The players will provide the same joy they always do but this World Cup has been defiled
By Oliver Holt CHIEF SPORTS WRITER
dmg media (UK)
World Cup 2022
TODAY, I feel angry. Today, I feel as if the World Cup that begins today has been hijacked by charlatans, narcissists and bad actors. Today, I feel that the planet’s biggest sporting event has had its romance stripped away step by step. Today, I feel Gianni Infantino, the FIFA president, needs to get a new speechwriter. Today, I feel that the FIFA president has a God-complex but no shame. Today, I feel as if he is killing the World Cup. Today, I feel as if he made things a whole lot worse with his bizarre, crass, self-obsessed monologue at Qatar’s National Convention Centre yesterday. Today, I wish he had followed his own diktat and stuck to football. Today, I wish he had not insulted the people he professes, so risibly, to champion. Today, I wish he would stop with his pathetic whataboutery and accept that staging the World Cup in Qatar over the next month is impossible to defend. A couple more things: today I do not feel like a migrant worker. I feel like someone staying in a hotel built by migrant workers. I do not feel disabled and I do not know what it is like to face the barriers in everyday life that disabled people face. And today I do not ‘feel’ gay, a gift Infantino claims to be able to possess, and I do not know what it is like to face the prejudice in everyday life that many gay people face. But if I were gay and I was coming to Doha for the World Cup, I think I would feel uneasy and I think I would feel scared. I would feel uneasy because, whatever empty assurances Infantino wishes to provide, this World Cup is being staged in a country that criminalises same-sex relationships and that makes it an uncomfortable place to visit. I would feel scared because Qatar just reversed its decision to allow people to drink alcohol at matches at this tournament so what if it reverses its (unspoken) policy on tolerating gay football fans? It was less than a fortnight ago, after all, when Qatar’s World Cup ambassador described being gay as ‘damage in the mind’. INFANTINO’S 57-minute speech yesterday felt like the human version of a fighter jet spraying out chaff, trying to deflect the fire heading his way. It didn’t work. His comments were so crass and cringey it was reminiscent of the worst days of Sepp Blatter and that is saying something. Meet this FIFA president, same as the old FIFA president, friend to authoritarian governments, about to be reelected, unopposed. What is happening is desperately sad because this is still a World Cup which promises so much on the pitch. The tapestry of the history of the tournament will become even more ornate by the time it comes to an end one week before Christmas. It is the last chance for Lionel Messi, the greatest player in the world for most of the last 20 years, to win it and strengthen his claim to being the best there has ever been. Every game he plays will feel like an unmissable date with a genius. He has a good supporting cast this time as well. Imagine if Argentina do it. Imagine the emotion. It does not change the fact that the World Cup should not be being played here. Imagine if England can go one better than they did in Russia four years ago and get to the final. Imagine if they win it. Southgate’s side have not been in good form coming into the tournament but imagine if they get their mojo back. Imagine if the ridiculously precocious Jude Bellingham takes the tournament by storm. Imagine the excitement if England end the 56 years of hurt. It does not change the fact that the World Cup should not be being played here. I walked through Souq Waqif in the centre of Doha on Friday night and saw people dancing through the narrow streets and fans from Mexico, Canada, Argentina, Brazil and Qatar growing intoxicated together on the excitement of the approaching tournament. The city looks beautiful at night, minarets illuminated against the night sky and the tower blocks of West Bay shimmering and glittering in the near distance. It does not change the fact that the World Cup should not be being played here. It is right that the Arab world finally has a World Cup. Countries like Egypt, Morocco and Algeria are hotbeds of football. It has been beautiful hearing the call to prayer drift over the England training ground in the late afternoon every day. And the fuss about there being no alcohol available at the stadiums reflects on us, not the Qataris, even if the lateness of the change of heart is puzzling. Enough, too, of the fun police trying to tell local fans that they are fake just because they don’t show their love of football in quite the same way we do. It does not change the fact that the World Cup should not be being played here. A lot of people just want to get on with the football now. They want to forget the injustice and escape from the realities of politics, which is what football should be. I get that. But the time when football and politics could be separated died a long time ago. We live in a time when Middle Eastern states own some of the world’s leading football clubs. We live in a time when states use football to try to disguise injustice. We have got to a point that when Saudi Arabia run out to play Argentina next week, some will ask why they are playing in Newcastle’s third kit. Politics has invaded