A Long Shot, A Sure Miss, by Larissa Shulman

July 16, 2014 2 Comments

Football is a kind of contemporary nationalism, a symbol of a nation’s cultural and spiritual health. For the devout, those for whom football matters most, a match can produce a catharsis so profound and moving as to shake an individual to his core. It can also break a nation’s heart, as we recently saw during Brazil’s shattering home-defeat against Germany. This is all to say that football is much more than just football (except, that is, for soccer-playing Americans.)

Photo credit: Karim Jaafar | AFP | Getty Images, taken from CNBC
That is why Qatar’s bid to host the FIFA 2022 World Cup is loaded with a significance that is greater than the rights to host the world’s most watched game. Qatar’s winning bid means that it will be the first Middle Eastern country to host the World Cup. While this comes as a boon for the Arab world, it is accompanied by a host of problems, some of which are unique to Qatar and the Qatari bid, and others which are endemic to the Cup itself.

Lacking a vibrant football culture, Qatar seemed an unlikely choice to host the Cup from the outset.  The Arab World, moreover, is far from being the global heart of the game. This is not to diminish the importance of how the Arab World connects to its football teams. It is only to say that FIFA fans and players alike might be more at home in a locale that is more accustomed to, and invested in, football culture. 

Qatar also faces internal hurdles for hosting the game; temperatures reaching 49 degrees celsius during the summer raise concern for how teams will be able to play in such oppressive heat. Costly air-conditioned stadiums were proposed initially, but with mounting costs and infrastructural shortcomings, it does not seem that the proper cooling mechanisms will be feasible for summer games. To obviate this problem, FIFA proposed moving the games to Winter time, commencing in November and finishing in January. This move, however, puts a wrinkle in the football calendar of leagues around the globe.

Added to this are allegations concerning the legitimacy of the bid itself, casting a dark shadow on the already dubious choice of Qatar as the 2022 host.  Top FIFA officials are suspected to have accepted millions in bribes from Qatari billionaire Mohamed bin Hammam, accusations nefarious enough to warrant an investigation whose verdict is yet to be determined. Should these allegations be proven true, the bid for the 2022 game will once again be up for grabs.

Compounding this are the scandalous human rights violations of the foreign workers who were brought in to build the extravagant cityscape of stadiums. These stadiums, costing Qatar and its sponsors some $4 billion, seem exorbitant for a country of a mere 1.7 million people whose football culture is incipient at best and minuscule at worst.

Taken together or separately, the issues Qatar and FIFA face by maintaining the 2022 bid are severe, and this post does not lay out the comprehensive gamut of them.  Even if Qatar and FIFA withstand the investigation, and Qatar keeps the bid, the fervor, pride, and spirit surrounding the Qatari bid choice feel snuffed out.

Should the bid be determined null, and it seems that this will be the case, the Arab World will be deprived a cultural milestone. Following this, a breeding ground of contention and rage will be left wide open. With an increasingly isolated, messy Arab World, whose borders are currently in the process of being redrawn, it is a step in the wrong direction to take a point of pride and make it a point of contention. By doing this, FIFA risks representing further alienation of the Arab World from the West. 

Of course, this alienation is the clear lesser of the two evils.  Yet, it is impossible to ignore, especially with a century already marred by contentious and bloody Middle Eastern relations with the West. Though far from the wars of the Levant, the Qatari bid was a dangerous gamble and will now be an ugly mess to clean up.  The lesson learned is not a new one. It is one that tells us that our Western imports, the things we consider “global”, cannot be transposed onto the Middle East with an alacrity we take for granted.


Diwaniyya Contributor


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