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Analysis | The World Cup is always about much more than the World Cup


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A small coastal country, little known to much of the world, is hosting a historic football tournament. Fueled by a growing export economy and the labor of a significant population of foreign-born migrants, the country is building major infrastructure to host an event that takes place mainly in the capital. For the host country, this World Cup is not just an exercise in sporting entertainment, but an opportunity to put itself on the map, show off its wealth and prowess and gain global prestige.

I am writing about Uruguay in 1930, the setting of the first World Cup football. But the same lineup would apply to Qatar when the 2022 World Cup kicks off on Sunday. Certainly, there is no shortage of differences between now and then. In sporting terms alone, Uruguay rode into the inaugural tournament on the back of gold medal football triumphs at the Olympics, winning its first World Cup on home soil. Regardless of Qatar’s expensive and painstaking development of its national football program, it is not expected to be competitive or even make it out of the group stage.

But as the saying goes in Uruguay, while other countries have their history, we have our football. Qatar plays on something similar: “So far, no state has made sport in general, and the World Cup in particular, central to its foreign policy and economic development,” as unique as Qatar is, football historian David Goldblatt recently wrote. Half a century ago, the former British protectorate was an obscure backwater on the Persian Gulf, known for pearl diving and little else. But an immense fortune in hydrocarbons, especially liquefied natural gas, changed his fate, boosting his rise as an influential regional power and endorsing his bid for the 2022 tournament.

Qatar’s ruling monarchy has devoted a generation of political capital to the organization of the first football World Cup in the Middle East and the Arab world. It funded an astonishing $220 billion bonanza in construction, creating new stadiums, roads, train systems, hotels and other infrastructure. And it withstood the wrath of neighboring Gulf monarchies, whose resentment of Qatar manifested itself in 2022, lurking under a wider economic and political blockade of the peninsula between 2017 and 2021.

The political debate surrounding the World Cup in Qatar

It also endured what the Qatari emir described as an “unprecedented” level of scrutiny and disdain ahead of the tournament. Activists and journalists have poured out over the Qatari monarchy’s troubled human rights record, the harsh working conditions associated with its massive construction projects, the grim status quo for LGBTQ people, and the shady practices surrounding winning the World Cup candidate by Qatar.

On all these fronts, Qatari officials have fired back, accusing critics of misinformation when it comes to reporting the death toll of migrant workers and hypocrisy in criticizing Qatar’s politics and society. There is also no clear chain of evidence linking the Qatari authorities to any form of fraud or bribery in the 2022 World Cup bidding process – although a number of high-profile FIFA officials have been implicated in unrelated corruption allegations.

As the tournament’s 32 national teams made their final preparations for Qatar, FIFA President Gianni Infantino – a controversial figure in his own right – sent a letter to each team urging them not to take overt political positions. “We know that football does not live in a vacuum and we are also aware that there are many challenges and difficulties of a political nature around the world,” wrote Infantino. “But please don’t allow football to be dragged into every ideological or political battle that exists.”

That’s easier said than done, and some participating national teams will signal bouts of virtue before the start of the games. For example, the US team was one of several teams training with groups of migrant construction workers this week. It will also use a rainbow flag on its coat of arms in support of LGBTQ rights.

With the World Cup in Qatar approaching, USMNT is using its platform to make changes

Of course, no World Cup has been immune to the ideological and political struggles of the time. The tournaments themselves are the most anticipated events on the world’s sports calendar, now attracting billions of viewers and the attention of a huge international audience. They are always melting pots for the trends and tensions that shape the world.

Immediately after Uruguay’s debut, the inter-war years were dominated by Benito Mussolini’s fascist project, with Italy winning at home in 1934 and then again in France in 1938. Italian coach Vittorio Pozzo recalled the hostile reaction in Marseille, France, when Italy’s team carried out the fascist act. salute in their first match against Norway. “I entered the stadium with our players, lined up in military style, and stood on the right side,” he later said. “At the salute we unsurprisingly met a solemn and deafening barrage of whistles, insults and remarks.”

As their arms fell, the vociferous defiance of anti-fascist fans in the stands died down. Pozzo then urged his players to make the fascist gesture again. “After we won the battle of intimidation, we played,” he said.

Other forces shaped the ensuing tournaments. Brazil’s dominant multiracial parties came on the scene as decolonization swept across Asia and Africa, soon developing cult followings in the developing world, from the slums of Kolkata, India, to the streets of Nairobi. Argentina’s 1978 tournament was a tricky propaganda showcase for its military dictatorship, which was boycotted by some countries in Europe. France’s 1998 victory on home soil with a team drawn largely from communities with roots in former French colonies crystallized the changing identity of the European nation.

World Cups can also trigger false dawns. International anger over the 2018 Russian tournament faded by the time the tournament got under way. Journalists and foreign fans alike, including Today’s WorldView, were charmed by the spirit of exuberance and openness that permeated Russian cities during the tournament, which saw a mediocre Russian squad reach the quarter-finals. But activists already knew what was coming, as an LGBTQ activist in Moscow told me in 2018: “They’ll kick us right when the World Cup ends.”

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