The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The World Cup is always about much more than the World Cup

6 min

You’re reading an excerpt from the Today’s WorldView newsletter. Sign up to get the rest free, including news from around the globe and interesting ideas and opinions to know, sent to your inbox every weekday. Starting next week, we’ll also be featuring coverage of the drama on and off the pitch from the World Cup. Join us!

A tiny coastal nation, little known to much of the world, hosts a landmark soccer tournament. Fueled by a surging export economy and the labor of a sizable population of foreign-born migrants, the country builds major infrastructure to stage an event that takes place mostly in its capital city. For the host nation, this World Cup is not simply an exercise in sporting entertainment, but an opportunity to put itself on the map, showcase its prosperity and prowess, and win global prestige.

I’m writing about Uruguay in 1930, the setting of the first World Cup. But the same setup would be true for Qatar as the 2022 World Cup gets underway Sunday. To be sure, there is no shortage of differences between now and then. On a sporting dimension alone, Uruguay rode into the inaugural tournament on the back of gold medal soccer triumphs in the Olympics, and won the first World Cup on home soil. No matter Qatar’s expensive and careful development of its national soccer program, it is not expected to be competitive or even get out of the group stage.

Yet as the self-deprecating axiom goes in Uruguay, while other countries have their history, we have our football. Qatar is playing at something similar: “No state, until now, has placed sport in general, and the World Cup in particular, at the heart of its foreign policy and economic development” as uniquely as Qatar, soccer historian David Goldblatt recently wrote. A half century ago, the former British protectorate was an obscure backwater on the Persian Gulf, known for pearl-diving and little else. But an immense fortune in hydrocarbons, especially liquefied natural gas, transformed its fate, turbocharged its rise as an influential regional power and underwrote its bid for the 2022 tournament.

Qatar’s ruling monarchy staked a generation’s worth of political capital on the staging of the Middle East’s and Arab world’s first World Cup. It bankrolled an astonishing $220 billion bonanza of construction, conjuring up new stadiums, roads, train systems, hotels and other infrastructure. And it withstood the ire of neighboring Gulf monarchies, whose resentment over Qatar showcasing itself in 2022 lurked beneath a broader economic and political blockade of the peninsula nation between 2017 and 2021.

The political debate swirling around the World Cup in Qatar

It also weathered what the Qatari emir described as an “unprecedented” level of scrutiny and scorn ahead of the tournament. Activists and journalists have pored over the Qatari monarchy’s checkered record on human rights, the harsh labor conditions linked to its mammoth building projects, the grim status quo for LGBTQ people and the murky dealings that surrounded Qatar winning the World Cup bid in the first place.

On all these fronts, Qatari officials have fired back, accusing critics of misinformation when it comes to reporting migrant worker death tolls and hypocrisy when critiquing Qatar’s politics and society. There’s also no clear chain of evidence that links Qatari authorities to any act of fraud or graft in the bidding process for the 2022 World Cup — though a number of prominent FIFA officials were implicated in unrelated corruption allegations.

As the tournament’s 32 national teams made their final preparations for Qatar, FIFA President Gianni Infantino — a controversial figure in his own right — sent a letter to each team urging them to avoid taking overtly political stands. “We know football does not live in a vacuum and we are equally aware that there are many challenges and difficulties of a political nature all around the world,” Infantino wrote. “But please do not allow football to be dragged into every ideological or political battle that exists.”

That’s easier said than done, and some participating national teams will engage in bouts of virtue signaling before the games begin. The U.S. team, for example, was among a number of teams that trained this week with groups of migrant construction workers. It will also use a rainbow flag on its crest in support of LGBTQ rights.

As Qatar’s World Cup nears, USMNT uses its platform to push for change

Of course, no World Cup has been immune to the ideological and political battles of the day. The tournaments themselves are the most-anticipated events on the world’s sporting calendar, now drawing in billions of eyeballs and the attention of a vast international public. They are always crucibles for the trends and tensions shaping the globe.

Immediately after Uruguay’s debut, the interwar years got dominated by Benito Mussolini’s fascist project, with Italy winning at home in 1934 and then again in France in 1938. Italian Coach Vittorio Pozzo recalled the hostile reaction in Marseille, France, when Italy’s squad performed the fascist salute in their first match against Norway. “I entered the stadium with our players, lined-up military style, and stood on the right,” he later said. “At the salute we predictably met with a solemn and deafening barrage of whistles, insults and remarks.”

As their arms dropped, the noisy backlash from anti-fascist fans in the stands died down. Pozzo then urged his players to make the fascist gesture once again. “Having won the battle of intimidation, we played,” he said.

Other forces shaped subsequent tournaments. Brazil’s dominant multiracial sides came on the scene as decolonization swept Asia and Africa, and soon developed cult followings across the developing world from the slums of Kolkata, India, to the streets of Nairobi. Argentina’s 1978 tournament was an awkward propaganda showcase for its military dictatorship, which faced boycotts from some countries in Europe. France’s victory in 1998 on home soil with a team largely drawn from communities with roots in former French colonies crystallized the European nation’s shifting identity.

World Cups can also summon false dawns. International anger over Russia’s 2018 tournament faded by the time the tournament kicked off. Journalists and foreign fans alike, including Today’s WorldView, were charmed by the spirit of exuberance and openness that suffused Russia’s cities during the tournament, which saw a mediocre Russian side make its way to the quarterfinals. But activists even then knew what was coming, as one LGBTQ rights campaigner in Moscow told me in 2018: “They’ll kick us immediately when the World Cup ends.”