A messy World Cup, overflowing with charms and conflicts, arrives in Qatar

REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach
Qatar University Training Site 3, Doha, Qatar – November 19, 2022 Argentina’s Lionel Messi during training

DOHA, Qatar – Since the first World Cup 92 years ago in Uruguay, Planet Earth’s quadrennial bonanza of its favorite sport has never found itself in a setting this unusual. Here comes the oddest among the 22 World Cups to date, in the 18th World Cup country (counting one occasion shared among two), with all the odd charms and misgivings.

From the fifth-largest country in the world (Brazil) in 2014, to the largest country in the world (Russia) in 2018, the World Cup moves to the rich and tiny 164th-largest, Qatar, a country slightly smaller than Connecticut. From recent hosts Japan and South Korea (a combined 164 million people when they staged in 2002), to Germany (82 million), to South Africa (51 million), to Brazil (202 million), to Russia (144 million), the World Cup has come to a nation of about 2.9 million, the vast majority of them guest workers.

Into this wee land they’ll shoehorn 32 teams in eight groups to decide a winner across 29 days, plus an anticipated 1.2 million fans, including those from the Arab world celebrating the first Arab World Cup, even those dancing Thursday night around Doha’s gorgeous souk. They’ve wedged in eight stadiums, none an imposing drive from any other, such that it’s possible to stare off a highway and spot two of them without moving the eyeballs.

“It’s too small a country,” an 86-year-old Swiss man told a Swiss newspaper earlier this month. “Football and the World Cup are too big for it.” The remarks rang as odd because they came from Sepp Blatter, who served as president of FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, from 1998 to 2015, including in late 2010 when 22 FIFA voters chose Qatar over the United States, South Korea, Japan and Australia.

Further, it’s November, making this World Cup a drastic outlier. From its origins in South America and Europe through the most recent edition in Russia four years ago, the World Cup has been a summertime affair. Yet from the moment Blatter opened the envelope to pull out a card marked “QATAR” at a 2010 ceremony, a card now on view in Qatar’s national museum, it seemed clear a sport so demanding could not happen in the malevolent summer air by the Persian (or Arabian) Gulf.

That meant this World Cup shifted to November here, with daytime temperatures typically in the 80s and nighttime air breathable and sweet. That meant this World Cup gave a hard elbow to the world’s national leagues, such as Europe’s big five in England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France, which had to suspend play for a month. That meant the chances for injuries or impaired fitness have risen, with the most leagues churning until last weekend and the customary idle pre-World Cup month removed.

That tightened calendar found its starkest ache earlier this month in Munich, when the rigors of league play this close to a World Cup happened to snag the Senegalese star Sadio Mané, one of the world’s best players. A leg injury he suffered that night required the surgical reattachment of a tendon to a fibula, made his initial inclusion on Senegal’s team seem far-fetched, and culminated recently in his crushing removal from the squad.

Even as the World Cup has arrived amid the sound of the Muslim call to prayer, ringing through the metropolitan area, it has wreaked global bickering about cultural mores. One epitome happened on Friday when Qatar, where alcoholic beverages do not flow except in certain hotels, reversed its earlier decision to allow stadium sales of beer, long considered an essential soccer ingredient in many other cultures.

Far more controversially, the country has taken criticism for its practices around human rights, including the treatment of guest workers, especially those whose construction work built this World Cup, and the criminalization of gay relationships. “It’s ridiculous that the World Cup is there,” the Netherlands Manager Louis van Gaal said. “FIFA says they want to develop football there. That’s bulls—. It’s about money, about commercial interests.”

Qatar has not shied from rejoinder. To a German newspaper earlier this month, foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani said: “It is ironic when this tone is struck in Europe in countries that call themselves liberal democracies. It honestly sounds very arrogant and very racist.”

The way of life in Qatar could not differ more from, for example, the way of life in Brazil, whose festive fans make an unfailing World Cup backdrop given the only country to qualify all 22 times.

With all of the above swirling around, a certain randomness seems possible soccer-wise. The 32 national teams have lacked the usual time to gel again as they reconvene to play in eight groups of four, three matches each, with the top two from each group advancing to a 16-team knockout stage. The hurry of it all could benefit some teams and hinder others.

That makes it plausible that it could be here that the world breaks the recent World Cup stranglehold by Europe, which has yielded four different winners of the last four events – Italy, Spain, Germany, France – and 13 of the 16 semifinalists in that span. If that trend finally subsides, it might be by dint of Brazil, the tournament favorite and five-time winner trying to end a drought its fussy fans find egregious: 20 years without a title, and harrowing losses to Europeans – France (2006 quarterfinals), the Netherlands (2010 quarterfinals), Germany (2014 semifinals in a haunted-house 7-1 rout in Brazil) and Belgium (2018 quarterfinals). Brazil will bring an attack with Neymar, Richarlison, Vinicius Junior and a knack for considerable prettiness.

If not Brazil, then it could be Brazil’s neighborly friend to the south, Argentina, which, like Brazil, spent 17 matches of World Cup qualifying with zero losses.

France still has the cup from 2018 but has a habit of following peaks with nadirs, while England has big hope based on recent years but bad form of late, while Germany has not been Germany in the last two large international tournaments and Spain has shifted from a grand generation to a precocious one.

Speaking of generations, Belgium brings back its best-ever one, semifinalists last time while possibly a notch beyond its ripening, while the Netherlands returns after an aching absence in 2018. The same goes for the United States, a young team second in North American charm to Canada, which appears as the one of the darlings of drought-breaking, included for the first time in 36 years.

The other such darling, Wales, appears for the first time in 64, when it played creditably in a quarterfinal in 1958, falling 1-0 to Brazil and budding icon Pelé, then just 17. Wales opens on Monday against the United States, one day after the home side, Qatar, opens the whole bale of matches against Ecuador as a host team far better than anticipated when the envelope opened 12 years ago.

All the while, two of the most famous people on the planet will figure to bow out: Cristiano Ronaldo, the 37-year-old Portuguese; and Lionel Messi, the 35-year-old Argentine and goal-making magician celebrated worldwide.

Messi has a tormented relationship with the four past World Cups already stashed in his bio. He and Argentina reached a final in Brazil in 2014, falling 1-0 to Germany, and their roster does have quality beyond himself. “We have a very nice group that is very eager, but we think about going little by little,” Messi told CONMEBOL, the South American soccer governing body, in a recent interview. “We know that World Cup groups are not easy.”

If he and they were to ride off in a manner that would please much of the world, it might even overshadow the exceptional idea of where it all took place.