2022 fifa world cup

The Wrenching Moral Calculus of Watching the World Cup – New York Magazine

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2022 fifa world cup

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Source images: Getty Images

Earlier this fall, my phone pinged with news that ESPN apparently found dramatic enough for a push notification: The German soccer club Hoffenheim would be protesting the World Cup in Qatar by refusing to publish articles on the team’s website about its players’ exploits there this month.

A publicity boycott of the sport’s pinnacle event by a top-tier team certainly felt novel — but also hopelessly insufficient. The principled silence of a solitary midsize club devoid of superstars (or even stars) is hardly a threat to the World Cup’s organizers or the sport’s Establishment, no matter how many people swiped the article open as eagerly as I did, hoping vainly for more from the sport I grew up adoring and still follow obsessively. I mentally filed Hoffenheim away in a dispiritingly short list of groups and people trying to do something. The news offered no answers to an urgent question as the World Cup looms on Sunday: What is a responsible, thinking fan to do when the world’s biggest sporting event is built on a rotten foundation?

Perhaps shreds of the tournament’s dignity were salvageable two years ago, when the Department of Justice found that Qataris had bribed FIFA officials to win the right to host, just as Russians had done for 2018’s games. (At least Russia had some history with the sport and not just unimaginable wealth.) The DoJ’s revelation came just five years after the FBI indicted nine FIFA officials for corruption and racketeering. Surely there was still time then to find a new host — a noncorrupt nation where homosexuality isn’t criminalized, as it is in Qatar. Maybe, while they were at it, they could find one where the weather isn’t so brutal that the hosts had to move the Cup to November and December rather than its traditional summer location on the calendar to stop players from collapsing on camera.

There was an opening to move the World Cup early last year, too. That is if the participating nations had agreed to a joint protest after The Guardian found that over 6,500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Nepal had died in Qatar in the first decade after it was awarded hosting duties in 2010 and subsequently set off to build new stadiums, hotels, transportation systems, and even a brand new city.

But now we’re approaching the tournament’s opening whistle. And if you’re a fan struggling to reconcile the moral hazards of this tournament with your love of the game, “Just don’t watch” is plainly inadequate. It’s downright unthinkable for huge swaths of the world who see the World Cup as an unmatched display of beauty, unity, and sporting romance, as well as the source of profound national pride. The world’s two biggest athletes, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, will compete on their sport’s most important stage for the final time. FIFA projects that 5 billion people will tune in. (3.6 billion watched in 2018.) As the British-American TV and podcast personality Roger Bennett told me recently, “Football is how I feel alive, it’s brought me such joy in my life. The World Cup in particular, every four years — that scarce commodity — is for millions of people around the world the spine of our lives.” There’s a reason, he said, “it’s been compared to an eclipse which strikes the entire planet instantaneously for a month.”

All of this means the default approach may just be submitting to a wrenching mental split screen. It’s a more torturous and immediate one than the discomfort that so recently ran through millions of American minds every Sunday when they ritually turned on the NFL and chose to put aside the evidence of concussion-based decimation unfolding onscreen. It’s an unsatisfying answer. But it’s a familiar one to soccer fans around the world as the professional sport, awash in cash, has made a parade of moral sacrifices.

The LIV Golf Tour, a controversial and unfathomably deep-pocketed Saudi effort to upend the world of professional golf, may have introduced many Americans to the concept of “sportswashing.” But authoritarian countries have been investing in soccer to distract from or improve their global reputation for years.

Qatar effectively owns one of the most successful teams on earth (Paris Saint-Germain), but it is not the only oil-rich nation-state or government-adjacent group to run a massive club. Manchester City belongs to a group run by a member of Abu Dhabi’s ruling family who is also the United Arab Emirates’ deputy prime minister. Chelsea only this year changed hands after years of ownership by Roman Abramovich, one of Vladimir Putin’s favorite oligarchs, became untenable when the U.K. froze his assets. (These are only the richest examples; of course, plenty of local team owners have proven themselves plenty despicable.)

