It was a Thursday, apparently…Thursday December 2, 2010. Just 12 years but a lifetime ago at the same time.

Anyone who has moved to Australia from this part of the world should be automatically forgiven for struggling with times and dates, anything mildly specific really. You’re asked where you were when an earth-shattering sporting event happened and after some fumbling around at the back of the brain, remember you were living in Down Under at the time. So the answer, invariably, is ‘bed’. The world watched on with amazement. Everyone in Oz watched the back of their eyelids. 

But there was no bed to be had in Melbourne on that Thursday-cum-Friday. Your correspondent was a lowly-but-optimistic (ha!) sub-editor on the sports desk of the Herald Sun at the time and Australia were bidding to host the 2022 World Cup. It was understood to be a tight one: the US, Japan, Korea and Qatar were all in for it too and the Yanks were favourites. But Frank Lowy, venerable and calm head of the FFA, was strikingly confident of an Aussie upset and so the powers that be planned accordingly. A celebratory 16-page pullout (we think? maybe 12-page? specifics, remember) was cobbled together ahead of time and all it needed was the front page picture added before being sent to print. The magic of newspapers. 

That cover shot, of Sepp Blatter’s Swiss sausage fingers holding the card with Australia written on it, never materialized of course. Sleep had been sacrificed at the altar of FIFA. A night’s shut-eye would be but the most inconsequential grain of sand in a desert of despair.

HeraldScotland:  Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani celebrates winning hosting rights to the World Cup Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani celebrates winning hosting rights to the World Cup (Image: Getty)

The intervening 12 years have seen actual lifetimes sacrificed at that same altar, 6,500 the widely accepted minimum toll of migrant labourers. Lives lost making Qatar’s preposterous promises a most grim reality. ‘A World Cup built on modern slavery,’ read another soul-scraping investigation this week into the human cost of bringing the world’s biggest sporting event to a Gulf peninsula whose entire land mass you’d comfortably fit twice in the Highlands. 

For all the times over the last dozen years that the world stopped and thought ‘Qatar? What in the name of jaysus is that about?’ here we are, a couple days out from getting on the plane. We know better today than in 2010 what it’s about but we knew plenty then too. It’s about greed and power, naked ambition meeting moral emptiness. It’s about money and what it buys you. Enough of it — $220 billion, give or take — buys you the world. 

But in leaf-blowing billions and reshaping the entire outline of football to fit into its scorched, sandy earth, Qatar and its most willing partner in FIFA have contorted themselves into a corner. Not many hiding places in the desert. The House of Thani did try to fashion a few mind you, stuffing David Beckham’s pockets with £15million per year and trying to hide in that golden balled shadow. 

There wasn’t much joy there — or anywhere for that matter. And that may be the crux of it all. This World Cup and Qatar can justifiably be pointed to as a nadir, the darkest moment in a litany of them over the decades from both FIFA and the IOC, a place where hubris and corruption and greasy dealmaking hit a new low. 

Yet it may offer something else. The last 12 years have mercifully made us (belatedly) much too cynical to swallow the hopey-changey bulls*** that Gianni Infantino trumpets out there, much like Blatter before him. But there are slivers of light in the words that come back. There is a hope that football, not the FIFA football family guff, but the game itself, in the shape of players and managers and fans (and a few administrators), has found a voice. Has found ways to use that voice.

Qatar and its most willing partner in FIFA have contorted themselves into a corner. Not many hiding places in the desert

That it was the squad of Australia, the rival bidding nation left mortified as it received just a solitary vote in the stitch-up in 2010, who have most forcefully cleared their throats felt a touch poetic. The Socceroos squad highlighted brutal labour laws and restrictions on LGBTQ+ people and called for specific and meaningful change. Norwegian Football Federation President Lise Klaveness had gone before them on the very floor of FIFA Congress in Doha in April and called out the fact that “human rights, equality and democracy…were not in the starting XI. These basic rights were pressured on to the field as substitutes, mainly by outside voices.”

More voices from inside the lines have spoken and continue to do so. Tim Sparv, the Finnish captain who first highlighted the conditions migrant workers endured last September, returned just this week with a plea: “FIFA and Qatar would love it if we stayed silent and focused only on football. So let’s be louder than ever.”

HeraldScotland: Germany's human rights protest during a World Cup qualifierGermany's human rights protest during a World Cup qualifier (Image: Getty)

This apparent nadir of Qatar comes at a moment when a greater critical mass of athletes across so many professional sports are using their voice and platform to raise awareness and to push back on myriad issues. Football has played a part at key times but just a part. It shouldn’t have needed to be dragged to the desert graveyards of the Gulf to realise it’s time for it to stand up to its own with greater strength than before. This kind of pushback and countering of narrative from the prevailing powers will only grow in importance. 

