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While My Qatar Gently Weeps

Issue 276

This year’s World Cup in Qatar is not the first time the event has been co-opted by autocrats.

Steven Wishnia Dec 18, 2022

Qatar is far from the worst government ever to host a World Cup.

Yes, the oil-rich Persian Gulf state has abysmal labor conditions and harshly homophobic laws. More than two-thirds of the country’s 2.9 million residents are migrant workers, mostly from South Asia. An investigation by the British Guardian newspaper in 2021, probably the most in-depth done so far, estimated that more than 6,500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka had died in Qatar since 2010, when it was awarded the 2022 Cup. 

The investigation was only able to link 37 deaths directly to construction of the seven new stadiums, but said that many fatal accidents were misclassified as “non-work related,” and other deaths came from laboring in the extreme heat, lack of medical care or dangerous housing conditions.

Qatar abolished the “kafala” system, which locked migrant workers into indentured servitude (they could be deported if they didn’t have a job, and employers could hold their passports) in 2020, but some of its practices continue; the revised law does not cover domestic workers. The new minimum wage, set in 2021, is about US$275 a month, with an allowance of about $220 for food and housing. The country’s per-capita gross domestic product is above $61,000, the highest in the world.

Qatar is far from the worst government ever to host a World Cup. Argentina’s military dictatorship, Putin’s Russia, Mussolini’s Italy…

But is Qatar worse than Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the billionaire-oligarchy dictatorship that hosted the 2018 Cup? It hasn’t invaded any adjacent countries, bombed hospitals or massacred villagers. The ­Qatari government persuaded FIFA, the Federation of International Football Associations, to threaten to give yellow cards to players who wore rainbow armbands, but the Putin regime’s religious-nationalist hatred of gays and lesbians is as bad or worse. (That the sports world is acting on this is progress, given male jock culture’s traditional homophobia — Major League Baseball teams holding “Pride Night” promotions would have previously been unthinkable.) “The ALU certification has been issued. We’re going to force Amazon to bargain with us. If they don’t do it, we’re gonna put pressure wherever we can and we’re going to have the NLRB go to federal court to order them to do that. This is a question of whether our country will stand up for working-class rights — the right to be in a union. Amazon has to cease its flagrant human-rights violations.”

Qatar is definitely not worse than the Argentine military dictatorship of 1978, which “disappeared” an estimated 30,000 political opponents, including many who were dropped out of helicopters into the River Plate estuary (a practice now celebrated on American-fascist T-shirts, although wrongly attributed to Chile’s Augusto Pinochet). The Buenos Aires stadium where Argentina won the 1978 final was about a 15-minute bus ride from the Navy School of Mechanics, the junta’s torture chamber.

The 1934 Cup was held in fascist Italy, a regime that gained power through organized thuggery, abolished elections and built stadiums that featured giant busts of dictator Benito Mussolini. The final, which Italy won, was held at the National Fascist Party Stadium in Rome. Within two years, the regime would invade Ethiopia; within a decade, it would help the Nazis ship thousands of Italian Jews to Auschwitz. 

The worst venue for a World Cup-related game, however, was in November 1973, for a playoff between Chile and the Soviet Union for a spot in the 1974 Cup: the National Stadium in Santiago. Chile’s new military dictatorship had just washed the bloodstains from the ground’s most recent use as a concentration camp for more than 6,000 people seized after Pinochet’s coup that September. The Soviets refused to play in a “place of tortures and executions,” so the Chilean team took the field unopposed, kicked the ball into an empty net, and were declared victors. 

FIFA’s inspectors a few weeks before had noted that there were no “detainees” on the pitch or in the seats, and that the grass was “in perfect condition.”

Several other countries could have suited FIFA’s intent to hold the World Cup in North Africa or the Middle East. Egypt has the most solid professional league in Africa and one of the world’s best players in Mohammed Salah. Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia also have long-established leagues and qualified for the Cup several times. 

Saudi Arabia or Iran would have been politically problematic, but they too have Cup history and strong fan cultures. Qatar, although its national team won the Asian championship in 2019, had to import Lebanese fans to cosplay enthusiastic supporters.

There have been numerous reports that Qatar bribed its way into getting the Cup. They might well be true, as FIFA has a long history of corruption, but another reason was just the ordinary power of money. Qatar was rich enough to build infrastructure that would appeal to the plutocrats in the luxury boxes, glitzy like a Swarovski-crystal sculpture of a giant soccer ball. Those people would likely not enjoy experiencing Moroccan culture by riding in a crammed Mercedes Grand Taxi.

Morocco wound up being the Cup’s surprise success, becoming the first team ever from Africa or the Muslim world to reach the semifinals. With only a few players from the world’s top clubs, it relied on teamwork, a taut defense, adept use of space and goalkeeper Yassine “Bono” Bounou’s penalty-saving acumen. It upset Belgium, Spain and Portugal without conceding a goal before going out to defending champions France, 2-0.

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