World Cup Qatar Will Be Great Football But an Ugly Game


When the World Cup kicks off next weekend, a Western sense of fair play will be outraged that a country with no indigenous tradition in the game has won the right to host the tournament on the strength of its financial might. The insult also adds to the injury – due to Qatar’s extreme temperatures, the World Cup is not held during the usual summer break but in November, disrupting domestic football competitions in the northern hemisphere for six weeks. Fans and players just have to group it.

The coming weeks will be a reminder of how the clash of values ​​between the liberal West and the rich Arab states can play out on the international stage to everyone’s displeasure.

First, Qatar’s human rights record is uneven. A democracy in name only, the country is ruled by the autocratic Al Thani dynasty, which imprisons LGBTQ people who engage in consensual sex. Tireless British human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell was expelled from the country last week after staging a one-man protest outside the National Museum of Qatar. On German television last week, Qatar’s official World Cup ambassador, Khalid Salam, chose the moment to call homosexuality a form of “mental damage”.

Then there is the human toll. Some 6,500 migrant workers died building the gleaming, purpose-built infrastructure for the tournament in Qatar, including highways, hotels and eight demonstration stadiums (one designed as a Bedouin tent, the other constructed from of 974 recycled shipping containers). Authorities say they have since cleaned up working practices.

Even Sepp Blatter, the former president of FIFA, the highest international governing body in international football, now describes his decision to award the World Cup to Qatar in 2010 as “a bad choice”. Blatter recently told the Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger: “It’s too small a country. Football and the World Cup are too big for that.

The decision was mired in controversy and corruption allegations. Blatter himself was cleared of fraud charges by a Swiss court in July. The US Department of Justice also believes FIFA members were bribed to vote for Qatar, although the country has repeatedly denied this.

Still, things don’t look any better from the Qatari perspective. Qatar has rivaled the United Arab Emirates for commercial primacy in the Gulf, so winning the right to host a World Cup is a huge propaganda stunt. The Al Thanis have billions to spend, and the West wants their money and their liquid natural gas. Qatar already has several European major league football clubs; why shouldn’t the kingdom get its prize?

Power-hungry Western bureaucrats who organize international sporting events like the World Cup and the Olympics are happy to oblige. These officials don’t care about politics as long as the games go as planned. It’s just business.

The World Cup was exploited for propaganda by Mussolini’s Italy in 1934, Argentina’s military junta in 1978 and Vladimir Putin’s Russia in 2018. So why pick on poor little rich Qatar, who wants to be friends? with everyone and guarantees its 300,000 citizens a very comfortable life as long as they keep their heads down?

Plus, tournament bureaucrats know that autocracies deliver. Their grand building projects avoid all the messy compromises and torturous delays involved in democratic planning. Think how long it takes to build a single railway line in the UK or an airport in Germany. And regardless of Qatar’s historic support for the Muslim Brotherhood, the normal Islamic restrictions on alcohol in Qatar can be relaxed (slightly) for tourists during the tournament with the flick of a solid gold pen from the ruler.

Western greed and hypocrisy go hand in hand. Many celebrities, models and sportspeople who show up to be photographed at Gay Pride events and support liberal causes at home are happy to take Qatari money to promote the World Cup. For the al Thanis, it must seem that everything and everyone in the West is for sale.

In any case, if the West wants to influence the Arab monarchies, it must get involved. As Lord Charles Powell, diplomatic eminence of several British prime ministers, puts it, “the days when the Gulf was a restricted area for the United States, and to some extent for the United Kingdom, are over”. China and Russia are increasingly important trade and security competitors in the region. To the east and west, Iran and Israel are maneuvering to their advantage. We cannot afford to neglect these relationships. Yet one minute Washington is denouncing friendly regimes’ human rights record, the next it’s begging them to help maintain the oil price cap.

Of course, I will be cheering on the England team next week with my compatriots. But have no doubt, even if what you’re watching will be great football, winning the World Cup is a lousy game.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Martin Ivens is the editor of the Times Literary Supplement. Previously, he was editor of the Sunday Times of London and its main political commentator.

More stories like this are available at

Leave a Comment