After a few moments of high farce, and some comments that only drew more attention to the human rights context in Qatar, there was one moment of tension at the 2022 World Cup draw in Doha.
That was when Lothar Matthaus first put his hand into Pot Two. There was a sudden expectation that he would of course place Germany into England’s group. I did not. He instead put the four-time champions into Spain’s group, giving England a much more forgiving opening round, but also creating one of the most balanced World Cup draws we’ve seen.
A hugely problematic tournament now has the benefit of an engaging group stage, further distracting from the more difficult questions that were posed to figures around the event.
That is how sportswashing works. It’s hard not to be drawn to that heavyweight clash between Germany and Spain, in what looks the closest to a “group of death”, although it simply feels wrong to use that phrase given the context of this tournament. Japan can certainly be described as a good side, however, and can complicate matters for both former champions. Southgate meanwhile described England’s group as “potentially trickier” than perception would have it, and that almost applies across the board.
Not enough of the big-name nations are close to peaks for the opening round to be predictable. Argentina will face a battle with Mexico and Poland. Brazil have a hugely awkward opening stage with Serbia, Switzerland and Cameroon.
Qatar were not afforded the forgiving group that the hosts often land. The Netherlands, who are good enough to be top seeds, almost counter-balance Qatar’s placing in that pot.
The draw also ensured another theme, that feels all the more fitting given the context. That is the acutely geopolitical nature of so many groups. There is of course every match Qatar are going to be involved in, as well as Saudi Arabia. There is USA and Iran in England’s group, with the possibility of Ukraine potentially offering one of the World Cup’s most powerfully emotional stories ever. If it is not them, and Southgate was careful to say they should be given every opportunity to play their best match in the wake of Vladimir Putin’s invasion, it will be a British derby with Scotland or Wales. There is then a repeat of 2018’s Switzerland-Serbia, a game that provoked huge controversy over the Swiss-Kosovan players celebrating with the two-headed eagle political symbol.
It all ensured that, even if it was impossible not to be dazzled by the glamor of it all, it was just as impossible not to escape the politics around this.
Almost every comment in a mostly bizarre opening ceremony had multiple possible readings, but that made the brazenness of it all the more striking.
Fifa president Gianni Infantino declared this would be the “greatest World Cup ever” and that the “world will be united in Qatar” at a time when many are describing this as the most problematic World Cup ever, and Qatar itself is causing such division.
Infantino went on to give a pompous statement about how “our world is divided” and the World Cup “can bring people together”. He then made a “plea from the world football community” for “everyone” to “stop the conflicts and wars” and “please engage in dialogue”. Putin, who gave Infantino an Order of Friendship medal and so used the World Cup to enhance his regime’s status, was not mentioned.
Infantino built to a self-aggrandizing flourish, saying “we want this to be the World Cup of unity and peace”. That is simply remarkable when there is such a disgraceful social division within Qatar.
It was why the constant references to the country’s “hospitality” were so jarring, and almost provocative. This famous hospitality is not extended to many migrant workers.
So many of the most obvious questions go unanswered. It was actually conspicuous that four of the five presenters were English, headed by Idris Elba, when the English press had been one of the most critical media groups of this World Cup.
Then again, the tone of the whole thing was odd. There were some nice moments, it should be said. The performer Sherihan’s speech about her was touching, given her health issues. There was a moving tribute to World Cup legends who have passed on, in Diego Maradona, Gordon Banks, Paolo Rossi and Gerd Muller. It was just these striking moments were surrounded by some strange ones, as we took 45 minutes to actually get to the draw. The tone was set by the opening, an utterly bizarre introduction of the new mascot, La’eeb, apparently broadcasting from the “mascot verse”. There were times when it felt like all that was missing was Richard Attenborough’s Richard Hammond, so similar was it to a clip in Jurassic Park. You can add your own line about the prehistoric attitudes of the state, not least towards women and LGBT+.
