Excerpted from The New York Times
By David Goldblatt, Visiting Professor
FOR ALMOST A DECADE the Global North, especially the United States, Britain, Germany and Scandinavia, have set the agenda on the Qatar World Cup. Aided by the relative openness of the country to foreign journalists, the media, NGOs and football federations have relentlessly criticized Qatar’s shortcomings on migrant workers, LGBTQ and women’s rights, press freedom and environmental protection. In contrast to the free pass it gave Russia in 2018, the mainstream media have integrated these critiques into their coverage.
With Argentina’s win, this was the most closely scrutinized and culturally contested World Cup ever and that is a good thing.
But much of the rest of the world does not see things in this light. Strikingly, coverage in almost all the Global South has been strictly sporting, while the Arabic press has been unequivocal in deeming Qatar 2022 to be the best World Cup ever. There has also been considerable support for Qatar’s last-minute decision to restrict already limited alcohol sales around the stadiums. It is not really about the ethics of prohibition—Qatar has long tolerated drinking for wealthy migrants who have access to expensive hotel bars—but about a shift in the balance of power. Unlike the South Africans or the Brazilians, the Qataris were able to impose their will on FIFA and a global corporation of the scale of InBev without missing a beat.
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This clout was manifest in the official response to European teams’ plans to wear rainbow armbands and spectators to sport rainbow insignia. Sides were threatened by FIFA with yellow cards, and supporters endured brusque treatment from security and the confiscation of flags and clothing. Nasser al-Khater, the chief executive of the cup’s organizing committee, felt confident enough to dismiss the death of a migrant worker on a site close to Saudi Arabia’s camp, saying, “Death is a natural part of life, whether it is at work, whether it is in your sleep.” (A second migrant worker, who worked as a security guard at one of the stadiums, has since died.)
European hypocrisy has contributed to this confidence. After the German team protested the supposed denial of its freedom of expression, Qataris responded by showing posters of Mesut Özil, the German footballer whose outspokenness seemingly led to his being silenced by the German media and football authorities. Environmentalists have pointed out the madness of staging a carbon-intense event in a place so threatened by climate change, and rightly so. But given that the German government sealed a 15-year deal with Qatar for liquid gas during the tournament and that the next World Cup, to be held in North America and Mexico, may carry a larger carbon footprint, such charges were easy to dismiss.
With Argentina’s win, this was the most closely scrutinized and culturally contested World Cup ever, and that is a good thing. The personal, cultural and political presence of the Global South has been made tangible and that, too, is important. Perhaps the tournament’s biggest legacy will be a global media and public more critically sensitized to the political and cultural meaning of spectacle? That, at least, would be worth celebrating.