War, human rights abuses, corruption, banned beer: None of it will stop the magic of the World Cup.
It once felt inevitable. Four years ago, ahead of the last World Cup, I wrote: “The World Cup is a black hole, an eternal and incomprehensible force that draws everything toward it, that bends time itself and from which nothing can escape.” But if the long years since 2018 have taught us anything, it is that nothing is inevitable. The Covid-19 pandemic saw the postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and 2020 Euro Cup, as well as restrictions at the 2022 Beijing Olympics.
After these four long years, I feel relieved that it’s even happening at all. The 1942 and 1946 World Cups were canceled by the Second World War—the only times a World Cup has been canceled since it began in 1930. In fact, the World Cup has long been intertwined with wars, helping to spark them, to avenge them and perhaps even to help stop them.
The World Cup has long been intertwined with wars, helping to spark them, to avenge them and perhaps even to help stop them.
2022 is again a time of major war. The war in Ukraine is evidently not a war wide-spread enough to keep the World Cup from happening. But, this war’s shadow, too, will hang over the 2022 games. For Russia, this World Cup represents an almost inexpressible fall from grace. In four years, the nation has gone from host of the World Cup in 2018 to being disqualified from participating by FIFA. One wonders whether Putin was surprised; after all, Mussoloni invading Ethiopia in 1935 didn’t lead to FIFA disqualifying Italy, which went on to win the 1938 World Cup. Nor did Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands in April of 1982 prevent Argentina from participating in the World Cup that June.
In truth, the World Cup itself wields genuine political power. Take the Maracanazo, and what it means for Brazil, when hosting the 1950 World Cup turned from fantasy to disaster. Before 200,000 Brazilian spectators in the heart of Rio de Janeiro, Uruguay defeated the host nation in the final. For Brazil, this was a national humiliation, a shock that inspired genuine mourning. Pelé later said that it was the sight of his father crying after the game that made him promise to win a World Cup for Brazil (he won three). For Uruguay, it was the ultimate underdog success story and created a national narrative of how a small nation can punch above its weight.
Or take the Miracle of Bern in the final of the 1954 Cup, when underdog West Germany, in Germany’s first World Cup since the war, shocked the world by defeating the then-mighty and -undefeated Hungarians. The West German team came to represent the post-war reconstitution of West Germany itself. More than any other moment, including the actual legal creation of West Germany in 1949, the 1954 World Cup is when the West Germans felt themselves readmitted to the company of civilized nations.
But if the World Cup is about love of country, it also transcends it.
Will we have any such symbolic games in this World Cup? There are some tantalizing prospects. The United States and Iran are in the same group. Lately, the Iranian national team has attempted to express its solidarity with the feminist anti-regime protests rocking Iran. Reports that the government is silencing the players have led to calls for the country to be ejected from the games. Will the hostility between the two nations be expressed on the pitch? Or perhaps the U.S. and Iranian players will embrace, and make an unlikely call for peace and diplomacy? The World Cup permits us to dream.
Another game worth paying attention to will be Uruguay’s match with Ghana. This generation of Ghanian players is no doubt eager for the chance to redress a grievance against Uruguay from 2010, when Luis Suarez’ handball blocked a Ghanian volley clearly going into the net. Ghana went on to miss the penalty, and Suarez danced gleefully as the last African team at the first African World Cup was eliminated, with Nelson Mandela himself watching in the stands. Did Luis Suarez’ cheating represent an insult to the entire African continent? I would say yes, though an Uruguayan would no doubt argue that Suarez simply was celebrating his own country’s advance into the semi-final. Was Suarez’ handball a dirty trick? Yes, and he got a red card for it. He also saved his team from certain elimination. Ask not what your country can do for you.
But if the World Cup is about love of country, it also transcends it. As Eduardo Galeano, the leftist giant of Latin American literature once wrote: “When good football happens, I give thanks for the miracle and I don't give a damn which team or country performs it.” Personally, after four years of waiting, I want to just watch the games! Of course, I want my countries to win (Mexico and the United States). But I want to see great deeds of individual heroics and collective effort. I want to see James spin a ball into the net or Van Persie be the flying Dutchman. I want to see sneaky devious fouls and athletic endurance. I want to see football.
