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Welcome to Grace on Football's World Cup coverage!
The whats and what nots of what I'm publishing during the tournament.
Short version: get 20% off for a year with my new World Cup offer.
Ok, let’s start by discussing the elephant in the room.
If you really want to avoid discussing these issues, you can scroll down to the next section, titled “What I’ll be writing in this World Cup”, but I hope you don’t. Qatar is hosting this World Cup, in a decision beset by controversy. The treatment of migrant workers has been a particularly hot topic, with much observed on the subject. Grant Wahl wrote an excellent report speaking to migrant workers in Qatar. I’d highly recommend reading the whole thing if you subscribe to his newsletter, but here’s an excerpt if you don’t:
The message came from David (not his real name) in Qatar on WhatsApp in May, in reference to FIFA inspections and the subcontractor he works for:
David: Hey brother
I’m David in Qatar one day you did for us interview
Me: Hi David, it’s good to hear from you. How are you?
David: I’m good brother you are still in qatar
Me: Good to hear. I am at home in New York now. I’ll be in Qatar for the World Cup in November and December.
David: OK I want you to come in our company yu see how we live cause this people are lies they brought other people to interview in accommodation and they lock us inside another accommodation for us to not talk with fifa people
Me: I’m so sorry to hear that. Are you OK?
David: My company is called ----- it is very bad we pass alot off staff but people are afraid to say that why I look for your number
Me: Thanks for contacting me. I’m writing a story soon on worker treatment in Qatar. Would you be OK speaking to me again? I wouldn’t use your name.
David: This is how we live six people per room
People working in hotel are living good two people per room but us supply company we pass alot of staff and your fifa people are hide alot of things. If you work in hotel they will give you good place to live most people are suffering from this contract company they treat us like animals.
Organisers of the World Cup have also been accused by LGBTQ groups of refusing to meet their requests to guarantee safety of LGBTQ people during the World Cup. The advocacy group Human Rights Watch has documented numerous cases of the “Qatar Preventive Security Department forces arbitrarily [arresting] lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people and [subjecting] them to ill-treatment in detention. This is obviously an issue close to my heart, and it’s clear there are very serious concerns at play. Ahwaa, an LGBTQ organisation in the Middle East and North Africa, stated that FIFA “didn’t make a single promise that we feel that they kept. And there weren’t a lot of promises to begin with, except that ‘we will continue this conversation’ – and never did”. I’m not important enough to be attending major tournaments in person, but if I was, I would not feel safe travelling to Qatar.
At the same time, there has been a lot of clumsy rhetoric on this topic. Little attempt has been made to centre the concerns of LGBTQ Qataris and migrant workers based permanently in the country. As James Greig wrote, “the danger here is that western activism on gay rights can have the opposite of the desired effect: rather than pressuring the Qatari government to liberalise, it effectively encourages it to double down. It means that the issue of LGBTQ+ rights can be positioned as a form of western colonialism, and allows the government to portray itself as the defender of traditional values, thus bolstering its own authority in the process.”
This in turn has sometimes presented an idealised version of the West that does not exist. Some journalists and ex-players have asked if LGBTQ fans going to World Cup matches will feel comfortable showing public affection at grounds in Qatar. To which I would ask: do any LGBTQ people feel comfortable showing public affection at games in the West? There are zero openly gay or bisexual male footballers in Europe’s top five leagues. Iker Casillas and Carles Puyol thought it would be a funny joke to pretend Casillas was gay in 2022. Some in the UK criticising Qatari stances on the subject have been happy to promote anti-LGBTQ ideas domestically, with one particularly bad example being The Guardian’s Sean Ingle deciding to speak to the anti-trans LGB Alliance in an article about whether fans at the World Cup will be safe. At the end of the day, the thing that keeps me up at night is the fear that Rishi Sunak’s government will take a sledgehammer to trans rights in Britain.
All of this is to say that the UK and other western countries have marched in lockstep with Qatar on a whole range of issues. The body of 22 voters who gave Qatar the World Cup included Frenchman Michel Platini, Spaniard Ángel María Villar, Englishman Geoff Thompson, Belgian Michel D'Hooghe, American Chuck Blazer and German Franz Beckenbauer. All of them probably didn’t vote for this, but it’s very likely at least some of them did. Famous western footballers who have been happy to take money to lend their name to the Qatari World Cup include David Beckham, Ronald de Boer, Tim Cahill, Xavi Hernández and Pep Guardiola. The English FA, along with the British government, has been very happy to build close bonds with Qatar for the right price.
