So the World Cup is upon us and Kerala, as always, is being consumed by a pandemic of soccer fever. The symptoms are a widespread obsession with sports, intense polling of otherwise busy people about the latest score, huge clippings of international soccer heroes everywhere, and soccer-related references at every turn. I was in Kozhikode, arguably the hardest hit city, for a few days earlier this week and there was no escaping the World Cup. Whether I was approached at a political gathering or questioned by journalists, even in a speech introducing me to a women’s college, and in a conversation with attorneys from the Calicut Bar Association, football metaphors flowed.
But every World Cup has been about more than football and this one in Qatar is no exception. The host country has been pilloried for its human rights record, its treatment of its LGBTQ minorities (homosexuality is illegal in Qatar), its treatment of migrant workers, and even its hydrocarbon-fuelled prosperity (Qatar is one of the world’s largest producers of liquefied natural gas). From the start – from the moment the tiny Gulf state of just 3 million people won its bid to host the 2022 tournament in 2010 – it has come under attack and even faced hostile campaigns in Western media, which claimed it was stripped of the privilege , to be the venue for the World Cup.
The British Newspaper The guard claims that around 6,500 foreign workers who worked on World Cup-related projects have died. “6,500 lives for 6,750 minutes of football” yelled a slogan and demanded that the World Cup be withdrawn from Qatar for moral reasons. There have been unconfirmed claims that Qatar bribed FIFA officials to give them the hosting rights. However, none of the allegations of bribery and illegal financing have been proven and Qatar claims the death figure of 6,500 is inaccurate as it represents all deaths of all migrant workers from all causes over a five-year period. It is claimed that only 38 workers actually working on WM-related projects have died.
Many of the neighboring Gulf kingdoms resented what they saw as Qatar’s emerging policies, which, in addition to presuming to host the region’s first World Cup, included the establishment of the world-renowned Al Jazeera television network, which provided a platform for the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan (the Taliban’s only international office is in Doha) and who allegedly fund Islamic terrorists (ISIS or Daesh are said to have been funded with Qatari money, much of which was paid as ransom to release some kidnapped Qatari sheikhs). The Gulf Cooperation Council declared an economic and political blockade of the desert kingdom in 2017 that lasted four years and only ended after patient Qatari diplomacy in 2021.
But other opponents of the World Cup venue Qatar have also spoken out. And they found an unlikely backer in the man who was chairing FIFA at the time Qatar won the bid, then-FIFA President Sepp Blatter. Qatar is “too small a country,” he recently told a Swiss newspaper. “Football and the World Cup are too big for that.”
Qatar is too small a country. Football and the World Cup are too big for that.
Sepp Blatter, former FIFA President
Current FIFA President Gianni Infantino responded in a long and rambling press conference on the eve of the tournament, accusing the West of “hypocrisy” in its reporting of Qatar’s human rights record. Infantino said: “I am European. For what we’ve been doing around the world for 3,000 years, we should apologize for the next 3,000 years before we teach moral lessons. If Europe really cares about the fate of these people, they can create rule of law channels – as Qatar has done – where a number of these workers can come to Europe to work.” Anticipating the charge that he is defending an untenable Autocracy, he added: “I don’t have to defend Qatar, they can defend themselves. I defend football.”
Amid reports that teams were planning to wear rainbow logos and “One Love” headbands to show their solidarity with the LGBTQ community, FIFA banned all such overtly political stands. Infantino wrote to all participating teams, asking them not to draw the tournament into controversy. “We know that football does not live in a vacuum, and we are equally aware that there are many challenges and difficulties of a political nature around the world,” he wrote. “But please don’t allow football to be dragged into every ideological or political battle there is.”
Qatar have never competed in a soccer World Cup before, but they spared no expense in justifying the honor. It has spent a staggering $220 billion bonanza on World Cup infrastructure projects, seven new stadiums (each a marvel of design), multiple highways, roads and flyovers, new railway systems, hotels (including cruise ships floating offshore to… to serve) built as makeshift hotels) and an enormously expensive air-cooling system which, although open-air, makes each stadium a bubble of low temperatures. Since winning the World Cup bid, Qatar has spent fortunes to expand its influence in the football world, buying French club Paris Saint-Germain and some of football’s biggest superstars like Brazilian Neymar, Argentinian Lionel Messi and French hero Hire Kylian Mbappe play for it.
She also invested a large part of her political capital in the success of the tournament. “Until now, no state has placed sport in general, and the World Cup in particular, at the center of its foreign policy and economic development,” said football historian David Goldblatt. This is debatable: history is full of examples of how host countries of World Cups use football to increase their global prestige. Uruguay, which hosted the first-ever World Cup in 1930, was another tiny country whose only claim to fame was football. “Other countries have their history, we have our football,” is the local maxim. Fascist Italy used the two World Cups that followed to promote themselves worldwide, as did military-ruled Argentina in 1978 and Putin’s Russia in 2016. The late British historian of nationalism, Eric Hobsbawm, once declared: “What made football so uniquely effective Medium made for inculcating national feelings is that the…imaginary community of millions seems more real than a team of 11 named individuals.” As my son Ishaan Tharoor, a key commentator on the sport and the World Cup for The Washington Post, adds: “Football is the global game more than any other sport and as such is a fulcrum for all sorts of political imagery and myths of belonging… These ’11 Named People’ embody a nation’s yearning for prestige and fear of failure.”
India has no part in the outcome of the tournament and is far from qualifying for any future tournament. But Kerala’s passion for football will remain undiminished until after the final on December 18th.
Football beyond supercomputers
An English betting company called BetVictor, concerned about the England team’s prospects in the tournament (and no doubt anxious to set the odds for its players), invested in a supercomputer that ran an algorithm through each team’s talents, records and prospects. The algorithm predicted a final between Brazil and Belgium, from which Brazil emerged victorious. But before they pop the champagne corks in Brasilia (or on the already Brazilian-looking beaches of Kerala), a word of warning: Even supercomputers aren’t perfect. The algorithm failed to predict Saudi Arabia’s overwhelming victory over Argentina. The true joy of sport arises from such wonderful unpredictability – and no supercomputer can program that.