20221119 qatar

Qatar Has Already Won the World Cup

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And a lot of people lost to make it happen.

The first glimpse I got of what it will be like to watch this year’s men’s World Cup came during the 2021 sci-fi thriller The Tomorrow War, in which Chris Pratt plays a Green Beret-turned-teacher who has to save the human race from extinction. In the opening minutes of the film, Pratt is at a Christmas party on a quiet American suburban block, where everyone is gathered to watch the World Cup final in Doha. Brazil is playing France, or maybe it’s Argentina—Reddit isn’t entirely sure either. The Seleção have got a breakaway. And then a portal opens up in front of the goal and a bunch of people from the future tell the biggest television audience on the planet that, in 30 years, aliens are going to kill them all.

Is this really happening? Chris Pratt’s character is thinking. Are we all going to die?

Is this really happening? I thought. A December World Cup? In fucking Qatar?

It is really happening. On Sunday, the host nation will take on Ecuador, and formally kick off a World Cup with all the charm and good vibes of product placement in a straight-to-streaming action movie. No one really asked for it, but it’s here: a decadent, chaotic, and grotesque spectacle that’s become a symbol not just of the transformation of an entire sport but of an entire economic and political system.

The Guardian recently published a “Where are they now?” of the people who were in the room in Switzerland in 2010 when Russia and Qatar were awarded the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, respectively, and it reads like the postscript of a mob movie: Seven have since been banned for life from soccer; one has been banned from the Olympics; nine were banned from the sport for shorter periods of time (a few of those bans were later overturned); and one of them, of course, recently invaded Ukraine. David Beckham was there, too, but we’ll get to him in a bit. Although Russia and Qatar have long denied any wrongdoing, the Department of Justice alleged last year that both countries bribed international soccer officials to win their bids. The controversy over the Qatar World Cup began with the bid itself, and extended eventually to virtually everything else about the tournament. 

In the years since the World Cup was awarded, Qatar has faced scrutiny from journalists and human rights advocates over its criminalization of homosexuality and the living and working conditions of migrant workers who have built the infrastructure for the tournament. The size of Qatar’s investment is staggering. As I wrote in a recent cover story for our November/December issue, Qatar has spent $200 billion to prepare for this showcase event, building stadiums, subways, roads, and whole communities from scratch. (Not all of it was finished in time.) To accommodate a tournament in a country where summer temperatures can reach 110 degrees, FIFA moved the World Cup from its traditional early summer start to what is normally the middle of the European club season. The entire soccer calendar has been reconfigured and condensed this year and, unsurprisingly, everyone is injured.

Qatar’s growth was powered by a deeply exploitative system of migrant labor used throughout the Gulf known as kafala. Workers could be deported if they left their jobs, and employers often confiscated their passports. Qatar officially ended kafala last year and has made incremental reforms over the last decade, but according to human rights groups, many of the underlying issues persist. According to one analysis, 6,500 migrant laborers have died in the country since FIFA awarded the tournament to Qatar. The country has long downplayed the death toll, arguing that only those fatalities that occurred on the clock at stadium sites should really be counted. The “mortality rate among these communities is within the expected range for the size and demographics of the population,” it said last year. When Qatar hired the law firm DLA Piper to conduct its own investigation in 2014, it found that at one point migrant workers were dying in the country at a rate of about one per day. 

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