sport and this World Cup is the most egregious example of its incursion so far. It is wrong that the tournament is being played here. In fact, it is wrong on so many different levels that the fact it happened will be a stain on the game for decades to come. It is happening now and the fact that it is happening shames us all. Jurgen Klopp pointed the finger, incorrectly, at journalists for not doing more. He could also have pointed at Pep Guardiola, who was an ambassador for the Qatari World Cup bid. He could have pointed at David Beckham, who is being paid to be one of the faces of the tournament. This World Cup has ruined a whole host of reputations before it has even started. It is supposed to be a celebration of international football but it is so sullied and so misshapen it can only hasten international football’s demise. This is a tournament, a formidable weight of evidence suggests, where the selection process for the hosts was won dishonestly, although Qatar has always refuted that. This is a tournament whose stadiums and infrastructure were built by armies of migrant workers who are modern-day slaves and who died in their droves constructing these monuments to sports-washing and nation-building. This is a tournament that will be played on pitches that are graveyards. This is a tournament in a country where women are second-class citizens. This is a tournament that cannot welcome all fans because its hosts criminalise same-sex relationships. Early on Friday morning, before the sweltering heat made it difficult to be outdoors, I walked the length of the Corniche, the sweeping coastal avenue that runs from the Museum of Islamic Art at one point of a semi-circle to the towers of West Bay at the other point. When I reached Al Dafna Park, there were a series of FIFA billboards there, espousing the uplifting principles of football and sport. ‘Sport Strengthens the Inherent Right to Equality and Non-Discrimination,’ the first one read. Not in Qatar, it doesn’t. ‘Football to Establish Principles of Gender Equality,’ another one said. Not in Qatar, they won’t. ‘Sport Instils Peace and Love and Deepens the Culture of Human Rights,’ another one read. Not in Qatar, it doesn’t. ‘Football Teaches Intimacy Between People and Says No to Violence,’ said the last. Not in Qatar it doesn’t. There is a nagging feeling that nothing is quite as it seems here at this World Cup. It is a tournament that craves authenticity so much it is willing to pay fans from different countries to come here and contribute positive posts on social media. It is a World Cup that desperately wants to be seen to be doing the right thing but which cannot escape its cradling and its surroundings. It is a festival of public relations and deception and artifice just as much as it is a festival of football. Sometimes, strenuous efforts are made to disguise reality. On Thursday afternoon, for instance, a group of 17 migrant workers came to England’s training ground to play a couple of short-sided games with Gareth Southgate’s squad and fire some penalties at makeshift goalkeepers like Marcus Rashford and James Maddison. It was England’s first penalty shoot-out in Qatar, and for the sake of all our nerves, it is to be hoped it was the last. Afterwards, the workers were given tickets for the England-Iran game on Monday evening and England shirts. They stood in a line as dusk fell and the England players walked along that line, autographing their shirts. It was a good thing to do. The FA are a decent organisation, fundamentally, and they approached the event in the right spirit. The players treated the workers with respect and dignity, as you would expect. AND some reported that it was one in the eye for FIFA, who had asked teams to stick to football and not engage in controversial issues. But it wasn’t quite like that. It turned out that this was actually a FIFA-organised event. FIFA had given competing teams a choice of 10 activities to promote and England, like the USA, had chosen to host migrant workers. Again, that is to their credit. Other teams, apparently, had chosen working on calligraphy. But there was another layer of the onion to peel back, too. Further inquiries yielded the information that the workers invited to England’s base had been picked by Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy. One man, a worker originally from Kerala in India, an electrician who had helped with the construction of the Al Bayt Stadium that will host the opening game tonight, was put forward to speak to the media. He said working conditions had been good. He said they had been safe. It was a nice event. There were lots of smiles. England did the right thing. But it also left a slight feeling of unease with many of those who witnessed it. It felt uncomfortable. It felt, in the end, as if England, and the workers, had been used by FIFA and Qatar for their own propaganda. So much surrounding this tournament is like that. It is one long, grim battle between appearance and reality. So, yes, today, like a lot of football supporters, I feel angry. I feel angry that the World Cup has been defiled in this way by these people who have betrayed football. I hope that the players provide the same joy and entertainment they always provide and most of all, I hope that the sick pantomime playing out in Doha will help to save football from ever travelling down this road again.