A small coastal nation, little known to much of the world, hosts a major soccer tournament. Fueled by a growing export economy and the labor of a sizeable population of foreign-born migrants, the country is building major infrastructure to host an event that takes place mostly in its capital. For the host nation, this World Cup is not simply an exercise in sports entertainment, but an opportunity to put itself on the map, demonstrate its prosperity and prowess, and gain global prestige.
I am writing about Uruguay in 1930, the setting of the first World Cup. But the same arrangement would hold true for Qatar when the 2022 World Cup begins on Sunday. Certainly, 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 football triumphs in the Olympics, and won the first World Cup on home soil. No matter Qatar’s expensive and painstaking development of its national football program, it is not expected to be competitive or even make it out of the group stage.
However, 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 put sport in general, and the World Cup in particular, at the heart of its foreign policy and economic development” as uniquely as Qatar, football historian David Goldblatt recently wrote. Half a century ago, the former British protectorate was an obscure backwater on the Persian Gulf, known for pearl diving and little else. But huge wealth in hydrocarbons, particularly liquefied natural gas, has transformed its fortunes, turbocharged its rise as an influential regional power and underwritten its bid for the 2022 tournament.
The ruling monarchy of Qatar placed the value of a generation of political capital on the celebration of the first World Cup of the Middle East and Arab world. It has financed a staggering $220 billion in construction, bringing new stadiums, roads, train systems, hotels and other infrastructure. And it has endured the wrath of neighboring Gulf monarchies, whose resentment of Qatar, which surfaced in 2022, was hidden under a wider economic and political blockade of the peninsula nation between 2017 and 2021.
The political debate revolves around the World Cup in Qatar
It also endured what the Qatari emir described as an “unprecedented” level of scrutiny and scorn ahead of the tournament.. Activists and journalists have poured over the Qatari monarchy’s checkered record on human rights, the harsh working conditions linked to its massive construction projects, the dismal status quo for LGBT people and the murky dealings that surrounded Qatar winning the World Cup 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 criticizing Qatar’s politics and society. There is also no clear chain of evidence linking Qatari authorities to any fraud or corruption in the bidding process for the 2022 World Cup – although a number of high-profile FIFA officials have been 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 positions. “We know that football does not live in a vacuum and we are equally aware that there are many challenges and difficulties of a political nature around the world,” Infantino wrote. “But please don’t 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 American 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 to support LGBTQ rights.
As the World Cup in Qatar approaches, the USMNT is using its platform to push for change
Of course, no World Cup was immune to the ideological and political battles of the day. The tournaments themselves are the most anticipated events on the world sporting calendar, now attracting billions of eyeballs and the attention of a vast international audience. They are always melting pots for the trends and tensions shaping the globe.
Immediately after Uruguay’s debut, the interwar years were 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 the squad of Italy 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 greeting we were predictably met with a solemn and deafening barrage of whistles, insults and remarks.”
As their arms fell, the noisy backlash from anti-fascist fans in the stands died down. Pozzo then encouraged his players to make the fascist gesture again. “Having won the battle of intimidation, we played,” he said.
Other forces formed subsequent tournaments. Brazil’s dominant multiracial sides came onto the scene as decolonization swept Asia and Africa, and soon developed cults across the developing world from the slums of Kolkata, India, to the streets of Nairobi. Argentina’s 1978 tournament was a clumsy propaganda exhibition for its military dictatorship, which faced boycotts from a number of 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 changing identity of the European nation.
World Cups can also summon false dawns. International anger over Russia’s 2018 tournament faded as the tournament began. Journalists and foreign fans alike, including Today’s WorldView, were charmed by the spirit of exuberance and openness that filled Russia’s cities during the tournament, which saw a mediocre Russian side make their way to the quarter-finals. But activists even then knew what was coming, as one LGBTQ rights activist told me in Moscow in 2018: “They’re going to kick us as soon as the World Cup is over.”