When Gary Lineker opened the BBC’s World Cup coverage with a sombre acknowledgement of the “controversial” nature of the Qatar event, he was bowing to the inevitable. Not only is a November-December tournament far from “normal” but to ignore the corruption claims, the deaths of construction workers and the oppressive nature of the Qatari state would be to ignore a debate that has caught fire in recent weeks.
One might have expected both Fifa, football’s governing body, and the Qatari hosts to adopt a conciliatory tone in the days preceding the event. Instead Gianni Infantino, the Fifa president, was belligerent in his denials that there was anything problematic about the tournament. The pressure on England and other teams to abandon their “One Love” armbands – a protest against discrimination in Qatar – showed an intolerance for even small gestures of dissent. For their part, Qatar’s U-turn to ban alcohol in stadiums and the restrictions on kosher food are signs that the veneer of open internationalism barely conceals a fear of any loosening of the state’s tight boundaries.
We are where we are. The World Cup is on. Gestures such as the comedian Joe Lycett appearing to shred £10,000 in protest at David Beckham’s ambassadorial role for the tournament will not stop the juggernaut. And what’s the betting that England’s dominant performance against Iran today will quell their supporters’ misgivings?
Yet we need to know how we got here and how we can prevent such a compromising event from drawing us in in the future. I too – a not particularly important writer and academic – have taken the Qatari shilling. A few years ago I received an invitation to participate in the annual international conference of the Doha International Centre for Interfaith Dialogue (an NGO with close ties to the Qatari state). Curious, I accepted and entered into a strange and lavish world: business class travel, a VIP greeting and limousine, a five-star hotel, bounteous food and drink and an event that posed as a high-level summit.
I was aware from the start that it was all nonsense. It was clear this was a soft-power exercise with little actual content. Yet there was another side of the conference. I met dozens of people from multiple ethnic and religious groups from all over the world. Ironically, we participants bonded over our cynicism and ridicule of the event itself.
The event became the yardstick by which I measured other soft-power events. Does an event have the possibility of transcending its debased foundation?
Not only does the World Cup lack the potential to transcend its grubby origins, it has arguably made the world – or at least Qatar – a worse place. There is no redeeming it.
The conference I attended at least did no direct harm. The hotel in which it was held may well have been built by exploited workers, but it would have been built conference or no conference. When it comes to the World Cup, migrant workers have died – potentially thousands, though it is not always clear when migrants were working on projects related to the tournament – and resources have been wasted building stadiums that will be used only a handful of times.
The conference I attended may have treated me and others with undue generosity, but we weren’t bought beyond the few days it was held. Given the murky circumstances in which the World Cup was awarded to Qatar – and Fifa’s history of corruption accusations – we can assume that some of those promoting it have been bought beyond a one-off chance to fly business class.
Maybe in Doha there will be convivial encounters in which fans from around the world will bond through cynicism at the Qatari regime. Ultimately though, like the group photo that was taken at the end of the conference I attended, the crowds will be treated as a mass, to be wielded as proof of the respectability of an authoritarian, plutocratic, carbon-pushing regime.
Qatar has found a way to weaponise desperation for its own benefit: desperation for the fossil fuels the country produces; desperation for football success; and even the desperation of those, like me, who yearn to be treated as VIPs, if only for a few days. As long as we lack the strength to refuse to give in to our desires, there will always be those who will take advantage.
[See also: Iran’s act of defiance puts England to shame]