The Beautiful Game: The Case for Qatar’s World Cup

In just over one month’s time arguably the biggest sporting event in the globe will be taking place in Qatar; the World Cup! In spite of the popularity of the game, this tournament has received heavy criticism, particularly from the likes of Eric Cantona who has claimed this is not a ‘real World Cup’. Qatar isn’t a ‘country of football’. Qatar only cares about ‘money’. To me, this smacks of racist sentiment and in this piece, I want to highlight the double standards involved in such criticism.

 It’s important to start with the big issue: human rights abuses. Qatar is by no means perfect, and we should acknowledge this fact. The problem I have with this criticism is that a number of countries who have hosted the World Cup before have also had significant human rights issues yet didn’t receive nearly the same attention that Qatar has. Google ‘World Cup Brazil human rights abuses’ and you find stories such as 170,000 Brazilians evicted from their homes before the World Cup and Olympic games. In South Africa you can read up on things such as Police harassment of the homeless and refugees in the nation. Brazil was where football was dubbed ‘Joga Bonita’ aka ‘the beautiful game’. Would Cantona claim that Brazil is not a footballing nation due to the aforementioned political issues facing the country I raised. There are also issues that have arisen in Europe; poor working conditions led to hundreds of deaths in Russia and Germany not only feared racist attacks occurring but Amnesty International reported there were fears that as many as 30,000 women could be trafficked as sex slaves for the World Cup. I’m not trying to say all of this makes what is going on in Qatar acceptable, but I think we need to recognise Qatar is not unique in its human rights abuses and that previous nations that have hosted the World Cup have also committed abuses. Unfortunately, the attention on other nations misconducts has not been as widely discussed as Qatar.

Mr Cantona goes on to talk about how this World Cup is about ‘money’ unlike the US who he apparently says it is simply about ‘development’. This is about the most ignorant statement I’ve heard. When has sports not been about money for the US? Why is it that when an Arab owner like Nasser Al-Khelafi buys a club or is involved in sports the sentiment of money being the motivating factor is highlighted to a larger degree than say an American owner like Todd Boehly? This idea of the ‘greedy Arab’ has been overly represented since the late 1800’s in American media particularly in Hollywood as noted by Jack Shaheen (2006) and has been used to vilify them in current media also. In his documentary Reel Bad Arabs, Shaheen focused on the film Network (1976) whereby a news host complains about Arabs buying up America. To put this into perspective promoters of boxing in the US get millions to put on shows, owners of basketball teams sell tickets for hundreds of dollars, adverts are flooded during the halftime of the Superbowl yet for them is it really simply about passion for the sports not money? If Don King can’t get 10 million dollars for Muhammad Ali vs. George Foreman that fight doesn’t get made, yet as boxing observers we do not say money is involved. So, why are we acting differently in the case of Qatar? Qatar having money to host the World Cup is a literal prerequisite for them to host the tournament, there is no further basis to this point as every other holder who has hosted the tournament has had money, made profit from sponsors and tourism. Qatar is no different sure, but if we are to take Cantona’s point seriously then we may as well stop football altogether. His former club Manchester United charge hundreds of pounds for home games, to talk about the World Cup being about money is a point lacking substance.

Another assertion Cantona makes is that Qatar ‘is not the country of football’. This statement is quite frankly appalling and comes across as entitled. What happened to the idea that the game was for all? Money aside, do we forget that there are kids in Qatar who love to play and are relishing the chance to see football at the highest level up close, to see the likes of Mbappe, Neymar, Messi, Ronaldo etc… The idea that they are not a footballing nation is extremely western centric. There’s a reason they’re hosting the World Cup, it’s because they play football it’s that simple. Just because you don’t know enough about a country you can’t just assume what they are and aren’t, it’s not for you to decide. As someone who’s proud to have Iraqi heritage, it was one of my favourite footballing moments to see Younes Mahmoud head in a goal against Saudi Arabia to win the 2007 Asia Cup Final for Iraq. I would hate to think that because Iraq is not renowned throughout the world for this win that this means they’re not a footballing nation. I think what we can establish here is that football is in an experience for us all, regardless of the level we are at and that is why it is the beautiful game that should not discriminate. Think about the positive impact this will have on the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region at a time where it is needed and what this means for its history.  

The reason I wanted to write this article was because I had had enough hearing Cantona’s comments essentially echoed nearly word for word by others around me. The feeling I get that besides the human rights criticism, there’s an almost unconscious anti-Arab sentiment.  Not only in sports but even in Politics you could see the way Ukrainian refugees were treated far differently by the government, with messages of encouragement to welcome these people into your homes. The message was far from this when it came to Syrian refugees after the Syrian Civil war, with the government stating they could only allow a select proportion of refugees into the country. It seems people are quick to criticise Arabs but slower to help them, perhaps because of inherent prejudice. Arabs are humans too and I hope that this article has done something to remind people of that. Qatar, like all countries are not above criticism, but let’s not begin to rationalise the idea that they have inherently negative traits.

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