiality. As a police state where the royal family has near-absolute power, with no freedom of the press, they are simply not used to having their perspective questioned.
It has made the entire World Cup an interesting and educational meeting of worlds. It is more of a geopolitical event than a sporting one.
Much of this is distilled into one of the main flashpoints of the tournaments. The rainbow flag has taken on even greater symbolism than usual.
There’s what it actually represents, in terms of showing support for the LGBTQ+ community, and then what it represents in running the tournament – especially in terms of FIFA’s relationship with Qatar.
As stories piled up of supporters stripping rainbow-colored items, federations filed a complaint directly with the governing body. They had been told before the World Cup that this would not be a problem. So FIFA contacted Qatar and the Safety and Security Operations Committee again, who in turn assured them that this would no longer be a problem. Missives had been sent around.
There it must be acknowledged that, apart from a few authentically “localized incidents” – such as a cameraman being told to take off his rainbow watch strap – this message has largely been adhered to. Fans have not had any rainbow items removed.
However, the most pertinent point is that there has been a sense of trepidation about it. FIFA officials wanted to remind the federations that they could not give guarantees themselves and were only passing on guarantees they had received from Qatar.
One line was that “we can’t control the police”. Some figures within the governing body talk about how a decision can be made in one part of the Qatari power structure, only for someone with more influence elsewhere to decide the opposite.
In other words, the World Cup is at the whim of the state. It all made one thing abundantly clear: the tail isn’t wagging the dog here.
That’s why the alcohol story was about so much more than being able to sell beer in stadiums. It is perfectly fair for a predominantly Muslim country to ban alcohol around stadiums, but why decide only two days before the tournament starts?
It left Fifa scrambling in a situation it is not used to. “It shows that Qatar is really leading this tournament,” confided a prominent official The independent.
It also points to another complication with this World Cup, beyond the layers of the state. There is a growing sense within some European federations that FIFA is making decisions dictated by Qatar, rather than being asked by them.
A good example is the controversy over the OneLove bracelets, and especially FIFA’s threat that there could be what one source describes as “unlimited liability” if England and other European countries wore them in Qatar. The independent been told that Qatar had nothing to do with it; it was all Fifa. The wonder is why FIFA officials were willing to be so strict when there was no precedent for it. FIFA, for its part, would say it was merely reminding the federations of its regulations. The federations would say that the possible sanctions were not included in those regulations.
It’s impossible not to conclude that FIFA’s stance stemmed from concerns about offending local sensibilities.
It would match an accusation made by Michael Posner, former US assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor: “Fifa President Infantino is trying to protect the government of Qatar from legitimate criticism of the way companies have hired them. to the The World Cup infrastructure has exploited poor migrant workers, mainly from South Asia.”
That is why the main line of Infantino’s opening speech, which showed that there was some calculation behind it, was about Europe’s “3,000 years”. The FIFA president appealed to a new power base, which has partly resisted ‘Western’ criticism of the way this World Cup is structured.
Hence a World Cup, as Gareth Southgate described it, characterized by “external noise”. That is why everyone throws everything into every debate at the expense of the issues that are really at stake. Apparently it can’t just be that a World Cup built on “modern slavery” is wrong. It’s “Orientalism”.
It’s how Iran coach Carlos Queiroz can move from questions about the Iranian state to anomalies like, “Why don’t you ask Southgate about Afghanistan?”
Perhaps one of the greatest legacies of this World Cup is how it articulated a growing divide between the South and the West. There was then the strange criss-cross dynamic of the Gulf Blockade, where Saudi Arabia and Qatar have seemingly softened on each other, only for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman to then ban BeIn Sports from the kingdom again.
Infantino will no doubt take credit for the thaw, but his words have caused friction regarding this new split in the game.
“It is disappointing that he has not de-escalated the situation,” said the same source. “That is why the statement about inheriting this World Cup no longer has any credibility. If the original sin was to give Qatar the World Cup, the problem now is how badly they handle it, making a bad situation worse.”
There are also legitimate complaints from FIFA within Qatar. Some locals found the resale system difficult to work, perhaps explaining some of the empty seats.
Another irony is that this is the last World Cup with a local organizing committee. After this, FIFA has 100 percent control.
Infantino, meanwhile, is up for re-election unopposed, with nearly 100 percent approval. Only a handful of federations, including Denmark and Germany, refuse to go along with it.
The Football Association and Football Association of Wales intend to support him, although it has been repeatedly stressed that their support is not unconditional and is subject to reservations. Much depends on Infantino’s approach to Europe and especially on the crowded football calendar.
Officials are ready to change their minds.
Football has not changed the debate about Qatar at the moment. Quite the opposite.