Let us not forget either that the modern state of Qatar, like much of the world, is a direct consequence of western imperialism. The British took control of Qatar from the Ottoman empire in 1916 and allowed the pro-UK Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim Al Thani to maintain rule of the country. The British were happy to see the Sheikh rule Qatar provided he made critical concessions of oil to the UK state-owned Anglo-Persian Oil Company. The Al Thani family – who still rule Qatar to this day – and the British state worked hand-in-hand to deny the people of Qatar their natural resource wealth. Wealth from such sources helped maintain British status and soft power in the world, the very soft power used by UK journalists today to call out injustices in Qatar from a supposed moral high ground.
That is a massive oversimplification that I’m sure has some basic errors because I’m not a historian. I’m a football writer trying to figure out what all of this stuff means on the fly. I have been disappointed that, with the level of coverage the Qatar World Cup is receiving, few in the UK media have tried to grapple with colonial legacies. Yes, there is truth to claims of western hypocrisy in calling out countries like Qatar. But I think all of this makes it even more urgent to fight such injustices. Partly because two wrongs don’t make a right, but it cuts deeper than that. The worst aspects of Qatar have been done with support from western elites, not in defiance of them.
The fight against absolute monarchies in the Middle East, an insurgent western far right, the legacies of imperialism, autocratic leaders like Vladimir Putin and Narendra Modi, and supposed socialists such as Xi Jinping and Nicolás Maduro is all the same fight. As Martin Luther King Jr. put it, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
So we have to keep talking about the issues in Qatar. We have to weave that into our conversations about the World Cup without football just taking over. That doesn’t mean we can’t talk about what’s happening on the pitch, far from it. The majority of what I’ll write will be directly about the actual football on the pitch. But we need to keep talking about these issues and, crucially, maintain this energy going forward. All the issues in football that led to this World Cup aren’t going away after the full-time whistle blows at the final. The problems that exist in football and wider society will keep coming up for the foreseeable future, and we need to bring the energy raised by the spectre of this World Cup with us all the time.
Ok, that’s the hard part for now. Let’s talk about some lighter topics.
What I’ll be writing in this World Cup
First of all, I’ll be doing capsule reviews of every game at the tournament. These will come out at the end of the day as soon as I’ve finished writing them. On days when there are four matches, the first two reviews will be available for all while the second two will be for subscribers only. On days when there are only three matches, one will be free and the other two will be for subscribers. I will also be writing broader opinion pieces on the tournament as and when things happen.
Then we have a project I’ve been working on for a while: World Cup Flashbacks.
Way back when, I wrote an article looking at Diego Maradona’s performance in the 1986 World Cup, trying to find out if he was as good as remembered (spoiler alert: yes). Now, I’m going through the winners of every World Cup since then, watching all their games and reviewing their performances, their approach, and their tactics throughout those competitions. Here’s a sample, from the article on Brazil’s victorious 1994 team:
As the Dutch pushed for an equaliser, they left more space in behind for Brazil to exploit. After a few decent chances, Bebeto exploited a total defensive brain fart to go straight through on goal against the ‘keeper. He didn’t miss. The Dutch defenders assumed the flag would go up as Romário was in an offside position, but forgot about the new rule that you’re only offside if you interfere with play. Bebeto and Romário showed everyone exactly why the game is so much better for ditching yer da’s beloved “what’s he doing standing there if he’s not interfering with play” interpretation.
It was worth the famous celebration. Just over an hour gone and Brazil were 2-0 up, playing excellently, and straight on their way to the final. But the euphoria didn’t last. Brazil’s defenders hadn’t switched on after the goal, so Bergkamp was able to float in behind them after a quick throw in and apply a delightful finish from a tight angle. That Bergkamp lad might have a career in this game. Brazil just needed to concentrate and avoid doing anything stupid. They failed at that aim, but 2-1 was hardly a problem.
What came next wasn’t exactly controlled. Brazil failed to pick up Aron Winter at a corner, who then exploits that Taffarel is so far from his line and easily heads it home. They had thrown away a 2-0 lead in less than ten minutes. They got it back in five. Branco just smashed a free kick low and hard, in that sort of way nobody does anymore. It went straight in and, once again, Brazil just had to see it out.
The first two editions (West Germany in 1990 and Brazil in 1994) will be free to read, while the rest will be for paid subscribers only. The first three articles will definitely come out this week (along with part two of the stats explainer), and I will try to get the fourth done as well, but I can’t guarantee it will be finished in time. The other parts of the series will come out on rest days during the World Cup.
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