…FIFA has never been perfect and the host has never been perfect…but isn’t this about the game…
The article was originally published in “The Musings Of A Politics Junkie & Closet Economist.” To read more, please visit the website.
Qatar’s bid to host this year’s World Cup was always going to be controversial: the summers are too hot; there are not enough stadiums, hotels, and other necessary facilities; the country does not have a football culture. And, as we have seen with all the recent criticism, there was the overarching questions of who would build the sites and so on for the games if Qatar was to host and then who would attend the games (if the World Cup weas moved to November to avoid the scorching desert summers in the Middle East).
Yet Qatar is hosting the World Cup today with critics closely watching the orchestration of the games and fans closely watching the actual games. Migrant workers are not as prevalent around Qatar during the games (as they are on holiday) and Qatari leadership has restricted travel into the country to primarily ticket holders for the World Cup games. In other words, migrant workers and white-collar workers alike are less visible. Beer is not readily available compared to other World Cups, and accordingly there is not the same proliferation of drunkenness. These realities feel like small distractions (if that) as sponsors have seemingly fallen in line with the changes.
The games have been a delight so far for fans. Japan beats Germany. Saudi Arabia beats Argentina. The latter upset by the Saudis was the ideal manifestation of how football has captured the Arab world: Saudi leadership declared a national holiday on the following day and fans across the Arab world were seen carrying the Saudi flag with Arab pride.
The sport has its Arab stars with players like Egyptian Mohamed Salah and Algerian Riyad Mahrez. It also has its emotional Arab moments…one can easily argue Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad carrying the Saudi Arabian flag and draping it around his neck is more symbolic than Cristiano Ronaldo tearing up during Portugal’s National Anthem before their match against Ghana.
Still Qatar and its fellow Arab compatriots, when included in discussions on football, must confront a narrative around rich Arab countries tainting the game with its money. Qatari-owned Paris St. Germain’s $263 million purchase of star Brazilian forward Neymar in 2017 clobbered the prior record of $116 million and was interpreted as a reminder to the world that Qatar was still relevant amid a blockade by its neighbors. Critics of Qatar will add that the ownership acquisition in Paris St. Germain (PSG) was a political nod to the French government at that time as Qatar sought the right to host the games.
The reality of the World Cup is money (and politics). Qatari ownership in PSG and Saudi Arabian ownership in Newcastle United are simply a demonstration of Arab acceptance of owning football teams and the economic opportunity. Middle Eastern airline companies — Emirates, Etihad Airways, and Qatar Airways, all have major deals with European soccer clubs in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
The truth of matter is European leagues have long been brimming with American, Chinese, and Russian cash. Some Arabs have rightfully said the color of the money has not changed but the buyer has…though the critique of racism appears overstated versus the lack of understanding in the west of the Middle East and its relation to football. If Americans, who stereotypically do not know the rules of the sport, refuse to call it ‘football’, and choose the National Football League (NFL) over FIFA most days of the week, can own a team, then Arabs, who live the sport on the streets, in politics, and in boardrooms can rightfully own a team.
Football has become a global sport because its consumers are across the globe. Not every sport can say that…the NFL recently played games in London, Munich, and Mexico City as part of its efforts to globalize its fan base yet the sport has a long way to go before it becomes an international sport. The World Cup, on the other hand, is a natural mechanism for spreading the sport, and Qatar, despite the critiques, has some natural benefits for hosting the games. It is relatively more accessible (with visas and flight routes) for people in Asia, Middle East, and Africa, and there was no doubt the Qatari leadership first had the money and secondly would spend the money required to build the necessary sites and ‘put on a show’.
The World Cup in Qatar is effectively a display of all that is good and bad about money in the sport. The money is good because the sport can spread to every corner of the world (provided the facilities can be built and people can see the games); however, the largesse of the money likely has led to some questionable payments and decision-making in the FIFA ecosystem.
Still, the question of money and its influence in football should not overshadow the globalization of the sport. This World Cup is likely the prologue to more star Arab football players and maybe another Arab country hosting it (how do we start a rumor that Saudi Arabia is in the race to host?)
Lastly, football (and the World Cup) can be transformative for politics and culture. Yes, watching the games in November feels ‘off’…though we now know that sport can be moved on the calendar if necessary. The sport is currently a boost to Arab pride and Middle East cohesion: let us appreciate the amount of flights between the UAE and Qatar and between Saudi Arabia and Qatar after a blockade that lasted 40-plus months.
Maybe fans can enjoy the sport for the excitement of games and its transcendent effect on life around us. And, when being very critical of Qatar on how it is hosting the World Cup or managing its country, remember that the World Cup can be a place for political and cultural discourse, but it is not the United Nations or a local Parliament where such Qatar World Cup critics are often silent on the same issues that disturb them during the World Cup games. Then again, maybe that is the biggest hypocrisy of these games: critics focusing on One Love armbands or other political issues at the World Cup but being silent on the same policies or issues in their home country.