IF I’m honest, I haven’t pinned up my World Cup wall chart yet. I haven’t looked through the fixtures to see the games I’m most looking forward to. And whether I even bother with the opening match, Qatar v Ecuador on Sunday night, is far from certain.

The 2022 World Cup is, let’s be honest, a moral cesspit. An estimated 6,500 migrant workers have died since Qatar won the bid in 2010, and started building seven football stadiums, a new airport, hotels, roads and various transport systems. Amnesty International has reported that some of the migrant workers were effectively victims of forced labour. Meanwhile, Qatar is a state where both women and the LGBTQ+ community are oppressed. Frankly, it’s going to take an awful lot of sportswashing to remove such stains.

And yet on Tuesday night I was listening on the radio to Welsh football fans and footballers thrilling to the prospect of their country playing in a World Cup for the first time in more than 60 years. Their excitement was tangible.

As someone old enough to just about remember the 1970 World Cup and having watched every one since it’s difficult to imagine I will stick to the Eric Cantona line and not watch any of it despite everything that surrounds this particular competition.

To be a football fan is to be aware of a constant moral queasiness when it comes to the game. And the World Cup has long been the arena where such issues play out. Qatar is hardly unique. In 2018, after all, Russia were the hosts and the event was beset by questions of corruption and racism and homophobia. Go back further and there is no shortage of examples where football found itself in hock to dictatorships, most notably in 1978 when the brutal junta that ruled Argentina used hosting the World Cup as a means of giving itself legitimacy. It became a propaganda coup, to the horror of the families of the Disappeared.

As historians Dominic Sandbrook and Tom Holland have recently pointed out on their podcast The Rest is History, western companies invested heavily in the event that year. It’s the same today. McDonald's, Adidas, Coca Cola and Hyundai are among the World Cup 2022 sponsors. In short, the event has always been a vehicle for nationalism and, increasingly, commercialism.

Who is to blame for all this? The world governing body Fifa, an organisation willing to do deals with dictators, never mind the constant corruption allegations that assail it, is as good a suspect as any, I’d suggest.

Among those not to blame, though, are the footballers themselves. The game, like all sports, has always been subject to realpolitik. But it is also a game. Which is why we watch in the first place.

Squeamish as I am about Qatar hosting this World Cup, I’ll still want to know what’s happening. The challenge is to not lose sight of the backdrop. As Gary Lineker has pointed out, sportswashing only works if you stop talking about the issues. So let’s not.

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