The Problems of Qatar
Nothing captures the tensions and hypocrisies inherent in the World Cup as its 2022 setting in Qatar. The 2022 Cup is Qatar’s debut celebration on the world stage, marking the small gulf state’s full emergence as a pocket superpower, if not in military might then in financial strength and geopolitical influence. Earlier this year Qatar was granted Major Non-NATO Ally status by President Biden, a recognition of Qatar’s many recent contributions to American foreign policy, from playing a key role in the evacuation of Afghans during the fall of Kabul to hosting U.S.-Iran negotiations over the resumption of the nuclear deal. Qatar is also deeply enmeshed in the world of international football, effectively owning French club Paris Saint-Germain, which recently signed an over $100 million 2-year contract to bring Lionel Messi on board.
But, as the preparations for the World Cup have highlighted, there is a dark side to Qatar’s glitter. Its population is overwhelmingly made up of noncitizen migrant workers, primarily from Africa and South Asia. Citizens account for just around 10 percent of the population. It is these migrant workers who do most (if not all) of the manual labor jobs in Qatari society. That includes building the stadiums for the World Cup, often in the same devastating heat that was deemed too unsafe for the players to compete in. According to The Guardian, in the decade since Qatar was awarded hosting rights, over 6,000 migrant workers have died, of which at least 37 were workers at World Cup stadium construction sites. Qatar is also infamous for its criminalization of homosexuality, and there is concern as to how L.G.B.T. football fans may be treated by Qatari authorities. Expect many of the European team captains to wear a rainbow armband in protest.
The decision to give the World Cup to Qatar has inspired just a hint of a reckoning with the sport’s ugly side.
The decision to give the World Cup to Qatar seems to have inspired just a hint of a reckoning with the sport’s ugly side. With its heat and small size, the selection of Qatar was bizarre to begin with; so bizarre, in fact, that it can only be explained by FIFA corruption, a suspicion confirmed by the U.S. Department of Justice. Now, many players are speaking out about Qatar’s human rights violations, and there will surely be more statements and demonstrations and political shirt-wearing once the World Cup begins. Qatar, sensitive to the criticism, has attempted to improve its labor standards, though implementation issues remain.
Despite the headlines of worker deaths, FIFA corruption and L.G.B.T. human rights violations (and yes, banned beer), billions around the world welcome the World Cup with relief. As a kid in rural California, I watched all summer long as Mexican farmworkers would rush home after grueling days in the fields to try and catch some of the qualifying games. And when given the chance to put on a play of their own devising, the migrant children chose the heroes of the age: Messi, Chicharito, Ronaldo. Even today Guillermo Ochoa or Chucky Lozano’s heroic performances remain a sure topic of conversation in the migrant farmworker camps of Yolo County, Calif.
How I feel about the World Cup is similar to how I feel about the church: Despite all its worldly faults, we can’t help but be grateful for something that brings comfort and meaning to people who work so hard and yet have so little.
How I feel about the World Cup is similar to how I feel about the church: Despite all its worldly faults, we can’t help but be grateful for something that brings comfort and meaning.
Still, the families of California’s Mexican migrant farmworker camps have reasons to feel nervous about this World Cup. Last World Cup, after the cathartic high of beating Germany, Mexico slid into disappointment, first with an embarrassing loss to Sweden and then a predictable ouster by Brazil. This year, the team will be lucky to slink past Poland and Saudi Arabia to escape into the round of 16. In a recent friendly exhibition game in Los Angeles, Mexico struggled to beat Peru—finally scoring one late goal in front of a packed and overwhelmingly Mexican crowd.
Mexico’s poor showing of late mirrors the overall trend of Latin America’s footballing decline. South American teams used to routinely win the World Cup. But since Brazil’s last win in 2002, a Latin American team has only reached the final once, when Argentina lost to Germany in 2014. In the last World Cup there wasn’t even a Latin American team in the semi-finals. Teams from Asia and Africa are even less likely to make it that far—though there probably is a better chance of seeing Japan or Senegal in the semi-finals than Canada or the United States. We are living in Europe’s age of football dominance.
It’s tempting to interpret Latin America’s fall from football grace as representative of the region’s broader troubles. From economic strife in the aftermath of the pandemic, to the implosion of Venezuela and its subsequent migrant crisis, to democratic backsliding in many of the region’s states, these are difficult times for Latin America. But I suspect the real reason Latin American football has slipped from its once globally dominant position is the same reason why the Mexican team plays more games in the U.S. for the Mexican American audience than it does at home: The fabulous wealth of the global north.
In Europe, competitive leagues with global audiences are funded by capital from the United States and the oil-exporting gulf states of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Meanwhile, club teams in South America are only able to stay financially solvent by developing players and then selling them to the European teams. For example, if the big European clubs demand Argentinian strikers, every Argentine club will train its players to play that role, and Argentine defense at the World Cup will subsequently suffer. Where once Maradona spoke of the hand of God by which he beat England in 1986, football fans are now held captive to the invisible hand of the free market.
