After some moments of great farce and some comments that only drew more attention to the human rights context in Qatar, there was a tense moment at the 2022 World Cup draw in Doha.
It was then that Lothar Matthaus first put his hand into urn number two. There was a sudden expectation that of course Germany would be left in England’s group. It was not so. Instead, the four-time champions were drawn into Spain’s group, giving England a much more lenient first round. However, it also created one of the most balanced World Cup draws we’ve ever seen.
A highly troubled tournament now has the benefit of an attractive group stage, further deflecting the tough questions that were posed to the stars around the event.
This is how it works sport washing (when a sporting event is used to draw attention to human rights, governance, etc. issues in a country or organization). It’s hard not to be drawn to this clash of heavyweights between Germany and Spain, in what seems closer to a “group of death”, although it feels wrong to use that phrase given the context of this tournament. However, Japan can be described as a good team and can complicate things for both former champions. Meanwhile, Southgate described the England group as “potentially more complicated” than realised, and that pretty much applies across the board.
There are not enough big-name nations for the first round to be predictable. Argentina will face a battle with Mexico and Poland. Brazil has a very uncomfortable initial stage with Serbia, Switzerland and Cameroon.
Qatar did not have the forgiving group where the hosts usually land. The Netherlands, who are good enough to be top seeds, nearly balance Qatar’s placement in that group.
The draw also secured another theme, which feels more appropriate given the context. That is the acutely geopolitical nature of so many groups. Of course, there are all the matches that Qatar will be involved in, as well as Saudi Arabia. There’s the USA and Iran in England’s group, with Ukraine likely to offer one of the most powerful emotional stories of the World Cup. If it’s not them – and Southgate was careful to say they should be given every opportunity to play their best game following Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine – it will be a British derby with Scotland or Wales. Then there is a repeat of the 2018 Switzerland-Serbia game, a game that sparked a lot of controversy over Swiss-Kosovar players celebrating with the political symbol of the double-headed eagle.
It all ensured that even if it was impossible not to be dazzled by the glamor of it all, it was just as impossible not to escape the politics around it.
Nearly every comment in a mostly bizarre opening ceremony had multiple possible readings, but that made his sass all the more surprising.
FIFA President Gianni Infantino declared that this would be the “greatest World Cup in history” and that “the world will be united in Qatar” at a time when many describe this as the most troubled World Cup in history. , and Qatar itself causes such division.
Infantino went on to make a pompous statement about how “our world is divided” and the World Cup “can bring people together.” He then made a “plea to the world football community” for “everyone” to “stop conflicts and wars” and “please engage in dialogue”. Putin, who gave Infantino an Order of Friendship medal and used the World Cup to improve the status of his regime, was not mentioned by him.
Infantino built with a gibberish of self-aggrandizement, commenting “we want this to be the World Cup of unity and peace.” That is remarkable when there is such a shameful social divide within Qatar.
This is why the constant references to the “hospitality” of the country were so jarring and almost provocative. This famous hospitality is not extended to many migrant workers.
Many of the most obvious questions remain unanswered. In fact, it was striking that four of the five presenters were English, headed by Idris Elba, when the English press has been one of the most critical media groups with this World Cup.
On the other hand, the tone of the whole thing was strange. There were some nice moments, it must be said. Interpreter Sherihan’s speech was moving, given her health problems. There was an emotional tribute to the World Cup legends who have passed away: Diego Armando Maradona, Gordon Banks, Paolo Rossi and Gerd Muller. It was just that these amazing moments were surrounded by some strangers, as it took us 45 minutes to get to the draw. The tone was set in the opening, a rather strange introduction of the new pet, La’eeb, who seemed to be communicating from the “pet universe”. There were times when it seemed like all that was missing was Richard Attenborough’s Richard Hammond, so similar to a clip on JurassicPark. You can add your own line about the state’s prehistoric attitudes, especially towards women and LGBT+ people.
