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5 October 2022

The Qatar World Cup is immoral and weird. How did we allow this to happen?

The whole enterprise is a kind of power move – a gigantic middle finger levelled in the general direction of the world.

By Jonathan Liew

Recently it was reported that the organisers of the Qatar World Cup, anxious at how it was going to entertain the 1.5 million football fans expected to visit in November, have decided to rent the giant animatronic spider seen at Glastonbury Festival. Standing 15 metres high and belching great plumes of fire into the desert sky from its mechanical arachnid thorax, the spider will form the centrepiece of the Arcadia Spectacular fan festival, a month-long dance music extravaganza. Tickets could cost £75 a day.

And, frankly, you know, why not? One of the more disorienting aspects of Qatar 2022, as the news cycle begins to quicken ahead of kick-off on 20 November, is the ease with which it manages to elide the serious and the trivial to the point where it’s no longer really possible to tell which is which. Migrant worker deaths. Premier League fixture chaos. £15 pints of Budweiser. Special “sobering tents” for inebriated fans to sleep off the effects of their £15 pints of Budweiser. What really matters here, and what doesn’t?

Internal monologues, as well as conversations with other journalists attending the tournament, soon lapse into the absurd. Will we be able to drink? Will we be able to vape? What will the accreditation queues be like? Where are we supposed to run in a country with no pavements? Is this thing still supposed to be fun? Am I irredeemably privileged for even asking? How much human blood was spilled, how much hydrocarbon combusted, how many expensive lobbyists hired, so I could enjoy the privilege of wearing a limp plastic lanyard and watching Canada vs Morocco?

We’re already in new territory on so many levels: the first winter World Cup, the first World Cup to be held in a country this small, the first World Cup hosts since 1934 never to have qualified for a previous tournament. Nobody remotely knows what happens when a country of 3 million people absorbs another 1.5 million all at once. It’s just not happened before.

What’s interesting is the extent to which Qatar has chosen to embrace this ambivalence, to lean in to the chaos, to spurn the pretence that this tournament is going to be anything other than deeply weird. For the organisers, uncertainty has long been a curious source of empowerment. If there are no longer any rules to this thing, then conventions and expectations – and price tags – can simply be made up as you go along.

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Meanwhile, the many questions raised by hosting a global football tournament in a conservative Muslim country have been constructively sidestepped. There is still no clarity on whether gay fans will be arrested for holding hands, whether the ban on going shirtless will be enforced in hot stadiums, whether rape victims will be jailed or publicly flogged for the crime of “extramarital sex”, as has happened to foreign tourists in the past.

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This ambiguity is for the most part entirely intentional: a bureaucratic impregnability designed not simply to communicate the sheer powerlessness of the individual in the face of the state, but to carve out a space in which the regime can simply do whatever it wants, whenever it wants, to whomever it wants.

The whole enterprise is a kind of power move, a gigantic middle finger levelled in the general direction of the world. Struggling with your energy bills? Worried about your mortgage repayments? We just spent £200bn on a disposable party, paid for by your gas consumption. A gift from us, to us, via you. In the meantime, go f*** yourselves.

[See also: Iran’s act of defiance puts England to shame]

For all the scare stories that abound ahead of every World Cup, this at least feels new and bracing. Even Putin’s Russia four years ago was careful at least to maintain the facade of openness and communion, to nurture the idea that this spectacle still somehow belongs to everyone. Qatar, by contrast, has been quite explicit on this front: this isn’t for everyone. It has no interest in bringing people together to share the joy of football. It doesn’t care what you think of it. Your experience of the World Cup will thus be determined largely by your place in its world-view, by your capacity for paying up and shutting up.

What do we have as a bulwark against all this? Talk of boycotts and calculated snubs feels self-regardingly pointless. Does England’s World Cup triumph in 1966 feel remotely tainted because most nations in Africa boycotted the tournament in advance? Of course not; you probably didn’t even know about it. Meanwhile, the “One Love” armband that will be worn by most European teams – including England – is rendered nonsensical by its own corporate vagueness: a non-protest protest, the elastane equivalent of a placard reading “Careful Now” or “Down With This Sort Of Thing”.

And in a way, we’re not really angry at some tiny distant enclave in the Gulf, but at ourselves. At the way we allowed this malign, cannibalistic tyranny to embed itself in our institutions, our cities and towns, our politics and our monarchy, our favourite sport. It is an abomination that this tournament is taking place. Its very existence is an indictment of every single person involved in its conception, and every single person who could have stopped it happening. Pointing this out feels good, necessary, cathartic. But it doesn’t change a thing. My money’s on a Spain vs Brazil final. See you in November. Meet me under the giant metal spider.

[See also: The last days of Roger Federer]

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This article appears in the 05 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Crashed!