Meanwhile the World Cup itself is hardly the only international competition susceptible to influence from all sorts of global cash — the roided-up, cashed-out Olympics would like a word — but it has historically been a cozy home for especially virulent variations of it. Benito Mussolini’s Italy hosted 1934’s event and saw it as a showcase for his Fascism two years before Hitler’s Berlin Olympics. Argentina’s military junta used 1978’s tournament for similar purposes, and four years ago it was Putin’s turn.

FIFA is the worst and most public player in this regard, but its posture is far from unique. The example of Newcastle, in the northern U.K., is instructive. News last year that the city’s team would be taken over by a group effectively representing the Saudi Arabian government was greeted rapturously by many fans who envisioned new glory for their beloved team no matter how often skeptics in the British press brought up the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Within a year, the team adopted a green-and-white jersey that looks like a Saudi national shirt to go alongside its famous black-and-white one. This winter, the city is planning on rolling out “warm rooms” for its freezing citizens suffering from skyrocketing heating prices and dangerous cold. All of England is shuddering in an energy crisis, which has been exacerbated by a recent Saudi decision to cut its oil output. But the team, which hadn’t finished higher than tenth place in the Premier League in the last decade, is up to third.

The soccer world has approached this year’s event unsure of what to make of Qatar, a country slightly smaller than Connecticut with no soccer history and with one of the world’s highest GDPs per capita but where foreign workers make up nearly 90 percent of the population. There have been murmurs of dissent over the corruption, but they have paled in comparison to the tournament’s hype. David Beckham accepted a reported £150 million to be a face of the proceedings, which has cost the host nation something like $220 billion. When Philipp Lahm, a former champion with Germany, this August criticized FIFA’s decision to hand the tournament to Qatar because of its human-rights record and said he wouldn’t attend, he was briefly treated in the European press as a moral hero. That almost immediately faded, however: Lahm said he would still watch from home and that the German team should still compete.

In March, the president of the Norwegian soccer federation spoke up at FIFA’s congress and called the decision to hold the tournament in Qatar “unacceptable,” but her speech didn’t move the needle: The Norwegians had considered a boycott but ultimately decided against it before failing to qualify for the tournament anyway. Other, more successful countries have spoken up, but only briefly. The Germans wore T-shirts made up to spell out “HUMAN RIGHTS” before one match in 2021, and the Dutch coach, Louis Van Gaal, told it like it is in March: “We are playing in a country that FIFA says they want to develop football there. That’s bullshit, but it doesn’t matter. It’s about money, about commercial interests.” Some major French cities, including Paris, won’t show the games on big outdoor screens this year, and the Danish team will be wearing jerseys that minimize their logo because, in the words of Hummel, their shirt manufacturer, “We don’t wish to be visible during a tournament that has cost thousands of people their lives.” In the weeks before the tournament, German fans have held eye-catching protests at local games.

Concerted attempts to change anything have given way to awareness-raising. The captains of some European teams will wear armbands with rainbow hearts on them to signify opposition to Qatar’s treatment of gay people. It’s an admirable thing to do, but, as the New York Times reported, even this gesture was couched: The heart “uses rainbow colors but not in a way that matches the more common Pride flag.”

There is sparse evidence that any kind of reckoning is coming for the sport. Earlier this month, FIFA president Gianni Infantino wrote to all the countries who will be competing to effectively tell them to stick to soccer, not politics. His organization soon after banned the Danes from wearing the words “Human Rights for All” on their training shirts. And just days before the first kickoff came more evidence that Qatar was cracking down: The host country banned beer at the stadiums.