Either way, this weird little cartoon was the actual introduction to the tournament, its first moment. Perhaps that is appropriate because it is a strange World Cup as much as it is problematic. Three of the names were missing from the draw. It takes place in winter and in an area half the size of Wales.
That is something that surprises when attending the event. Much of this World Cup is absurd, but you only realize the full scope when you walk. It’s simply too small to host a 32-team tournament. It just doesn’t make sense on any level. FIFA’s own technical report pointed this out, of course. However, it’s not just hotels that are going to command a premium. Thus, according to the testimony of many of the people who attended the draw, they have restaurant reservations. Qatar’s much praised “hospitality”, which in many areas is very expensive, is going to be pushed to the limit.
On the other hand, it actively seeks to expand the limits. Doha was covered in construction work. The city, and in particular Western Bay, where the draw was held, felt like a construction site. You could literally be walking down one of the few roads in the area, only for it to turn into more construction. People who attended had to try to get around barriers or fences just to make short trips to their hotels.
There are two important points in this. The first is that Qatar will perhaps fix the problems, but by passing the kind of temporary laws that only autocracies can do. Rumors are already being shared by sources in the city that private cars could be banned from the centre, or that fans would not be able to enter without a match ticket. We wait and see how true they will be.
Much will depend on the success of the construction, which brings us to the second point, which implies a circular moral problem. If you have to build all of this to even stage it, with that through the much criticized Kafala system, is it really worth it on a moral level? Is it even worth it at the level of sport washing? Do the people responsible for such decisions care? The latest response to some of the criticism, that people should “educate themselves”, suggests not. It is worth noting that Qatar is more open to such discussions than other states that do sport washing and that deserves some credit, but that does not mean that a World Cup should be organized.
Which brings us back to the absurdity of it all. Qatar’s immense wealth could bring brilliant change to the world. It could bring great advances in health care, perhaps even a cure for cancer. It is something almost limitless.
Instead, they try to organize a World Cup next to a desert, in an area that is not suitable and that does not have a culture or infrastructure prepared for it. And for what? Partly to detract from the very issues required to stage it. This is truly the tragically absurd culmination of the age of sport washing. The hope is that it will be the end. The world is too in tune with all this right now.
There are too many questions. Players and coaches will have them at every step.
Southgate continues England’s line that they are still discussing what’s next. The Independent he asked his opponent and friend, US coach Gregg Berhalter, if he would support Fair Square’s request for two simple requests, where soccer can use its immense influence.
“That’s a tricky question,” Berhalter responded. “What I would say is that any positive attention that we can bring to this area that leads to change, we should look at whether it means that or other ways of doing it. I would be in favor of that.”
Bethalter also added that he would support Harry Kane’s idea that nations could come together and take a collective stand.
“For us, the beauty of having a World Cup is to be able to draw attention to the good things that they do and maybe some things that they are not doing well.
That seems far-fetched, though Berhalter was visibly open about it and willing to broach the subject. Others didn’t look so comfortable. The Qatari coach, Felix Sanchez, hurried after no more than three basic questions in the mixed zone. He seemed quite in a hurry since this is the big stage for his employers to show off.
That stage is almost ready, except for the missing names. Southgate says countries can plan properly, as he pointed out how playing on opening day against Iran limits England’s preparation time. Everyone else can begin to imagine how it will play out.
You can already see the possible quarterfinals.
We may well have England-France, Spain-Brazil and Argentina-Netherlands. A semi-final could even see one last big showdown between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
It’s just that these tournaments never play out as predicted or idealized. We are too far. Too much can change. Even at this time, where England seem the most stable big team and closest to their peak, the two young teams that seem to be peaking the most, Spain and Germany, have come together. And yet, that can end up satisfying them, setting them up and meaning they avoid each other in a potential final.
The thrill of all this is to see how it unfolds, how it doesn’t live up to expectations.
That is the childish joy of a World Cup, the giddy excitement. The great embarrassment, of this “great spectacle on earth”, is just what is manipulated in such a cynical way.