Watching the World Cup

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Reuben Abati

Contrary to initial predictions that the on-going FIFA World Cup tournament in Qatar would be the dullest ever in the history of the World Cup, it is in fact defying all such doomsday calculations and turning out to be a most exciting event. The quality of play is very high, the various players are superbly motivated, the fans are enthusiastic and as the tournament progresses, it all gets even more exciting. I find myself glued to the TV set every day to keep abreast of this historic event. Initially, politics almost overshadowed the event, with FIFA having to write to all the 32 teams playing a total of 64 matches in this year’s edition to focus on football, and not the protests that had been planned around the issues of human rights record of the Qatar government, LGBTQ+ rights in particular, and the abuse of 30, 000 migrant workers who were hired to build the infrastructure for the World Cup. The government of Qatar built 7 new stadia, an airport, 100 hotels and a fan park. The politics was so much that seven Captains of the participating European teams in fact announced that they would wear “One Love armbands.”  Denmark said they would wear “tone down” shirts. Paris and other French cities threatened that they would not screen the matches in public areas. 

The Ukrainian FA also called for Iran to be banned for “systemic human rights violations”. Ahead of the tournament, Qatari authorities had to go after persons who had made fake World Cup trophies – 144 counterfeit trophies were seized, even counterfeit clothes with World Cup logos were seized. In the second week of November, a luxury liner dubbed by The Sun newspaper of London, as HMS WAG, ferrying the wives and girlfriends of England’s World Cup Squad set sail for Qatar. The players, we were told, were banned from setting foot on the massive ship, but nobody talked about the WAGs going on land to visit their men in the hotel bubbles to which they were going to be confined. There was also the issue of the consumption of alcohol. Alcohol consumption is against the country’s Islamic laws and beliefs. Homosexuality also carries a penalty of a fine or seven years imprisonment in Qatar. 

The irony is that Budweiser, a beer manufacturing company, with a $75 million deal with FIFA, is the major sponsor of the tournament and has been a FIFA sponsor for about two decades. FIFA first announced that it would be possible to drink beer in fan zones, but it eventually reversed itself and Budweiser was told to serve only zero-Bud within the vicinity of the stadiums. Now, Budweiser says the winning country will take all of its unsold beer from Qatar. FIFA would also later agree that persons who wanted to wear rainbow bucket hats or wrist bands could do so, after the Football Association of Wales protested vehemently over the maltreatment of its fans, but as we now know, Qatar’s officials refused. Even after FIFA’s assurance, fans wearing rainbow colours or symbols were arrested or rough-handled at train stations. The only man no one could do anything about is Tottenham Hotspur superstar, and England’s Captain, Harry Kane who decided to go around off-pitch with an 18-karat, diamond-encrusted, Rainbow Rolex watch worth about $950 million – a massive show of wealth, but Kane simply was protesting in support of the LGBTQ+ community and indicating his angst over FIFA’s threat that any player wearing a One Love Band will get an automatic yellow card. Kane could not wear the armband during England’s 6- 2 win over Iran.  Germany also responded last Wednesday before their Group E match kick off against Japan by covering their mouths. Germany’s Interior Minister, Nancy Faeser also wore a One Love arm-band, sitting in the stands, next to Gianni Infantino, the FIFA President. She later took it off, and of course did not get a yellow card –  she, not being a footballer. 

What Qatar represents in my view, is as I pointed out earlier in a parenthetical, prior comment on this page, now built up into an extended commentary, on what I have seen so far, is the clash of civilizations, between a conservative Middle Eastern culture, and a liberal, hypocritical Western outlook. The hypocrisy of the West is writ large. It is okay to collect sponsorship funds from Budweiser, only to turn around and breach contractual agreements and put the entire blame on the recalcitrance of Qatar. The big question in this World Cup is: should Qatar have been granted hosting rights in the first place as far back as 2010? And now 12 years after the fact, the West is complaining about human rights? This looks like a case of the money is good, bring it, but the culture is not good enough. Hell-ooo! In any case, if the World Cup is a game for the whole of humanity, no part of the world should be discriminated against, and what the people and government of Qatar are showing is that if their money is good enough for France, England and all the other Western countries, the onus is on them to also respect their culture and conservative preferences. One clear point from the politics of the current World Cup in Qatar is that the West likes to overdo things, and wittingly too, as they seek to re-write principles of international law in a manner that should be of interest to teachers and students of the subject. 

