Arshad Shaikh looks at the many controversies surrounding the Qatar FIFA World Cup 2022 that got off to a glorious start in Doha. FIFA is accused of favouring the Qatari government, which is facing the heat for abusing labour rights, being homophobic and promoting Islam amidst what is clearly the biggest sports spectacle in the world. The football world cup kicked off to a glorious start despite Qatar being pummelled by the West on a number of issues. The game wins but at a cost.

The 22nd FIFA World Cup kicked off to a glorious start in Doha, Qatar. The biggest football tournament in the world and the most avidly watched spectacle on television runs from 20 November until 18 December. However, FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 will be remembered more for the controversies it created than its state-of-the-art management by the Government of Qatar.

With a population of just a third of a million, the Qataris deserve applause for organising an event of this scale and magnitude without any major hiccups. Unfortunately, the World Cup has been mired in some questionable controversies. The Qatari government and FIFA are facing the heat for abusing labour rights and displaying a conservative attitude towards the LGBTQ community, alcohol consumption and norms for clothing and public displays of affection.

A unique aspect to the tournament is the active promotion of Islamic teachings by the Qatari event managers, which was reflected in the way the opening ceremony was conducted. While complaints of ignoring the human rights of construction workers who built the gigantic stadiums in record time are legitimate, the manner in which Qatar was targeted by the western media lends credence to accusations of hypocrisy and a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

Amidst all this debate, what is often ignored is the way international sports has become commercialised and become one of the biggest tools of neoliberal capitalism that thrives on debt-driven copious consumption and wasteful expenditure. Football wins but at the cost of ignoring the plight of the have-nots.

FIFA BLAMED

FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) is facing a string of charges from critics. The office-bearers of the multi-billion-dollar apex body of football are accused of a sell-out while handing over the hosting of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. It was difficult to fathom how the tournament of such a physically intense outdoor game could be gifted to a country where average temperatures hover over 40 degrees Celsius. Qatar won the bid to host the FIFA World Cup in 2010 and within a few years, the itinerary was promptly shifted to November-December, disturbing the football season of many European Leagues.

This favouritism offered to Qatar was seen as FIFA capitulating before the tiny kingdom’s penchant to seek positions of prestige and influence by splashing its enormous money power. FIFA was under intense pressure to cancel its decision to appoint Qatar as the host country after the international media vigorously exposed the multiple human rights abuse of construction workers in Qatar.

FIFA is committed to upholding various international covenants related to labour rights, including the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Despite the barrage of condemnation, FIFA did not budge and Qatar 2022 is now history.

UNPOPULAR CONSERVATISM

Qatari society is predominantly conservative. The Qatari government tries to do a difficult balancing act between embracing modernity and adhering to its traditional values that trace their origins to the religion of Islam. As the host country for the World Cup, the Qataris must be lauded for implementing a ban on the sale of beer at World Cup stadiums. The consumption of pork is banned. Fans are urged to respect the local culture when it comes to the clothes they wear. Public displays of affection are not encouraged and the LGBQT community is generally frowned upon by society.

Some of these decisions are highly unpopular in a world that has normalised many a morally reprehensible act in the name of freedom and personal liberty. The global monoculture that stands on the foundations of utilitarianism and consumerism is the antithesis of civility and decency in public life. Qatar resisting this cultural hegemony at the cost of being labelled “Islamic” and “conservative” is commendable.

SHOWCASING ISLAM

Besides being firm on its decisions related to the sale of alcohol and dress codes, the Qatari government has done a good job in ‘showcasing’ Islam to the world. Anticipating an influx of nearly 3 million fans for the World Cup, the managers of the show have placed several murals inscribed with the Hadiths (sayings) of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ at various strategic locales across the country. Some of them as reported in the media read – “Every good deed is a charity”, “He who is not merciful to others, will not be treated mercifully”, and “Guard yourself from the Hellfire, even with half of a date in charity. If one cannot find it, then with a kind word”.

The highlight of this unabashed display of Islamic teachings and principles was the opening ceremony at the massive Al Bayt stadium. It was the first time that the inauguration featured verses from the Qur’ān. The programme had an interesting conversation between Hollywood actor Morgan Freeman and a physically challenged 20-year old Qatari boy Ghanim al Muftah.

The boy began by reciting verse 13 of Surah Hujurat of the Qur’ān – “O humanity! Indeed, We created you from a male and a female, and made you into peoples and tribes so that you may get to know one another. Surely the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous among you. Allah is truly All-Knowing, All-Aware.” On being questioned by Freeman, on “how can we perpetuate harmony more and more”, Muftah replied – “With tolerance and respect, we can live together under one roof.”

SPECTACLE SPORTS

Qatar must be praised for whatever it has done to make the World Cup a great success and that too on its own terms. The world was acquainted with some of the noble teachings of Islam. People were forced to recognise cultural diversity and respect for the religious sentiments of other faiths. However, what faded out of the public debate is the shape global spectacle sports have acquired.

Be it the Olympic Games, professional tennis or football the entire sports industry has become a moneymaking machine for capitalism. It is the manifestation of neoliberalism, consumerism and debt-driven demand based on interest-based money supply controlled by banks and transnational financial companies.

The estimated cost of the Qatar World Cup is $220 billion and is the most expensive ever. It will be watched by an estimated 5 billion audience worldwide. Do we need to spend this kind of money on sports and recreation? Can we not pool comparable funds to help the needy and the underprivileged? According to the WHO, “Globally, at least 2 billion people use a drinking water source contaminated with faeces.”

A World Bank report says, “Countries need to quadruple spending to $150 billion a year to deliver universal safe water and sanitation, helping to reduce childhood disease and deaths while boosting economic growth.” Shouldn’t the world address these challenges first? We love playing and watching football. But, let’s us sort out our jumbled priorities first.

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