Hertha BSC fans hold banners calling for a boycott of the World Cup at a match in Berlin on November 12.
Photo: Soeren Stache/dpa/picture alliance via Getty Images

FIFA’s cynical bet that the world will still tune in is clearly a safe one. I will watch the World Cup. I will cheer on the young and talented American team while wishing they had more convincing tactics on the field, and I will live and die with every touch of the ball by the magical left foot of Messi, arguably the greatest player of all time, who will be chasing glory in his final World Cup for my parents’ home country of Argentina. The sport’s magic has transformed for me as I’ve aged out of playing it regularly, and few sights have staggered me as much as full countries convulsing around a game like their national identities depended on it. Until around 8 p.m. on Election Night in 2016, after covering Hillary Clinton’s campaign for two years, I was toying with the idea of moving to Europe to write about soccer politics full time. So, actually, I’ll be more precise: I will devour the World Cup.

But I want a better way to be a fan without becoming, in the words of The Atlantic’s Franklin Foer, “a hypocrite and moral weakling.”

Seven years ago, the writer Drew Magary argued in Deadspin (RIP) for the American team to boycott the proceedings entirely. “This has to be the insanity line,” he wrote. “This has to be the moment where we look at a corrupt sports entity, and say, ‘What the fuck are we doing? We can’t do this.’ Nothing is worth this.” No such boycott materialized and calls for fans to skip out on watching this year’s tournament have been few and far between. (I’ve found one serious case for such a move, an op-ed in the small soccer magazine, Howler.)

Awareness, though, is not nothing, even if it feels inadequate. And some efforts to mitigate the harm done are mounting as the world starts grappling with what it’s witnessing. Bennett, who usually co-hosts the popular Men in Blazers soccer podcast, recently teamed up with former Obama National Security Council spokesman and current Pod Save America co-host Tommy Vietor on a limited-run audio series to address the question “How will we consume what is essentially a World Cup soaked in blood?,” as Bennett puts it in the introduction to World Corrupt.

Vietor told me he had no doubt the question was urgent after watching the process for Olympic bids unfold during his time in government, as well as Putin’s approach to Sochi a few years after “this sort of soft-power explosion for China” with the 2008 Beijing games. Bennett’s reasoning was more personal. “I didn’t want to stand by and know that I just normalized it. I went to Russia in 2018. I reported back from Moscow. Actually, I reported about how eerie and gussied up Moscow was, but I still realized retrospectively I was doing — and thousands of soccer journalists were doing — Putin’s propaganda bidding.” He won’t be in Qatar. The pair has expressed support for a campaign called #PayUpFIFA, which has been trying to get the organization to set aside $440 million — the equivalent of the players’ prize money — to address abuses of migrant workers.

Casual World Cup viewers, however, are unlikely to hear much about any such efforts. Qatar has imposed restrictions on where visiting film crews can record — no private homes, for example. And after BBC journalists were arrested and kept in prison for two nights in 2015 for reporting on migrant worker conditions in Doha and Norwegian reporters were detained after pursuing the matter there last year, it’s not yet clear how aggressive the foreign press will, or can, be. Qatari security officials shut down a Danish crew’s live broadcast just last week.

Early signs are discouraging at best. When the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Jonathan Tannenwald asked Fox Sports’ executive producer about the network’s approach in October, the answer was downright depressing. “If a story affects the field of play, if it affects the competition in the tournament, we will cover it fully,” David Neal told him. “If it doesn’t, if it’s ancillary to the tournament, if it has to do with the construction of the venues or what have you, we’re going to leave that to other entities to cover.” Fox Sports, of course, bought the broadcast rights to the tournament for $1 billion.

These questions won’t end with this installment of the tournament in December. Some of the biggest clubs in the sport appear to be for sale, and speculation about possible bidders has tended to include nation-states. Qatar, meanwhile, will almost certainly view this year’s spectacle as a success. One sliver of hope lives on with the next tournament: 2026’s will be in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Until now, many Americans have mostly skated by these issues — not our tournament, not our FIFA, not our slice of the world, not our concern. But to offer a real respite, we will have to be honest about what just happened.

FIFA World Cup 2022 Highlights – Gorolive.com

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