The Qatar World Cup Exposes Soccer’s Shame

The absurd spectacle of a tiny Gulf petrostate hosting the world’s premier tournament reveals the ugly side of “the beautiful game.”

An illustration featuring calligraphy and an Arabic motif.
Erik Carter / The Atlantic

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Qatar hosting the soccer World Cup is like Donald Trump becoming president of the United States. It should not have happened, but the very fact that it has only exposes how bad things have become. Once this famous old tournament kicks off in Doha tomorrow, the fact that it did can never be unwound: Qatar will forever have been the host of the 22nd FIFA World Cup, the greatest absurdity in the history of the sport.

Even to recite the details of the backstory feels darkly grim. In 2010, soccer’s world governing body, FIFA, awarded the right to host the world’s most popular and prestigious sporting event to a tiny Middle Eastern autocracy with a population of barely 3 million. Qatar had never even played in a World Cup before, let alone hosted one, and it made a singularly unsuitable venue: In summer, when the tournament has always been held, the temperatures are so hot, soccer cannot safely be played at all. To hold 90-minute matches in the desert at the height of an Arabian summer is self-evidently ludicrous.

This is why, for the first time ever, the tournament is taking place in November and December, which is midway through the European soccer season. This is as preposterous as running the World Series over Christmas week—in Jeddah. They might as well have handed Dubai the rights to the Winter Olympics.

But this idiocy glosses over the true ignominy. Qatar might now be home to about 3 million people, but the proportion of actual Qatari citizens who live there is little more than 10 percent. The rest comprise some very rich expatriates of other nations and a huge army of poor migrants who do most of the work. When Qatar won the tournament, it did not have the infrastructure, weather, or fan base to justify being awarded the World Cup. But it was very, very rich.

The whole saga is rather like Dave Chappelle’s cynical take on Trump. Just as the former president acted as the “honest liar” who revealed something important about American politics in Chappelle’s view, Qatar seems to me to have done something similar for soccer. Until now, the sport’s world governing body was able to at least partially hide its sheer awfulness because everyone had a stake in the charade. If handing the tournament to Russia in 2018 might have looked bad on a democracy and human-rights index, it was at least a big country with a proud soccer history. But Qatar?

Not even FIFA’s disgraced former boss Sepp Blatter now feels able to defend the decision—a “mistake,” he recently admitted. That Qatar was able to beat rival bids from the United States, Australia, Japan, and South Korea to win the right to host the event was so indefensible, so in-your-face ridiculous, that it is impossible not to conclude that the whole system is rigged. Which, in essence, it is.

More than a one-off scandal, the World Cup in Qatar is a fable of the world we live in—and not just the world of soccer. Qatar 2022 is what happens when a corrupted international organization with huge power and little accountability is put in charge of things that matter; when democracies are willing to sell themselves, their institutions, and even their culture to the highest bidder; and when whole economies become dependent on the exploitation of cheap, globalized labor and unregulated capital. Qatar is like an extra shot of vodka in this cocktail of shame, a distillation of all that is wrong, which is usually masked by other ingredients.

European club soccer is already rife with plutocratic backers from the Gulf and beyond. Three of the top five best-paid athletes in the world are now soccer players: Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Neymar, each of whom earns more than $100 million a year in wages and endorsements. A fourth player, Kylian Mbappé, is likely to join this exalted group when Forbes releases next year’s list, after he recently signed a three-year contract worth $650 million. Of these four superstars, three are currently employed by one club, Paris Saint-Germain, which is owned by, yes, Qatar.

But Paris Saint-Germain is not alone in its dependence on Gulf wealth—just the most brazen. The English club Manchester City has been owned by an investment arm of the Abu Dhabi state since 2008 (an organization that also has the largest stake in the U.S. Major League Soccer franchise New York City F.C.). Another English Premier League side, Newcastle United, was bought last year by a consortium that includes the Saudi Arabia sovereign wealth fund. With seemingly bottomless budgets, enabling them to buy up all the top talent, these clubs are now—surprise, surprise—winning far more than they used to.

Soccer is simply an extreme example of a wider phenomenon. The world of golf is currently embroiled in a civil war over a new LIV Golf tour, funded by the same Saudi wealth fund that now owns Newcastle United. The Formula 1 motorsport franchise has a long history of coziness with petrostate plutocracies: It already held grand prix races in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—and last year added a fourth Gulf circuit in, of course, Qatar.

Everyone understands the deal here. Qatar and the other Gulf states want to diversify their economies to survive the day the spigot of their oil-and-gas wealth runs dry. And they want to do so while protecting their autocratic regimes. To achieve this aim, they invest in sport, entertainment, tourism, and transport—in the hope of becoming sunny, low-tax centers of a future global economy, where the rich come to live, work, shop, and relax away from the cumbersome burdens of democracy, serviced by an army of poor migrant workers. Their investment in sport is merely one part of this broader strategy. We just choose to look away from the grimness.

We in the West have gone along with it because it has meant getting our hands on some of their wealth. Delighted soccer fans in England have started turning up to club games in traditional Arab dress to showcase their joy at their club’s newfound riches. My own club, Liverpool, is now on the market. Can I really say, with a straight face, that I wouldn’t quietly rejoice if some huge sovereign wealth fund bought the club so that it could continue competing at the top level, recruiting the best players and paying the highest wages? By its very nature, the cash is corrupting. Can any of us turn around and complain when we discover the World Cup has similarly been sold off?

Underlying the shame of the World Cup in Qatar and the petrostate ownership of European soccer is this banal reality: These states are our diplomatic and commercial allies. We in the West not only accept their money for our sports teams, but we buy their fossil fuels and in return sell them arms. And we seal the deal by placing our hands on weird glowing orbs in the desert to profess our friendship. To expect sports to act as some honorable exception while the rest of society is trying to make as much money as possible—regardless of the morality or long-term security of their countries—is ridiculous.

The fact is, Europe has been selling itself to the highest bidder for years. Germany’s entire geopolitical strategy has been to tie itself to Russia and China—two states considered strategic threats by NATO—to create mutual dependency. Britain has auctioned off core infrastructure and assets, whether that’s meant giving China a stake in the U.K. nuclear industry or providing Russia with financial services and real-estate opportunities to wash its money. Even proud France, which once regarded yogurt as a vital national asset, is happy for its sports teams to become playthings of foreign owners.

The West is neither as rich nor as dominant in the world as it once was. It must make difficult choices that involve trade-offs. But if the plan was to maintain national wealth, security, independence, and integrity, the past couple of decades have been a disaster.

“I’ll tell you what,” Donald Trump claimed in a Republican primary debate on the way to his party’s presidential nomination in 2016: “With Hillary Clinton, I said, ‘Be at my wedding,’ and she came to my wedding. You know why? She had no choice! Because I gave.” Well, Qatar—just like Saudi Arabia, UAE, Russia, and China—has been giving to the West for years. And now we are going to the wedding.