Qatar's World Cup is an Arab tragedy - opinion

MIDDLE ISRAEL: The first Middle Eastern World Cup is an international farce, a moral atrocity, and an Arab tragedy.

 FIFA PRESIDENT Gianni Infantino and Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Khalifa bin Abdul Aziz al-Thani hold a shirt during the FIFA Congress in Doha in March.  (photo credit: HAMAD I MOHAMMED/REUTERS)
FIFA PRESIDENT Gianni Infantino and Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Khalifa bin Abdul Aziz al-Thani hold a shirt during the FIFA Congress in Doha in March.

It was one of the most inspiring moments in the history of spectator sports.

His face visibly tormented with pain as he joined the last lap of the 1952 Helsinki Olympics’ 5,000-meter race trailing three runners, Czechoslovakia’s Emil Zatopek suddenly accelerated, overtook the three one by one, and won the gold medal. Having already won the 10,000-meter race he then decided to run the marathon – for the first time in his life – and won that too, setting Olympic records in all three events.

Zatopek emerged from all this as a symbol of everything spectator sports should foster: effort, endurance, willpower, humility and also idealism. “An athlete can’t run with money in his pockets,” he said, for “he must run with hope in his heart and dreams in his head.”

Zatopek’s naive quest to keep money and sports apart was shattered long ago, most notably with the sales of corporate sponsorships in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games, then with the US Dream Team’s deployment in 1992 of NBA stars like Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, who sure did run with money in their pockets.

Still, money’s conquest of sports has never been as sweeping, unabashed, corrupt, and inhuman as soccer’s World Cup became en route to the month-long tournament that opens on Sunday in Qatar, and which can be decried already as an international farce, a moral atrocity and an Arab tragedy. 

 General view as people pose for a picture ahead of the World Cup in Qatar. (credit: REUTERS/HAMAD I MOHAMMED) General view as people pose for a picture ahead of the World Cup in Qatar. (credit: REUTERS/HAMAD I MOHAMMED)
QATAR’S VERY selection to host the World Cup, mankind’s most widely watched televised event, was absurd. For one thing, Qatar’s heat shifted the event, for the first time ever, to the winter, thus disrupting regular play in hundreds of leagues throughout the world. Even so, this technicality is the lesser of this anomaly’s many flaws.

Numbering fewer than 400,000 citizens and therefore lacking the fan base and stadiums that hosting a World Cup demands, Qatar’s bid was woefully inferior to those of Australia, Japan, Korea and the US. Its bid’s victory thus raised heavy suspicions of major-league bribery.

A Wall Street Journal report in January 2011 said Qatar made dubious investments in “soccer academies” in voting executives’ home countries, and that it paid French soccer celebrity Zinedine Zidane $3 million to endorse its bid. Reports in the British press said that officials of FIFA (the governing body of world soccer) who voted for Qatar’s bid received millions of dollars.

In 2019, The Sunday Times reported that state-run Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera offered FIFA itself $400 million three weeks ahead of the vote. An additional $100 million was promised if Qatar were to win the bid, an obvious conflict of interests for FIFA.

Still, as the opening ceremony will attest, what Qatar set out to buy, FIFA readily sold, and it was only  the beginning of a breathtaking buying spree.

Qatar's biggest preparations yet

Qatar bought eight stadiums along with imported lawns and massive air-conditioning systems. It bought practically the entire workforce that this mammoth undertaking required. And it now turns out that Qatar also bought fans, paying for their travel, accommodation and game tickets to fill the stadiums that the other bidders for the event would easily have filled to capacity. Qatar even imported much of its national squad’s players, until foreign criticism forced it to reduce their number.

Sitting atop the world’s largest mineral deposits per capita, money was never a problem. Qatar spent an astronomical $220 billion – almost 10 times Israel’s annual defense spending – on a one-month event.

Fortunately, Qatar used some of that fortune to build hotels, roads, an airport and a metro system that will serve it for many years. Unfortunately, it did all that at a morally intolerable price. 

THE MASSIVE public works for the Qatari World Cup were not a Qatari project, for the prosaic reason that there is no Qatari people, only several tribes whose collective population is smaller than that of Arlington, Texas.

Qatar thus rented the massive workforce that built its megaproject – 30,000 foreign workers according to its own reports. Of these, many are believed to have been among 6,500 foreign workers who, according to an investigation published last year by The Guardian, died in Qatar since it won its World Cup bid.

Lurking behind this harrowing number is a culture of worker abuse, including subhuman accommodation and withholding of passports, food, and pay that the New York Times, in a 2013 report, called “indentured servitude” and a Human Rights Watch executive said “could amount to modern slavery.”

On Sunday, as billions watch the opening clash between Qatar and Ecuador in the tent-shaped Al-Bayt Stadium, the blood of the workers who built it will be screaming from under its 60,000 seats and retractable roof.

The Qatar World Cup’s casualties include not only the Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and other South Asian workers it hired, but also the millions of Arab workers it did not hire.

As it did with the rest of its foreign workforce – about five times the size of its native population – Qatar avoided hiring workers from poorer Arab lands, like nearby Egypt, even though they are fellow Arabs, speak Qatar’s language and practice its Sunni faith.

Had Qatar cared for its Arab brethren – as its TV station’s coverage of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict suggests – it would have turned the World Cup into a pan-Arab celebration of development and solidarity, sending some of the games to other Arab countries, some of which – Egypt, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia – are true soccer powers. Nothing of the sort crossed its leaders’ minds.

Selfishness underpinned Qatar’s conduct no less than cruelty, extravaganza and greed, all of which produced a metaphor for Arab oil’s economic misuse and moral abuse over the better part of a century – the Arab Century of squandered treasure, fallen dignity and lost hope.

The writer, a Hartman Institute fellow, is the author of the bestselling Mitzad Ha’ivelet Ha’yehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sefarim, 2019), a revisionist history of the Jewish people’s political leadership.