Unfurl the faded summer bunting. Crank the thermostat up half a notch. Bask in the yellowy glow from that rectangular screen in the corner of the room. The most divisive, brutal, mindbogglingly corrupt sporting event of the modern age is now upon us. It is time, finally, to Discover Amazing, as the Qatar 2022 Fifa men’s World Cup repeatedly urges the passing traffic on the endless hoardings and fences ringing this city of light and sheer surfaces.
On Sunday evening the footballers of Ecuador and Qatar will walk out for the opening game at the Al Bayt stadium. Over the next 29 days Qatar’s eight box-fresh arenas, gleaming glass and steel monuments to the men who died in their construction, will live out their own brief sepulchral lifespans before being dismantled for parts or converted into shopping malls.
England play Iran on Monday in the mid-afternoon heat. Wales kick off against the USA in the evening. Twelve years, £220bn, and thousands of unexplained deaths in the making, it seems we really are going to play football after all. Welcome to the damned World Cup.
It has been a gruelling process to reach this point. Twelve years have passed since Fifa staged its preposterously grandiose double World Cup bid selection ceremony in Zurich. The former president Sepp Blatter appears to have genuinely believed he was going to win a Nobel Peace Prize by awarding 2018 and 2022 to Russia and the US. Instead, from the moment Blatter opened his envelope and read out the word “Qatar” in a halting voice –Blatter knew, even then – he lit a fuse under Fifa’s own mountain bunker.
Later that day, as a Cold War Steve-style montage of A-listers, from Boris Johnson to Bill Clinton, slunk back to their helicopters, Vladimir Putin appeared on stage in Zurich to offer up a triumphant unscheduled press conference. Fast forward to the present day and 16 of 22 voting Fifa committee members from that day have been tainted by some form of corruption, either alleged or founded, from arrests and extradition orders, to such minor oversights as accepting a Picasso painting from Russia’s bid team and then really regretting it and saying sorry.
This is item one on the Qatar 2022 charge sheet, a World Cup that was basically awarded by a toxic criminal organisation. But it is just the backstory here. The suffering of the vast migrant labour force employed to build this tournament has been widely covered in the years since. A Guardian report has suggested there may have been up to 6,500 related worker deaths since Qatar was awarded the World Cup.
Qatar disputes this. For a long time it put the total as low as three. Qatar has also refused to carry out proper autopsies on its working dead. Various independent reports have pointed to cases of cardiac arrest due to crushingly long hours in the desert heat, to a workforce managed on the basis of ingrained institutional racism, and to some truly heartbreaking details. A story in the New York Times this week reported that at least 2,100 Nepalis have died in Qatar since 2010, 200 of them suicides.
There is a level of cognitive dissonance required to keep watching a spectacle haunted by these absences. The official mascot of Qatar 2022 is called La’eeb, billed as a sprite from the mascot netherworld, and modelled on the traditional regional white cloth headdress. Basically La’eeb flits about looking like a smiling friendly ghost, presented via hologram box to arrivals at Doha international airport in a way that feels unintentionally poignant. Here he is, the cheeky, ghostly face of a World Cup shadowed by death.
The question of why, exactly, Qatar wanted to stage this spectacle has perhaps not been asked enough. Qatar has no serious footballing culture. It had no infrastructure at the time, and is still ruinously expensive to visit.
The argument for expanding the game has been used by Fifa, as it was ahead of the murderously framed 1978 edition. And it is true that there is a huge hunger for football in the Middle East and the Gulf. A first ever World Cup in the European winter is hardly an unreasonable request from the rest of the world. But why not take this thing to a place where it can genuinely put down roots, to a developing nation where Fifa’s vast wealth could be used to help build facilities that are actually needed?
The term sportswashing has been a handy, catch-all explainer, a term used to describe hard-line states using sport to burnish the public profile. This is of course nothing new. The Fifa World Cup has been the plaything of despots for as long as there has been a Fifa World Cup. Its second edition was staged in Benito Mussolini’s Italy. Only the intervention of the second world war saved us from the great lost Nazi World Cup, Germany 42.
This is a little different. Qatar is not conducting a charm offensive. Qatar has no ambitions beyond its own borders. Qatar has 200 years of natural gas. It doesn’t need to be liked. Instead this World Cup looks now like part of a wider national security programme, a way of making this tiny hyper-wealthy peninsula visible to the world, of becoming a presence on the map, of minimising its vulnerability to coups and blockades. This is hard power, security, the shifting plates of global wealth and influence.
Indeed as the World Cup kicks off, and with Qatar’s status elevated by Europe’s energy crisis – the result of a war started by the host of the last World Cup – there has been a distinct hardening of attitudes, a sense Qatar really isn’t in the mood to keep apologising.
It is hard to avoid the feeling that Qatar was right too, that it read the way the world was turning, that the disbelief at its announcement as hosts in 2010 has been followed by 12 years of gathering influence. And now we have this: a brutally stark end point to big football’s reimagining of itself as a luxury propaganda tool.
But hey, Harry Kane is fit. Perhaps Gareth Southgate can be lured out of his keep and persuaded to play a back four instead of a back five. It could even end up being a pretty good tournament on the pitch. Brazil, France and Argentina are the favourites to win, all three crammed with high-end attacking talent. England are stodgy enough to go out in the group stage, but also good enough to edge their way right to the end. Wales will bring vibes, collectivism and the basking, late-stage Gareth Bale. The show will roll on. And the world will, as ever, be watching.