Either way, this strange little cartoon was the actual introduction to the tournament, its first moment. Maybe that’s fitting because it’s a strange World Cup as much as a problematic one. Three of the names were missing from the drawing. It’s taking place in winter. It’s taking place in an area half the size of Wales.
That is one thing that strikes from attending the event. So much of this World Cup is absurd, but you only realize the full extent when you walk around. It is simply too small to stage a 32-team tournament. It just doesn’t make sense on any level. Fifa’s own technical report flagged this, of course. It is not just hotels that are going to be at a premium, though. So, on the testimony of many of the people who attended the draw, are bookings at restaurants. Qatar’s much-praised “hospitality”, which is in a lot of very expensive areas, is going to be pushed to the limit.
Then again, they’re actively seeking to expand the limits. Doha was covered in construction work. The city, and particularly the Western Bay where the draw took place, felt like a building site. You could literally be walking down one of the few pathways in the area, only for it to just become more construction works. People attending visibly had to try and get around barriers or over fences just to make short trips to their hotels.
There are two important points to this. The first is that Qatar will likely get around the problems, but only by passing the kind of temporary laws that only autocracies can. Sources in the city were already passing on rumors of how private cars may be banned from the centre, or supporters may not be able to enter without a match ticket. We wait and see how true they’ll be.
Much will depend on the success of the construction – which brings us to the second point, that involves a circular moral problem. If you have to build all this to even stage it, with that through the much-criticized Kafala system, is it really worth it on a moral level? Is it even worth it on a sportswashing level? Do the people responsible for such decisions even care? The latest response to some of the criticisms, that people should “educate” themselves, suggests not. It is worth stating that Qatar is more open to such discussions than other sportswashing states, and that it deserves some credit – but it doesn’t mean you should host a World Cup.
Which brings us back to the absurdity of it all. Qatar’s immense wealth could bring brilliant change to the world. It could bring huge leaps in healthcare, perhaps even a cure for cancer. It is almost limitless.
They are instead trying to stage a World Cup besides a desert, in an area that isn’t suited to it and has no existing culture or infrastructure ready for it. And for what? In part to detract from the very problems needed to stage it. This really is the tragically absurd culmination of the sportswashing era. The hope is it will be the end of it. The world is too tuned to all this now.
There are too many questions. Players and managers are going to get them at every turn.
Southgate continues the England line that they are still discussing what next. His opponent and his friend, USA coach Gregg Berhalter, was asked by the Independent whether he would back Fair Square’s call for two simple requests, where football can use its immense leverage.
“That’s a complicated question,” Berhalter said. “What I would say is that any positive attention that we can bring into this area that’s going to lead to change we should be looking into whether it means that or other ways to do it. I’d be all for that.”
Bethalter also said he would back Harry Kane’s idea that nations could get together and make a collective stand.
“For us, the beauty of having a World Cup is to be able to bring attention to the good things they’re doing and perhaps some things that they’re not doing well.”
That feels a stretch, although Berhalter was visibly open-minded on this and willing to engage on the issue. Others did not look so comfortable. The Qatari national team coach, Felix Sanchez, hurried off after no more than three basic questions in the mixed zone. It seemed rather thin given this is his employers’ great stage to show themselves.
That stage is now mostly set, bar the missing names. Southgate says the countries can properly plan, as he pointed to how playing on the opening day against Iran limits England’s preparation time. Everyone else can start to imagine how it will play out.
You can already see the potential quarter-finals.
We may well have England-France, Spain-Brazil and Argentina-Netherlands. A semi-final could even see a last great showdown between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
It’s just that these tournaments never play out how they’re predicted or idealized. We’re too far away. Too much can change. Even right now, where England actually look the most stable big side closest to their peak, the two young sides who most look like they’re coming to a peak – Spain and Germany – have been drawn together. And yet that may end up suiting them, preparing them and meaning they avoid each other in a potential final.
The thrill of it all is watching how it plays out, in how it doesn’t conform to expectation.
That’s the childlike joy of a World Cup, the giddy excitement. The great shame, of this “greatest show on earth”, is it is precisely that which is so cynically being manipulated.