World Cup 2022

This is the side of the World Cup that Qatar would prefer you ignore

To walk around Qatar is to be blinded by lights, deafened by sounds, but the football has not distracted away from the debate around the most controversial World Cup in history, writes Miguel Delaney

Tuesday 13 December 2022 07:53 GMT
<p>Migrant workers watch the World Cup at the at the free-entry Industrial Area Fan Zone in Doha</p>

Migrant workers watch the World Cup at the at the free-entry Industrial Area Fan Zone in Doha

It is one of the regular moments of harsh reality that takes you out of the illusion that is this World Cup. As the taxi driver drops the group off, there is a sudden plea. It is not for a five-star rating.

“Can you give me a tip please?”, he asks. “I have no 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 who is just starving.

Anyone who has been in Doha for the first week of this World Cup would have had many similar stories pass in front of their eyes. The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre said on Sunday that there had been six cases of migrant worker abuse reported in that time alone.

This is the side of the World Cup that Qatar would prefer you ignore, but that is unavoidable, given they are utterly essential to the running of this tournament.

So much of this, however, is about perspective and dazzling presentation. To walk around Qatar is to be blinded by the lights, deafened by the sounds.

There’s the glitz of Lusail, the newly planned city built around the venue for the final. There’s the blaring stadium “entertainment”, clearly set up to mitigate any lack of atmosphere, but occasionally – as at Argentina-Mexico – suppressing it. There is even birdsong piped into some public parks, one of which is air-conditioned at Al Gharrafa.

That decadently indulgent waste of energy makes recycling plastic bottles feel a bit pointless. Such concerns underscore almost everything about Qatar, at least as soon as you stop to think about it all amid the overbearing assault on the senses.

A lot of the area around Lusail still has construction work going on, with patches of land unfinished and migrant workers still hammering away. The announced attendances have meanwhile attracted much attention, especially since so many empty seats are visible. It ensured the statement that Argentina-Mexico was the most-attended World Cup match since the 1994 final – at 88,966 against 94,194 – required at least some reservation. There is then the vaunted claim that this will be the first carbon-neutral tournament. It was a statement already scoffed at by environmental groups like Greenly and seems utterly preposterous when you just walk around.

The truth seems far closer to the assessment of academic Mike Berners-Lee, who said this World Cup is “going to be the highest carbon event of any kind, apart from a war, that humans have ever staged”.

The Lusail Stadium during Brazil’s match against Serbia

There are meanwhile no teamsheets or official programmes because this is a “green” tournament. That is as artificial as some of the surroundings. Even the Souk Waqif, which does have an authenticity in how it has become one of the few public spaces where fans can gather, was rebuilt in the 1980s.

There are some genuine positives from this World Cup. There is a 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 metro is gleaming. Logistical issues have been smoothed as the competition has gone on. The stadiums look good.

And yet, especially as regards that last point, it’s impossible to sincerely compliment most of this because of the deeply immoral way it was all constructed. You can’t look at anything in Qatar, no matter how superficially impressive, without thinking of the systemic abuse of migrant workers on which it was built.

It is the stain that can never be cleansed, no matter how many times those same workers are ordered to mop floors that haven’t had a chance to accumulate any dirt. Discussion of any of this has brought increasing pushback from Qatar.

“Bring it up and you’ll be called a racist,” one football official who works in the area says. “We were told how humble and welcome it would all be but, in some cases, we’ve found the opposite.”

And now, as the tournament has gone on, it has evolved into an aloofness in certain quarters. There’s been a growing reluctance to engage. Even Fifa president Gianni Infantino has been less visible after his tour de farce opening press conference.

Gianni Infantino, president of Fifa, is seen prior to the match between Poland and Saudi Arabia

It points to another core issue with this World Cup, that reflects this question of image and artificiality. As a police state where the royal family have virtually absolute power, with no free press, they are just not used to their perspective being questioned.

It has made the entire World Cup an interesting and instructive meeting of worlds. It is a geopolitical event more than a sporting one.

Much of this has been distilled in one of the main flashpoints of the tournaments. The rainbow flag has accrued an even greater symbolism than usual.

There is what it actually represents, in terms of displaying support for the LGBTQ+ community, and then what it represents with the very running of the tournament – especially as regards Fifa’s relationship with Qatar.

