EVERY four years, football fans across the globe salivate as they look forward to the World Cup and its showcase of the game’s most exhilarating players and free-flowing teams. In 2022, however, something seems to be missing.

It’s not merely the fact that domestic football schedules have been tilted off their collective axis in order to accommodate a World Cup that, because of the extraordinary summer heat in Qatar, is taking place in November and December.

The reason lies in many things, not least the sheer peculiarity of staging the event in a country with little football infrastructure, and which called to mind the accusations that bribery had brought about Fifa’s decision to make Qatar the host. Qatar insists that it won the vote ethically and with dignity.

There have been serious claims about human rights abuses and about the impoverished migrant workers who have died while constructing the seven new Qatari stadia – 6,500, according to some estimates, though this figure has been queried and disputed elsewhere.

The criticisms do not end there. As Amnesty International points out, Qatar’s authorities repress freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of association. Unfair trials remain a matter of concern, it adds; women continue to face discrimination in law and in practice; and laws continue to discriminate against LGBT people. A Qatari World Cup ambassador has stupidly inflamed that latter issue by asserting that homosexuality is “damage in the mind”.

The ultra-conservative nature of Qatar is reflected in reminders issued by the UK’s Foreign Office. Intimacy in public between men and women in Qatar can lead to arrest; homosexual behaviour is illegal; any visitor who does not dress modestly can be asked to leave government buildings, healthcare facilities or malls. If a woman becomes pregnant outwith marriage, she and her partner could face imprisonment and/or deportation. But these are Qatar’s customs and, no matter how disfiguring or repressive, they must be respected, just as our customs need to be respected.

Now, on the very eve of the tournament, the Qatari royal family has asserted that Budweiser beer will not, after all, be allowed to be sold at matches; instead, only a non-alcoholic version will be available. Budweiser, a major sponsor, has a $75 million deal with Fifa.

The change of heart is a reminder that Qatar is an Islamic country and that alcohol availability remains a sensitive matter, but such a last-minute reversal does not speak to a coherent or consistent approach. It also raises questions as to whether Fifa is in full control of this World Cup. A UK football supporters’ group in this country points out that the new decision speaks to the wider issue of a lack of communication and clarity from the organising committee towards fans.

Amidst alarm over Qatari policies and conduct, some fans and pundits have called for a boycott of the World Cup but the time for such actions would surely have been a couple of years ago, if not before. It was, however, encouraging to see the England World Cup squad fly out this week in a Virgin Atlantic-owned Airbus dubbed “Rain Bow” and decorated with a cartoon character in rainbow-themed trainers. The German squad’s plane had a slogan, “Diversity wins”, stamped across its fuselage. Ten Uefa nations are said to be willing to wear OneLove armbands during the tournament. And in contrast to David Beckham’s decision to act as a World Cup Qatari ambassador in return for a reported £150m, other celebrities have declined to have any part of it. Rod Stewart turned down an offer in excess of $1m to play in Qatar.

Are we seeing too much of the World Cup controversies through too narrow and insular a prism? In an astute piece for the New York Times yesterday, Dr Abdullah Al-Arian, a history professor and editor of a book about football in the Middle East, argued that some of the backlash seems to be based on false cultural assumptions, among them a belief that the region lacks a football history. Not so, he says – the region has been in love with the beautiful game for more than a century and football’s cultural and political importance was evident throughout the Arab Spring uprisings.

Moreover, he says, whilst a “wilful blindness” has affected views of the impact of Gulf money on football, Europe’s top leagues were already awash with injections of cash from China, Russia and the US. And, whilst many of the concerns about the Qatar World Cup including treatment of migrant workers are legitimate, some of the discourse, he suggests, plays on Orientalist tropes that treat Qatar and other Gulf countries as exceptional, rather than as one more locus in a global flow of capital and labour.

Beckham has expressed the view – surely a futile one – that the event could be a platform for progress, inclusivity and tolerance; but once the World Cup has finished and the last fans and journalists have departed, what reason will Qatar have to change?

The former Fifa boss, Sepp Blatter, has now conceded – too late, of course – that awarding Qatar the World Cup was a mistake and a “bad choice”, saying that football and the World Cup were “too big” for it. The World Cup is a colossal propaganda coup for Qatar. If it helps encourage dialogue between the West and the wealthy Gulf states, some good might come of it. But it is a cause for regret that those who run the sport have allowed the world’s greatest football tournament to be so bitterly divisive even before a ball has been kicked.



Ukraine and the West

TO a degree the war in Ukraine has receded from western minds as we cope with problems on our own doorstep. But events this week have concentrated our attention quite forcefully. The retaking by Ukrainian forces of Kherson is welcome news. The city and the surrounding areas had suffered grievously under Russian troops over nine long months. Torture chambers have been found. Supplies of gas, water and electricity were cut off. There is talk of a humanitarian disaster.

The recapture of this strategically important city is the latest major reverse for Putin and proof of Ukraine’s robust approach to war. Demoralised, its economy damaged, Russia is on the back foot but the continuing wave of rocket, missile and drone strikes across Ukraine make it clear that it is intent on pulverising key infrastructure and terrorising civilians.

The West, despite its own problems and the risk of “donor fatigue”, must continue to stand by Ukraine and maintain a supply of military and other equipment. Putin cannot be allowed to starve the Ukrainians into submission as winter sets in. But President Zelenskyy signalling that he might at least be willing to consider diplomatic negotiations would be a good start. Even at this late stage, diplomacy is an avenue worth exploring.