Qatar World Cup really kicks off today

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Fans of England arrive for game vs. Iran this morning.

Fans of England arrive for game vs. Iran this morning.
Image: Getty Images

While the World Cup started yesterday, it doesn’t really kick off until today. The World Cup, for fans, is about the NCAA tournament-type feel of multiple games every day, and there’s three today and four per for the next couple weeks. That’s the real tournament. If we didn’t all feel weird enough about this particular World Cup, FIFA, its president, the Qatari ruling family, and FOX certainly did their best to make sure whoever didn’t, joined the club over the weekend.

It’s nearly impossible to not feel some level of conflict about this one. At least awkwardness, given that it’s taking place in November and December instead of June and July where it belongs. It doesn’t feel quite right, out of rhythm. That’s not nearly the whole story obviously, but it’s a nice base for feeling something is off.

And then there are the layers upon layers. When the powers that be in Qatar ruled just two days before the tournament that they were going back on their promise to have beer at stadiums, it couldn’t be taken for much else other than a power move, a demonstration of untouchable authority. Which of course, leads one to wonder just what else they might go back on, or what they had no intention of following in the first place. What else have they been waiting for to show just how much money they have and how much they don’t care about what anyone thinks?

The awarding and staging of the tournament there is an endorsement of all this, whether FIFA likes it or not. It’s the extreme nakedness of what is important to a supposed non-profit agency, and that was the suitcases and envelopes full of cash that were given to voters to award the tournament to Qatar in the first place.

The thing is, we knew it at the time. We knew that the proclamations of floating air-conditioning aircraft carriers were pure fantasy. We knew they couldn’t host this tournament in the summer, we knew they couldn’t host it comfortably in such a small space. And the problems have only gotten worse.

Which is where the confusion creeps in. “Sportswashing” was at the top of every report, every comment, and yet the award of the World Cup has only brought more light to how Qatar works. It’s doubtful you could find a soccer fan who doesn’t know about the basic enslavement of migrant workers, or the treatment of women or the LGBT+ community. Had the World Cup been awarded somewhere else, it’s likely these issues would be nearly as well known. That hardly makes this all worth it or anything close to an overall good, but it makes it clear that either the rulers of Qatar were only interested in the cash it would bring it (hard to see how you can break even on a $250 million investment) or they actually thought that all the problems would be ignored or swept under the rug. Certainly sending Gianni Infantino out there to do their bidding on Saturday suggests a frustration that the headlines and stories aren’t going the way they want. The fear would be the more it doesn’t go how they envisioned just how wildly and ruthlessly they might try and swing it back the way they envisioned.

Maybe the scrutiny all dies down after the tournament. Maybe most people forget about Qatar or where it is or what they do. Or maybe there are enough reporters who will stay on the case after the uproar.

And yet, it’s a World Cup. it’s supposed to be Valhalla for any fan. It hasn’t been completely unadulterated for a while now, given what we’ve all known about FIFA for a long time. We know what they’re about, what really drives this. And yes, they’re there now to monetize and profit from our joy, just like the owners in every other facet of sports. When it gets to this point, it’s almost as if our enjoyment of sports is weaponized against us, daring us to answer how much we can take.

I certainly won’t argue against anyone who decides this tournament isn’t for them, just this World Cup. There are those that simply can’t get past how Qatar treats all of those groups. It is just sitting on this tournament, the exact definition of the elephant in the room.

And yet when I say that, I can’t let them take the joy for fans, too, away from everyone, that’s pretty much what FIFA and Qatar are counting on. They’ll get away with it, because we can’t live without it. They’ll have “won” when we tune in.

Except there isn’t really winning and losing. We could turn off all the screens, but the FIFA officials already have their bribe money. They already have the sponsor money. They already have the TV money. Maybe some of the networks around the world lose some ad revenue. Maybe they should have acted years and years ago, because we know that’s who FIFA listens to. But we’re going to depend on Budweiser and Coca Cola to grow a conscience?

Personally, it feels like only I lose by ignoring the tournament. I lose on the possibility of another Landon Donovan Valhalla 2010 moment. I watch that reaction video on the regular. I lose if I don’t see how Yunus Musah takes to the world stage, or whether Messi can finally claim the last piece of the set in his career. I’m not going to win a fight with FIFA and Qatar. About the only thing I could manage was to deny them my tourism dollars.

Those of us who watch will carry all that, It won’t always be comfortable, and it probably won’t ever be. I hate to get all Andy Dufresne, but “there’s something they can’t touch,” and yet I can’t help it. Is there nothing they can’t harvest and ruin? There’s still a part of this that’s ours.

We didn’t choose this. It was forced upon us. But they can’t have everything. At least I think they can’t. Maybe by Thursday I’ll think it is just too gross. The confusion is actually the hardest part.

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