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23 November 2022

The Qatar World Cup is a moral disaster – is it braver to step away, or step inside?

Nothing that happens on the pitch can possibly salvage the horrors that brought this tournament about.

By Jonathan Liew

I touched down in Doha late on a Sunday night. The World Cup had already begun, my first game (England vs Iran) was on Monday afternoon, and so I had arrived in the country as late as possible: a decision I now realise was borne of extreme ambivalence. Foreboding was not quite the right word: any World Cup, even one as flawed and soiled as Fifa/Qatar 2022, is still apt to inspire a certain wonder. Grotesqueness and fascination go hand in hand. This is perhaps the siren call of journalism: the dangerous thing, the sickening thing, the thing that pushes you away, somehow also draws you closer. And this is the most infamous snuff movie in the history of modern sport. Is it braver to step away, or step inside?

Still, wanting to see is not quite the same as wanting to be there. I realised this now, as I unlocked the door to my simple apartment in the capital, lit by a harsh phosphorescent light, chilled by a juddering air conditioning unit. The walls were unadorned, the bed simple and bare, the single chest of drawers coated in a fine layer of dust. Outside the traffic roared on the Al-Rayyan Road. Just beyond, a giant poster of the French striker Kylian Mbappé was draped over one side of a skyscraper. By the door was a switch marked “Do Not Turn Off”.

[See also: In Qatar’s paranoid parallel universe, the World Cup is just a prop in a theatre of war]

Qatar has been likened to many things: a giant theme park, a computer simulation, a dystopian desert hellscape. It is perhaps all of these and less. The closest parallel I could come up with, as I rolled through the city on empty metro trains and trudged past glittering car showrooms and luxury penthouse blocks, was the gated executive village. An elaborately curated façade with a dark, malicious heart, a place with its own unspoken order and own unknowable code, where everyone is secretly going mad.

In common with much of ex-communist eastern Europe, the whole of Qatar is calibrated to make the individual feel small. Huge, unlabelled 20-storey buildings stretch across the skyline, casting the streets into shadow. Battalions of security police, some barely older than children, line the entrance to every metro station and every supermarket. The guard outside our building hasn’t had a day off in more than a year. You realise why this country and this competition have proved so resistant to even the most basic idea of human rights, which are based on the principle that every person has some innate, individual worth. In the Fifa/Qatari-government mindset, the opposite is true: the individual is by default worthless until they can prove otherwise.

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“Everybody is welcome,” Fifa’s president, Gianni Infantino, proclaimed in his extraordinary monologue on 19 November in which he rounded on Qatar’s critics and condemned European “hypocrisy” over human rights. But of course Infantino didn’t literally mean “every body”. To do so would require a recognition of individual worth and, by extension, individual suffering. What he meant, in general, was that people are welcome. Where resistance sees the exception, power sees only the rule.

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How far should you want to immerse yourself in this? To what extent do you absorb this world, and at what point does it begin to absorb you? It’s easy enough to come to Qatar and see nothing at all. In many ways, this is how it has been designed: from the moment you arrive there are colourful signs and miles of barricades, unsmiling volunteers filtering you to where they need you to go. You can eat your dinner in the hotel restaurant, head down to Souq Waqif and get some pictures to put on Instagram, spend your time almost entirely with people like yourself.

Then, of course, there is the football, in many ways the perfect foil for the unreality of this place. Even within the stadiums, the entire experience feels profoundly and proudly inauthentic. Ear-splitting music fills the gaps before and after the game, fills the half-time break, kicks in a millisecond after a goal is scored. Weird virtual-reality replays appear on the big screen, showing action from earlier in the game but rendered in CGI. The games themselves seem to stretch into eternity. England’s 6-2 win over Iran on 21 November ran to 117 minutes after substitutions, injuries and video assistant referee checks. For decades computer games strove to recreate the aesthetic of real football. Now football resembles a computer game: a high-definition product that you can see but never touch, and which for some reason can always be paused.

[See also: Why have so many of England’s golden generation failed as football managers?]

And so perhaps the most interesting aspect of this World Cup is the grapple for control of the stage, between the powers who have conceived it into being and the people who make it function. Before their game against England, Iran’s players refused to sing their national anthem in protest at government violence against peaceful demonstrators in their country. The fans – from the Welsh supporters who belted out “Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau” to the gleeful Saudi supporters toasting their team’s shock 2-1 defeat of Argentina – have seized their limited opportunities to contribute. And the BBC deserves praise for declining to show Qatar’s opening ceremony in favour of a sober discussion on the ethics of the tournament.

Nothing that happens on the pitch can possibly salvage the horrors that brought this tournament about. The final takes place on 18 December, but even this is only an arbitrary cusp, the point at which most of the world will stop caring about the injustices and indignities of Qatar. Perhaps, in the absence of anything tangible or solid, the very least we can do is to keep seeing.

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This article appears in the 23 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Russian Roulette