During the 2006 World Cup, my wife and I experimented with watching soccer. We caught some of the US games on television and got into watching Germany because of my German heritage. We saw them beat Argentina on penalties in the quarterfinals and were disappointed when they lost to Italy in the semis. During the tournament, the German goalie Jens Lehman’s antics intrigued us, and so we looked up the team he played for when not with his national team. He played in London, for Arsenal FC, and that started our love affair with soccer in general and Arsenal specifically. We have watched them religiously over the years, feeling heartbreak at their many defeats and mistakes and rejoicing at their moments of brilliance. And every four years, we loved tuning back in to the World Cup to cheer on the US and Germany. In 2010 and 2014, we gathered regularly with friends to watch the games in our homes and at various restaurants, bars, and cultural centers. By 2014, Lehman had retired, but the German team won the Cup 1-0 over old rivals Argentina. It was a wonderful moment.
Over the past 16 years, we have looked forward to the World Cup. And the 2022 version begins today. But something feels different.
Top-level sport around the world consistently features hypocrisy and contradiction. The beautiful game on the field is marred by corruption off it. The rigorous challenges of American football mean head injuries and life-long health challenges for many of the athletes who participate. There have been bribery and cheating scandals in baseball and many other sports. But somehow, amongst this history of ignominious connections, FIFA, the world governing body of soccer, and the 2022 World Cup in Qatar have made many of these concealed connections apparent.
FIFA has been involved in a series of scandals for decades. In 2015, a 20-year bribery ring came to light, with over a dozen top officials indicted. And the Cup being awarded in that year to Russia for the 2018 tournament and Qatar for the 2022 tournament felt problematic from the start, with some allegations that those awards were connected to the bribery scandal. In addition, Qatar is a desert country with little soccer infrastructure but nearly limitless money and a system of migrant labor called “kafala”, in which the workers have almost no rights. Their passports are often collected by their employers so they are unable to either switch employers or return to their home countries. They work in abominable conditions in the outlandish heat. Since the Cup was awarded to Qatar in 2015, it is alleged that about 6,500 migrant workers have died in Qatar. Many people have also highlighted the horrible treatment of LGBTQIA+ people in Qatar, who are legally prohibited from revealing or acting on their identities.
These facts make watching the World Cup this year feel compromising at best. But it is easy to draw out equivalencies to downplay these compromises. Some might say, “Corruption occurs all over the world in professional sport.” Others might say, “Not so long ago, LGBT identities were prohibited in the US and Europe. Should we condemn Qatar for being a little behind us?” Still others might say, “The US has a system of migrant labor as well, and some complain about the treatment of our migrant workers. Should we be prohibited from hosting international events?” And the challenge in taking on these questions is that all of them contain some element of truth.
But I don’t think the answer to these questions should be to throw up our hands and say, “There’s something wrong everywhere. There’s nothing that can be done.” I would say our response should be two-fold. First, all these matters should force us to look inward at our own individual actions and at the actions of our own country. Where do we tacitly support or blatantly allow corruption? Where do we limit people’s rights? In what ways do we reinforce the mistreatment of others? And what can we do through our own choices or through our political advocacy to address those issues in our own metaphorical backyard? Second, all these matters should call us to look outward to other countries around the world. Where can we shift our own individual actions or call for government policy or pressure that can improve these conditions elsewhere?
I don’t think there is a simple answer to the question of whether or not to watch this World Cup. I respect those who have decided not to watch and those who will watch but with an awareness of these issues and the commitment to discuss them with their friends and family. For those who haven’t heard of these concerns, we need to make sure they hear. I would only condemn those people – who I believe are few in number – who hear about these issues and actively turn away, who – in order to enjoy a game – refuse to even acknowledge the troubling facts of this World Cup.
For my part, I will be watching. I feel a bit compromised doing so. But I love soccer – football – and I want to be part of the conversation about what is happening in it. Football is life, as they say, in all its messy complexity. I don’t want that to be an excuse, and I don’t want it to be a reason to cover up the horrible parts of what this tournament means. I hope those of us who watch can use this event as an impetus to speak even more powerfully for justice in this country and beyond.
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