The most egregious example would seem to be the brazen manner in which the United States Soccer Federation decided to alter the Iranian flag last Saturday and chose to replace the Islamic emblem on the flag with a graphic representing the Group B standings in the FIFA World Cup. The US says it did so “to demonstrate support for the women in Iran fighting for basic rights.” This amounts to interference in the affairs of a sovereign state, but the US as a superior power is accustomed to writing its own rules of engagement with other countries of the world. And hence, it would get away with it, despite Iran and the TASNIM, the official news agency of Iran, saying that the US has violated the FIFA Charter and should be kicked out of the Qatar World Cup. Iran is slated to face off against the US today. Ahead of that encounter, the US is clearly waging a psychological war against Iran by interfering in its internal affairs. FIFA will not impose any sanctions, and thus delicately avoid getting involved in the conflict between both countries that dates back to 1980.  It will be recalled however that the Iranian team at the World Cup refused to sing their own country’s national anthem during their first World Cup game in Qatar.  The meeting between Iran and the USA today will be another “mother of all games”, a rematch of their 1998 World Cup group stage encounter which Iran won 2-1. The US may have already won the match off-pitch. 

Indeed, so political is this year’s edition of the World Cup tournament, even at the group stage level, on and off-pitch that Canelo Alvarez, the Mexican WBA, WBC, WBO and IBF super middleweight boxing champion has vowed that if he sets his eyes on Lionel Messi, he would teach him a lesson or two with his fists about how not to disrespect Mexico. Messi is accused of having pushed aside a Mexico jersey with his left foot as he tried to take off his shoes after a Group C match in which Argentina slammed Mexico 2- 0.  Messi’s fans have said that the incident was inadvertent, but Alvarez says he is keeping his fists waiting for Messi. Lionel Messi may be good at playing football, and he has done well for his country in Qatar, matching Diego Maradona’s record but I doubt if his lithe frame can take one small, punch from Alvarez’s big fist! When politics and emotions are mixed with sports, the outcome can be very dangerous. Indeed, in July 1970, El Salvador and Honduras went to war – the Soccer War or the 100-Hour War – over a World Cup qualifying match, triggered by underlying conflicts between both countries.

The World would also forever remember the Captain of the Colombian team in the USA ‘94 World Cup, Andreas Escobar, who scored an own goal and caused Colombia’s early exit from that World Cup.  He was the other Escobar. There was Pablo Escobar, not a relation of his, a blood-thirsty drug warlord who was hunted down by the police and murdered. Andres’s offence was that he scored an own goal. Six bullets were pumped into his back at the El Indio nightclub in Medellin, later described as revenge action by gangsters who made heavy losses betting on Colombia at the World Cup. “Football,” as I wrote previously, is “worse than opium”. This year, last weekend, riots broke out in Belgium and the Netherlands, after Morocco, the Atlas Lions, handed the Belgium National team a 2- 0 defeat in a Group F match. A car was burnt down in Brussels. There was violence in Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Antwerp and Brussels. The police had to use water cannons to disperse crowds and enforce some arrests.    

All of this drama about the 2022 World Cup in Qatar notwithstanding, I suspect that what would be remembered hereafter, would not necessarily be the attendant politics, but football itself, and how dominant it is as a game. The tournament is still at the group stage level at the time of this writing, but we have seen much to compel the view that this is turning out to be a remarkable event. History is being made, and it is becoming obvious that there are no underdogs on the pitch. All the 32 participating countries are in Qatar to make a statement and quite a few have been able to do so. Almighty teams, tipped to be potential winners have been humiliated by smaller teams on the FIFA ranking table. Could anyone ever imagine that Saudi Arabia would beat Argentina, 2- 1? But it happened. The King of Saudi Arabia himself found the feat so unbelievable, he had to declare a national holiday to celebrate the achievement. It doesn’t matter how Saudi Arabia fares in this World Cup, it is firmly on record that Saudi Arabia humiliated Argentina! The second major upset after this was the spectacle of Morocco beating Belgium, 2- 0. 

