So Qatar “bought” the World Cup to present itself as an open and modern country
The most powerful man in the history of world football was Joao Havelange, president of Fifa for a quarter of a century, from 1974 to 1998. He was a big man with a cold and impenetrable gaze. The son of a Belgian arms dealer who emigrated to Brazil, as a young man he had participated as a swimmer in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the Games of Shame exploited by Nazi propaganda.
Havelange was among the very first to understand that twenty-two men running after a balloon have the power to move the masses. And to grind mountains of money. As football’s top executive, he went to great lengths to make the world’s favorite sport an entertainment industry, or – if you prefer – a money machine.
But the “monarch of football” – as the writer Eduardo Galeano called him – was also a precious ally for some of the most bloodthirsty dictators of the twentieth century.
In 1973, for example, he oversaw the sale of 80,000 grenades to Bolivian President Hugo Banzer. And five years later, on June 1, 1978, he was sitting in the grandstand at the Monumental stadium in Buenos Aires alongside General Jorge Videla for the inauguration of the World Cup organized by Argentina.
«A few steps from there – Galeano wrote in the cult book “Splendors and miseries of the game of football” – was the Argentinian Auschwitz, the torture and extermination center of the Army Mechanics School, in full operation. And, a few kilometers away, the planes dropped the prisoners alive at the bottom of the sea.’
The World Cup in Qatar is therefore not the first to be held on soil that is inimical to democracy. Before the Havelange era, Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Italy had hosted them in 1934. And just four years ago the matches were played in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, considered today by many – at least here in the West – the “public enemy number one”.
But the review that is taking place in Doha is in any case something never seen before. And not just because it’s held on grass fields set up in the middle of the desert when it’s almost winter in the rest of the northern hemisphere.
There is one fact that speaks for itself. Until now, the country that had spent the most on organizing a World Cup was Brazil in 2014: 15 billion dollars; well, Qatar has invested 220 billion, thus surpassing that record fourteen times.
It is evident then that much more than a simple sporting event is at stake for the Emirate of Doha: this is a showcase of crucial geopolitical and economic importance to show itself to the rest of the world as a rich, modern, efficient nation and above all open to cultures more diverse. A gigantic farce.
World Cup Qatar, suspicions of corruption
The shadow of corruption weighs heavily on the assignment of the tournament by Fifa, which took place twelve years ago, when Sepp Blatter (Havelange’s natural heir) was at the helm of the world football federation.
In 2014, the same highest governing body of football commissioned a former American judge, Michael Garcia, to investigate: Garcia found no evidence that they criminally nail Qatar, however he discovered that several members of the Fifa executive committee – the one that assigns the World Cup – they had received gifts (air travel, stays in luxury hotels) and in some cases even cash from representatives of the Emirate.
However, an investigation by the French judiciary is still underway, starting from a mysterious lunch at the Elysée Palace on November 23, 2010, ten days before the awarding of the World Cup.
At the table were the then transalpine president Nicolas Sarkozy, the then president of UEFA Michel Platini and senior officials from Doha: according to what Blatter testified, Platini called him immediately after the meeting reporting that Sarkozy «had recommended him to vote for Qatar”.
An investigative hypothesis is that, in exchange for support on the World Cup front, the Emiratis would have undertaken to make purchases in France: from the Paris Saint Germain team to Rafale military aircraft.
Qatar World Cup, deaths at work and rights denied
This is how a country half the size of Emilia-Romagna and with just 2.3 million inhabitants, of which just 15% (330,000 people) have citizenship, won the most prestigious sporting event after the Olympics .
Today Qatar has succeeded in its goal of attracting the eyes of the world to itself. This implied some positive steps forward, such as the abolition of “kefala”, a modern form of slavery by virtue of which foreign workers could not leave the country without the permission of their employer.
But the race to be ready for the appointment with the football event has left behind a long trail of blood.
According to the Guardian, more than 6,700 migrant workers lost their lives in Qatar between 2011 and 2020: although it is not clear how many of them died on construction sites related to the World Cup (stadiums, but also roads, hotels and a semi-new airport), in recent years NGOs such as Amnesy International have repeatedly denounced the poor working conditions for migrants employed in the Qatari expansion (for the local authorities, there are “only” 38 victims connected to the construction of the stadiums).
Indian, Pakistani, Nepalese, Sinhalese, Bengali workers lose their lives: unskilled workers forced to live crowded together in inhospitable ghettos on the outskirts of the skyscrapers. Because in Doha modernity is only in the cement and in the whizzing Ferraris, but for many things it seems to still be in the Middle Ages: sodomy is punished with up to three years’ imprisonment and the World Cup ambassador, Khalid Salman, recently defined homosexuality is a “mental illness”.
A gaffe that irritated the organizing committee: the World Cup, in fact, serves precisely to redo the image of Qatar. A sort of national re-branding.
It is part of the soft power strategy carried out by Emir Tamim Al Thani, in power since 2013, and previously by his father Hamad, who deposed his father Khalifa in 1995.
A strategy that passes through sport (in addition to the World Cup, the aforementioned purchase of Paris Saint Germain, where three of the best footballers on the planet play: Messi, Mbappè, Neymar) and the media (in 1996 Doha launched Al Jazeera, the first channel Arabic satellite). And which thrives on the rich revenues from natural gas trade, of which the country holds the world’s third-largest reserve.
Qatar also came out strengthened by the agreement reached at the beginning of 2021 for the lifting of the embargo imposed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, which in 2017 had broken relations with Doha accusing it of connivance with terrorist groups such as Hamas, an isolation that has brought Qatar closer to Iran and Turkey.
Meanwhile, on the pitches of the World Cup, Fifa has banned the captains of the national teams from wearing the “One Love” rainbow armband, in support of LGBTQ+ rights. The rulers of football have decided that whoever wears it will be booked, and the players – on the orders of their respective federations – immediately adapted. Human rights are not even worth a yellow card.
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