Qatar World Cup — the most polarising football showpiece to date?

Qatar World Cup — the most polarising football showpiece to date?
Fifa president Gianni Infantino and Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, emir of Qatar, in April 2022 during the final draw for the Fifa World Cup. (Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

It’s just a matter of days before Qatar welcomes some of the biggest names in world football. But it doesn’t feel like it.

The Fifa World Cup. A fierce football festival of grand proportions. Usually. However, this time around the event is shrouded in indifference and a passionless run-in, despite being one of the most iconic sports events on the globe.

There are a few factors which have contributed to the listlessness surrounding the World Cup, one being the host nation, Qatar, and its undesirable reputation when it comes to human rights abuses.

This is particularly true for migrant workers, who were at the centre of building the infrastructure that will be used at the month-long quadrennial showpiece. 

These workers reportedly faced poor working conditions, which were made more perilous by the Arab country’s unforgiving heat. Some died along the way.

It is this very heat that resulted in the World Cup organiser and global football custodian, Fifa, moving the tournament from the traditional window of June/July to November/December — to circumvent the country’s blistering heat, as those traditional World Cup months mark Qatar’s boiling summer.

There is also the not so minor of issue of homosexuality being illegal in the country. Which has begged the question of whether everyone who wishes to be in Qatar will be openly welcome.

Fifa factor

According to Fifa though, there isn’t a thing to worry about. Some countries participating in the tournament have been openly critical of Qatar and how things are done in the country – with Denmark at the forefront of the criticism, while Australia became the latest to voice concern on the aforementioned issues.

“We know football does not live in a vacuum and we are equally aware that there are many challenges and difficulties of a political nature all around the world. But please do not allow football to be dragged into every ideological or political battle that exists,” Fifa President Gianni Infantino and Secretary-General Fatma Samoura wrote in a joint letter sent to the football association presidents of the 32 nations that will be in Qatar.

“At Fifa, we try to respect all opinions and beliefs, without handing out moral lessons to the rest of the world. One of the great strengths of the world is indeed its very diversity, and if inclusion means anything, it means having respect for that diversity. No one people or culture or nation is ‘better’ than any other.”

Following the letter becoming public knowledge, global human rights body Amnesty International fired back at Fifa and Infantino, with Steve Cockburn, Amnesty International’s head of Economic and Social Justice saying: “Gianni Infantino is right to say that ‘football does not exist in a vacuum’. Hundreds of thousands of workers have faced abuses to make this tournament possible and their rights cannot be forgotten or dismissed. They deserve justice and compensation, not empty words. Time is running out.”

This World Cup is not the first to be plagued by controversy prior to its staging.

In Brazil in 2014, the backlash was internal, with many Brazilians feeling that the government was showing the citizens the middle finger by spending billions to host the event, as opposed to using the money to practically benefit the poorest in the country.

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Even when South Africa was granted the hosting rights for the 2010 spectacle, some European media outlets painted the country as a cauldron of racial violence. The first African country to host the nation was also positioned as a den of heinous criminal activity (which may be slightly truer now than it was 12 years ago).  

Qatar will have an opportunity to write its own story. However, many of the prevailing circumstances, such as the timing of the tournament, leave the showpiece limping before it has even started.

The actual football

Brazil head into the tournament as major favourites. This notion was further reinforced when the nation’s head coach, Tite, announced his 26-man squad for the tournament recently. It is stacked with star quality that would put Sandton City’s ‘diamond walk’ to shame.

The team is particularly blessed on the attacking front, with Neymar and Vinicius Jr the headliners, while there was also space for Arsenal duo Gabriel Jesus and Gabriel Martinelli.

Responding to whether the five-time World Cup winners can be considered favourites, Tite did not shy away from the tag: “After four years of work, we’ve become more consistent. Brazil is indeed one of the favourites.”

After the Brazilians, it becomes a bit more difficult to definitively pinpoint another clear frontrunner.

Defending world champions France cannot be ignored, though they head into the tournament with just one win from their previous six matches. Two ended in a draw, while the rest were losses. It’s not a good look for Didier Deschamps’ men.

Nonetheless, they cannot be written off. Even without their injured midfield dynamic duo of N’Golo Kanté and Paul Pogba, the French possess enough quality to reach the latter stages of the tournament. From then on, anything can happen. The same is true for Germany.

Portugal and Argentina cannot be overlooked either. Both nations head into the tournament with their own special motivation, other than world glory. That is to see their respective icons, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, winning a maiden World Cup title.

Messi came closest to the accolade in 2014, but was denied by a ruthless Germany side and the profligacy of his teammates in the final. In 2022, the diminutive magician and his compatriots are in with a genuine shout for the title.

After all, they beat this tournament’s outright favourites back in July 2021 to clinch the Copa America. They are also unbeaten in 35 international matches.

“There’s some anxiety and nerves at the same time,” Messi said. “It is the last [World Cup for me].”

Ronaldo has made similar remarks as the two players considered the greatest to ever kick a soccer ball near the end of their glittering careers. For some football fans, a World Cup final featuring both Argentina and Portugal would be a fairytale ending.

African equation

No African country has ever gone beyond the quarterfinals of a World Cup. In Qatar, the continent will be represented by Senegal, Cameroon, Morocco, Tunisia and Ghana. All five have appeared at football’s biggest event previously.

Grouped with the Netherlands, hosts Qatar and Ecuador, the Senegalese are carrying the hopes of the continent in terms of the team that will reach the knockout phase, at least.

“The aim is to get out of this group. And, once we get out of this group, we know that it will be a knockout tournament. We will leave our mark. People are already looking ahead to the last 16 and the quarterfinals, but we will be taking it a game at a time,” said Senegal coach Aliou Cissé.

The other four African sides face opponents that are tricky but not impossible to beat. It will depend on who wants it more on the day. 

But with the squads only assembling a few days before the first match of the tournament is played, one wonders about the type of football quality that will be on display in the early stages of the showpiece. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.


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