But no matter a country’s size, its oil reserves or its nuclear stockpile, they all meet on a flat pitch, with a round ball and equal numbers on each side. Even if the ideal of equality on the pitch is a myth, Senegal can still beat France, Mexico can still beat the Germans. Argentina can still beat England. And for all the money they’ve spent, the United States looks unlikely to win a World Cup this decade or even the next, while China looks unlikely to qualify for a World Cup at all, no matter that Xi Jinping would very much like to. Always there remains in football something that money can’t buy.
So perhaps this will be Latin America’s year. The oddsmakers have Brazil as the favorite. Such a win would be good news for Brazil’s new president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. There could be no more auspicious way for Brazil to put behind them their divisive electoral campaign, which saw Paris Saint-Germain star Neymar endorse Bolsonaro, behind them than with a World Cup win. Argentina may also have a good chance.
Perhaps this will be Latin America’s year. The oddsmakers have Brazil as the favorite.
But of course, Europe has more credible contenders. Defending champions France and Belgium, which came in third, both have formidable teams that have come to represent the diverse, multiracial Europe of today. Germany and Spain are both former champions looking to recover from humiliating implosions in 2018 and 2014 respectively. And then there’s England, which reached the final of the Euro Cup last year, only to lose to Italy (which in turn proceeded to fail to qualify for the World Cup this year). After the extraordinary year England has had, winning the World Cup for the first time since 1966 would certainly be the storybook ending. I could even be convinced to root for them (though obviously only if Mexico and the United States are eliminated first).
So, will this be Latin America’s year, representing a triumph for the Global South? Or will Europe, despite all its recent political and economic woes, once more mobilize its immigrant talent and material wealth into a World Cup trophy? Or perhaps a team from Asia or Africa, the most populous of the world’s continents and both full to bursting with football fanaticism, will have their long-prophesied breakthrough? (Pele, the Brazilian legend, predicted an African World Cup winner before the year 2000.) Or maybe this is even the year the United States, after the humiliation of missing out in 2018, will become a football superpower in addition to a military and economic one?
Football for a fallen world
In the end, football makes hypocrites of us all. FIFA condemns the Russian invasion, and yet has quietly had no problem selling television broadcast rights to the World Cup within Russia. Danish players will wear monochrome jerseys in protest of Qatar’s abuse of migrant workers, and yet Denmark’s own draconian migration policies suggest that South Asian and African migrant workers would fare little better there. And of course, there’s people like me, who care deeply about migrant and labor rights and are going to watch this World Cup anyway. Maybe we would be better off like Pope Francis, caring deeply about the outcome but not actually watching the games. After all, as all true fans know, watching can be like torture when you care this much.
But of the billions who will watch, I doubt a single one of us is going to watch it with the intention of making FIFA executives richer or Qatar look good. That’s not why people around the world in the unlucky time zones will wake up at the crack of dawn to catch their team play, piling into bars before breakfast. That’s not why fathers will take their sons to buy matching jerseys. From the refugee camps of Jordan to the favelas of Rio de Janeiro; from the pubs of England to the jungles of Colombia; from busy Tokyo to inside the walls of the Vatican; from the Mexican migrant farmworker camps of California to, yes, the very homes of migrant workers living and working in Qatar—people of every race, color and creed will stop. They’ll watch. They’ll be brought together by something that isn’t a crisis, that isn’t a disaster, that isn’t a market economy that sees us as only inputs or outputs.
We have accepted the commercialized, corrupt, dictator-friendly hypocrisy that comes with turning on the TV as the moral price we have to pay to get at the thing we want; the thing we need; the thing we’ve missed for four long years. And that thing is magic. That thing is belonging. That thing is the sounds you involuntarily make when the ball scrapes just past the goalkeeper’s fingertips...will it bounce off the post? Will it hit the back of the net? Millions are watching in real time. Haunted, hopeful, helpless now, watching the fate of their tribe sail through the air, and….Gol! GOLAZOOOO! NO LO PUEDO CREER, VOY A LLORAR! GOOOOOOOOL!
In this fracturing world, where wars in one corner of the world can impact food prices in another; where so many people feel like little more than paper boats on great oceans of unseen currents; the World Cup offers the thing that is missing—the thing that societies across the world seem to be yearning for: Something nobler than mere ambition or personal comfort, that nevertheless is entirely, utterly, related to you. It will root you in your place and yet give you memories to share with a complete stranger.
The only thing that has ever stopped a World Cup has been a World War. Maybe World Cups stop world wars, as well.