Which is why Infantino’s plea for the players to shut up and dribble was in parts striking but also timely. Striking because it was the command of a bygone era, 2010 or before. But timely because it showed that, amid all of this, FIFA still think they can control narratives. That all of the pushback so far, while commendable, is just a starting point. Leading European nations immediately ignored FIFA’s wishes but the now-retired Sparv has it right: there needs to be a turning up of the frequency and volume. 

When a simpleton who happens to be a tournament ambassador comes out with drivel about homosexuality being all in the mind, the swift and emphatic counter of Leon Goretzka that “this is an image of a man that comes from another millennium” should be not just the standard but bare minimum. 

Four years after unity and peace and togetherness were bandied around Russia for a month and more, the country now bombards a sovereign nation. The shtick has never felt less empty. FIFA and the IOC have always relied on the product getting them out of all corners. No matter how shameful the circus, the athletes and the show will eventually get going and help offset any ignominy.

Part of why pleas to “focus on the football” find a welcoming way into the ear drums is because even in its contorted form, this does shape as one of the most intriguing tournaments in recent memory. Assuming players pushed much too close to breaking point make it there in one piece and get, what, a whole six or seven days to catch their breath, the canvas spreads before us wide and open. 

HeraldScotland: World Cup flags on display in QatarWorld Cup flags on display in Qatar (Image: Getty)

If the deep hope going into all this is that off the field, Qatar 2022 separates us into a then and a now, we do know that will be the case on the pitch. The Messi and Ronaldo era will come to its end over the next five weeks. And while, yes, we absolutely did just ctrl-C, ctrl-V that line from our 2018 tournament preview, this time we bloody mean it. The intervening years haven’t been particularly kind to either, give or take a La Liga title here or a couple of Scudettos there. Last month at the Ballon D’Or neither name appeared in the top three for the first time in 16 years. We feel safe in our copy and paste.

The tantilising thing is we don’t yet know who, if anyone, will come to dominate the game over the coming decades like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have the past two. Erling Haaland gets a month off from his relentless record book-burning and so Kylian Mbappé has a chance to reclaim some ground in the race to be the game’s next great figure. The PSG forward, still just 23, goes into a World Cup unburdened by the weight that fell so heavily on Messi’s shoulders in particular in recent editions — he’s won one of these things. How Mbappé and Karim Benzema, returning to this stage for the first time in eight years, carry the injury-hit defending champions will be fascinating.

No matter how shameful the circus, the athletes and the show will eventually get going and help offset any ignominy 

In a non-European World Cup the wisdom, if there is any of the stuff left in these Muskian times, tells us the South American nations find more traction. Tite’s six-year mission to resurrect Brazilian fortunes reaches its tipping point in Qatar. Just one semi-final berth in 16 years marks this as the most barren run in Brazilian history. Bringing it to an end could hinge on blinkering Neymar to indulge his best instincts and stay upright as often as possible. Argentina meanwhile have shown more defensive steel and spine under Lionel Scaloni over this cycle with Lautaro Martinez, 20 goals (and plenty of big ones) in 36 internationals since 2019, looking a great foil for late-career Messi. 

If Argentina’s midfield remains a concern then you must continue the hole-picking with Europe’s pretenders. Germany, Spain, Belgium the Netherlands and Portugal all have varying issues that give plenty of pause. Ronaldo’s mere presence, much like at Old Trafford, causes an imbalance that the latter have struggled to right. 

HeraldScotland: England's Kyle Walker trains in QatarEngland's Kyle Walker trains in Qatar (Image: Getty)

And dear old England? Gareth Southgate’s manful efforts to drag the country towards respectability and realism haven’t been helped by its success. A semi-final in 2018 followed by Euro 2020 runners-up as Wembley was ransacked has the tabloid press, and with them the masses, right back where they started — expecting too much. A poll of football writers presenting their preferred England XIs this week saw three of the four name Leicester’s James Maddison, in fine club form but just 34 minutes of international football to his name, a starter. We suspect recency bias (and a flapping Jordan Pickford) could contribute to the end of the Southgate era.

There are plot lines and peculiarities across the canvas: Serbia and Denmark look like dark horses primed to bolt; Senegal shaped as the most potent African side in a generation until Sadio Mane pulled up lame this week, his absence would be a killer; Canada and Wales make World Cup returns after respective absences of 36 and 64 years; Australia are suddenly a Scottish Premiership representative side.  

See. Here we are, 500 words of mere surface scratching later, and we’ve proven the merits of the ploy. Focusing on the football can indeed distract the mind from the toll it took to prepare the playing surfaces. Which is why at Qatar 2022 two things must be held true at the same time — the sporting fare can be devoured and savoured; but not at the expense of the questioning. 

The voice that football has shown signs of growing and using must not die down in the desert. Like Sparv said, “louder than ever”.


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