The victory was such a major upset it caused riots in Belgium and the Netherlands!  In a Group E opener, Germany lost to Japan in a 2 -1 upset. Germany, a football superpower, is now alive, after managing to force a draw with Spain. It now faces a must win match against Costa Rica, as it confronts the prospect of finishing bottom of its group as happened in the 2018 World Cup. Another: Canada was beaten 4-1 on Sunday night by Croatia, but it managed to score its first World Cup goal through Alphonso Davies. Canada may exit the World Cup but what the team has achieved so far- that one goal, within 67 seconds, the country’s first at the World Cup was enough to keep the pubs open in Canada on Sunday. The World Cup is a place to make history, and many are in it for the special experience and the opportunities it offers. Wales showed up in Qatar this year, the first time in 64 years. It would be difficult for Wales to reach the last 16, from Group B, sitting at the bottom of the Group, having played a draw against the USA, beaten by Iran 0 – 2, and now having to face England tomorrow.   

At least one commentator has attributed the determination and the revolt against traditional assumptions that we have seen on display at this World Cup to money: the fact that the FIFA World Cup is one of the biggest prizes in sports – the total prize money in Qatar 2022 is about 440 US million dollars, $40 million more than the previous World Cup in 2018. The winner of the tournament will walk away with $42 million. For participating at all, every team will get a minimum of $9 million. The clubs whose players are at the World Cup would get a largesse of $209 million to be distributed across the world. The referees at the tournament will get a base fee of $70, 000 and $3, 000 for every match that they oversee. FIFA already gave every participating nation $1.5 million to aid preparations.  But I don’t think what defines the World Cup is money no matter how high the paycheck is, although it must also be admitted that host country Qatar is set to cash out big time!  It is something more: the thrill of participation, nationalism and the opportunity to be on the world stage. 

The kind of energy that has been put into the game is further demonstrated even by the African teams: Ghana showing that it truly deserves a place in the sun: see what the Black Stars did in the match against Portugal on Nov. 24. They lost 3- 2, but they were formidable. In their match against South Korea, yesterday they fought like true stars, and recorded an impressive win, beating South Korea 3-2!  Before then, Morocco trounced Belgium 2-0. Cameroun forced a draw with Serbia, 3-3 in an explosive, thrilling, entertaining encounter. Serbia was leading 3-1, but the Cameroonians roared like lions and cancelled out the deficit.  Senegal lost to the Netherlands, 0-2, but they defeated Qatar, 1-3. They have survived to fight again today when they meet Ecuador. Tunisia has not done badly so far also at the World Cup. They played a draw with Denmark, in Group D, and lost to Australia, 0 -1. Their next match is against France on Wednesday. France has so far been a dominant defending champion. Les Blues are proving unstoppable, but this is again a World Cup like no other where underdogs are taking on the traditional champions and burying established reputations. The aggregate gainer is football, and the fact that football has become effectively a science, rather than 22-men running up and down, looking for the goal post. What I have been watching, to speak for myself, since the World Cup began in Qatar on November 20 looks to me like an interplay of artistry, science, and individual talent. It is a glorious testament to the capacity of the human mind and body, and how the world continually reinvents itself in time and space. The underlying and perhaps overt political and ideological currents speak to the inequalities and dissensions at the centre of geo-politics which in the long run are unresolvable given the balance of powers. 

But for giving us an opportunity to laugh and get entertained beyond the perils of COVID-19, high inflation, cost of living crisis, and the doomsday predictions of economists, the World Cup is serving a great purpose at an appropriate time. When last, did the entire world laugh and cry along the full emotional spectrum therapeutically, over something as refreshing as sports, the interplay of talents, emotions and national pride? COVID-19 blocked our joys. The World Cup is setting our emotions free. And so, as the beat goes on, let the games continue, and may the best team triumph.  

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