This is an edition of The Great Game, a newsletter about the 2022 World Cup—and how soccer explains the world. Sign up here.
This World Cup doesn’t start until Sunday, but I already loathe it.
It says something about the depths of corruption at FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, that it has managed to take one of the most joyous events in human experience and trash it in pursuit of power and profit.
Watching international soccer, it’s always been hard to avert one’s eyes from the sport’s complicity with the forces of authoritarianism. It happens nonetheless, because soccer is the opiate that thuggish leaders have historically used to distract the world from their sins. In the very heart of London, a Russian oligarch owned Chelsea Football Club for nearly two decades, allegedly purchased at Vladimir Putin’s behest with the intention of bolstering the image of his regime. The British government forced the oligarch to sell the club this spring following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But only four years ago, when the world descended on Russia for the last World Cup, I don’t recall pundits or players or broadcasters loudly complaining about the Russian government’s suppression of political dissent or its brutal occupation of eastern Ukraine.
By attaching themselves to the passion of their public, juntas, dictatorships, and aspiring oligarchs have always exploited the sport to win good will and insulate themselves from criticism. In the end, the soccer fan’s appetite for the game is far more robust than the craving for democracy.
Qatar is the most extreme example of this phenomenon, which is why it has elicited an unusually strident backlash. With the Qatar World Cup, players aren’t just passive participants in a regime’s reputation laundering. They will be playing in stadiums built with imported labor, recruited on deceptive pretexts, and subjected to some of the most inhumane working conditions imaginable. More than 6,500 workers died to make this spectacle possible, according to The Guardian.
To watch any game in this tournament is to be reminded of the body count. How can a goal be joyously celebrated when one knows of the graveyard required to build the pitch on which it was scored?
When FIFA initially awarded the World Cup to Qatar, the tournament was going to be played in summer—just like each of the 21 previous tournaments. But that would have required players to run around in 100-degree dry heat—and risked further fatalities. Rather than switching to a country with a climate better suited to the tournament, FIFA decided to tamper with the world’s ritual and move the tournament to winter.
This is hardly the most grievous shortcoming of World Cup 2022. In the age of climate change, the differences between the seasons are being slowly obliterated, anyway. Still, it took the World Cup from the slowest time of the year—when kids around the planet tend to be out of school, when vacations are most plausible—and shifted it to the global busy season. This relocation disrupts the rhythms of soccer fandom; it ruins the ritual of the world taking a quadrennial collective break to enjoy a shared passion.
By transporting the game to winter, FIFA has placed it in the middle of the European football season. This change has cascading consequences, all of them terrible. To cram games into the schedule, professional leagues started their seasons earlier, with less recovery time between games. Although players are amply compensated for their labor, they have been abused too. With this brutal schedule, players have been doomed to serious injury. Some of the world’s greatest players won’t likely participate in this World Cup—France’s N’Golo Kanté and Paul Pogba, Senegal’s Sadio Mané, England’s Reece James—because they have been hurt in the run-up to the tournament. If they weren’t out of commission, it would be possible to field a highly competitive team consisting solely of these sidelined players.
The players who are actually healthy will take part in a tournament that will invariably disappoint. National teams are ad hoc assemblages. In advance of a World Cup, they typically have several weeks to train together in pre-tournament camps, where they can absorb a coach’s plan. But this time, they will have a mere week of preparation, if they are lucky.
With so little time to train—and with so many players suffering from fatigue and the accrued knocks of a compressed season—the games themselves will be sclerotic and sloppy. Coaches will be tactically inclined to rely on sturdy defensive bases, rather than adventurous attacks. This is a tournament that will be won by muddling through, a sweaty grind of grim utilitarian football.
But what I loathe most about this tournament is that, despite the fact that I have long advocated canceling it, I will plant myself on my couch and watch nearly every game. I will supply advertisers with my eyeballs. I will implicitly forgive the exploitative and corrupt practices that made this atrocity of a spectacle possible.
World Cup 2022 will expose me as a hypocrite and moral weakling. Let the games begin.