When stories accumulated about supporters having rainbow-coloured items taken off them, federations directly complained to the governing body. They had been told before the World Cup this wouldn’t be an issue. So, Fifa got back in touch with Qatar and the Safety and Security Operations Committee, who in turn gave them assurances that this would no longer be a problem. Missives had been sent around.

It should be acknowledged there that, other than a few authentically “localised incidents” – such as one cameraman being told to remove his rainbow watchband – this missive has mostly been adhered to. Fans have not had rainbow items removed.

Germany fans wear a rainbow wristband in Qatar

The more relevant point, though, is that there has been a sense of trepidation about it. Fifa officials were keen to stress to the federations that they couldn’t actually give guarantees themselves and were only passing on assurances they had received from Qatar.

One line was that “we can’t police the police”. Some figures within the governing body talk of how a decision can be made in one part of the Qatari power structure, only for someone with greater 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 doesn’t wag the dog here.

It was why the alcohol story was about so much more than being able to sell beer at stadiums. It is completely fair that a predominantly Muslim country prohibits alcohol around stadiums, but why only decide it two days before the tournament starts?

It left Fifa scrabbling, in a situation it is unused to. “It shows that it’s Qatar really running this tournament,” one prominent official confides to The Independent.

It also points to another complication with this World Cup, beyond the layers of the state. There’s the growing feeling within some of the European federations that Fifa is making decisions conditioned by Qatar, rather than requested by them.

A case in point is the controversy over the OneLove armbands, and especially Fifa’s threat that there could be what one source describes as “unlimited liability” should England and other European nations have worn them in Qatar. The Independent has been told Qatar had nothing to do with it; it was all Fifa. The wonder is why Fifa officials were willing to be so severe when there was no precedent for that. Fifa, for its part, would say it only reminded the federations of its regulations. The federations would say the potential sanctions weren’t covered in those regulations.

It’s impossible not to conclude that Fifa’s position was out of concern for offending local sensitivities.

It would tally with an accusation from Michael Posner, former US assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour: “Fifa president Infantino is trying to shield the Qatari government from legitimate criticism for how companies they have hired to build the World Cup infrastructure have exploited poor migrant workers, mainly from south Asia.”

England reversed their decision to wear the OneLove armband

It is why the key line from Infantino’s opening address, which showed there was some calculation behind it, was about Europe’s “3,000 years”. The Fifa president was appealing to a new power base, one that has partly been resistant to “Western” criticism of how this World Cup has been constructed.

Hence a World Cup, as Gareth Southgate described it, characterised by “external noise”. Hence everyone throwing everything into every debate at the expense of the matters actually at hand. It apparently can’t just be that a World Cup built on “modern slavery” is wrong. It’s “orientalism”.

It is how Iran coach Carlos Queiroz can go from questions about the Iranian state to deflections like: “Why don’t you ask Southgate about Afghanistan?”

One of this World Cup’s greatest legacies might be how it has articulated a growing split between the global South and the West. There have then been the strange crisscrossing dynamics of the Gulf blockade, where Saudi Arabia and Qatar have seemingly softened towards each other only for the Saudi crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman to then ban BeIn Sports from the kingdom again.

Infantino will doubtless claim credit for the thaw but his words have provoked friction as regards this new split in the game.

“It’s disappointing he didn’t de-escalate the situation,” the same source says. “It’s why the line about inheriting this World Cup no longer has credence. If the original sin was giving Qatar the World Cup, the problem now is how badly they’re handling it, making a bad situation worse.”

There have been legitimate complaints of Fifa within Qatar, too. Some locals have found the resale system difficult to work, perhaps explaining some of the empty seats.

A further irony is that this is the last World Cup with a local organising committee. After this, Fifa will have 100 per cent control.

Infantino meanwhile stands unopposed for re-election, with almost 100 per cent endorsement. Only a handful of federations, including Denmark and Germany, are refusing to go with that.

The Football Association and Football Association of Wales do plan to endorse him, although it has repeatedly been stressed that their support is not unconditional and comes with caveats. Much depends on Infantino’s approach to Europe and especially the congested football calendar.

Officials are prepared to change their minds.

The football, for the moment, hasn’t changed the debate about Qatar. Quite the opposite.

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