A Controversial World Cup – The New York Times
The World Cup starts today in Qatar. The games, which normally start in late spring or summer, have been pushed to accommodate the desert country’s climate – one of the many reasons why this is a weird World Cup.
The best national football teams will compete for the title of world champion. About a billion people are expected to watch the final on December 18. Tariq Panja, sports reporter for The Times, is at the tournament (where it’s still around 85 degrees). I spoke with him about the scandals surrounding the event and what to expect from the games.
Lauren: I grew up in Arkansas, where we watched a different kind of football. Can you give me an idea of the scale of the World Cup globally?
Tariq: There’s nothing bigger than that, not even the Olympics. The World Cup is the most watched event in the world. It happens every four years, and it’s a highlight of many people’s lives.
These 32 teams capture the imagination of supporters even outside their borders, especially in Asia, where historically most countries do not qualify for the World Cup. People can adopt a team and support them with fervent passion.
This is the fourth World Cup you’ve covered. How is this one different?
This is the first time the games are played in November and December. Due to the desert heat in Qatar, the schedule had to be changed, upsetting the entire world football calendar. European football, for the first time, was put on hiatus halfway through the season. Players now have less time to train with their national teams.
These games have normally been held in different cities of major countries, such as Russia, Brazil or South Africa. This is the smallest venue to ever host this tournament.
In 2009, Qatar submitted the most extravagant bid in history to host the World Cup. Why did he want to host so badly?
Qatar is a tiny speck in the Gulf desert that wants the world to know it’s there. It is the first Arab and Muslim nation to host a sporting event of this magnitude. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are watching with envy, giving weight to Qatar.
In 2009, Qatar spent tens of millions of dollars trying to host the World Cup. They paid famous athletes like Zinedine Zidane, one of the best players in history, to support their candidacy. Still, Qatar’s candidacy seemed like a joke. It was such a weird concept. They were getting questions about the heat, how they could hold the games in a country smaller than Connecticut, and whether they would allow alcohol.
When the then FIFA president opened the envelope and the name Qatar came out, everyone immediately focused on corruption. The ensuing investigations forced FIFA to change the way it named a host and revealed how a country was able to bend the world to its will through the force of money.
You arrived in Qatar last week. What do you see?
Everything here looks shiny and newly built. It’s like a country with that new car smell. The clearest thing is that it is very hot – and it is close to winter. There is very strong sunlight bouncing off the concrete that has been laid for all the new buildings. They also banned the sale of beer to fans in stadiums.
How did Qatar manage to prepare? Tell us about the controversy surrounding this tournament.
They basically had to rebuild an entire country in 12 years to host this month-long event. They brought together hundreds of thousands of foreign workers, especially South Asian workers, to do this construction. Thousands of these workers have died in Qatar since 2010, the year the country was granted reception rights, according to human rights groups. Many more have been injured building or renovating these eight air-conditioned stadiums, which Qatar will have little use for after the World Cup. It was a collision between some of the poorest people in the world and the ambition of some of the richest people in the world.
The country’s human rights record has come under scrutiny beyond worker deaths. A key aspect of this is Qatar’s criminalization of homosexuality. The World Cup is supposed to be that party open to everyone. How does that square with a country that would jail you for being gay?
FIFA President Gianni Infantino brushed off the outrage yesterday, calling it “hypocrisy” by European countries. He asked fans to criticize him instead of Qatar.
Some European football fans are calling on people to boycott matches. What would you say to someone weighing this decision?
It’s a conversation people all over the world are having, and it speaks to the unsettling nature of this tournament. It’s up to everyone to find out for themselves. But from the players’ point of view, it’s not their fault. This is the position in which FIFA has placed them.
Ultimately, however, this tournament could be held on the moon, and it would attract the same number of eyeballs.. Soon, most of the world will be talking only about what matchups look like.
What do you watch in matches?
Everything is politicized. Iran is under intense scrutiny due to its domestic protests; a French player, Eduardo Camavinga, received racist messages on social networks; some Argentinian fans created a mean and racist song about another French player, Kylian Mbappé.
In terms of football, watch out for Brazil. They have a very deep team. Then there is Argentina. This may be the last World Cup for one of the sport’s greats, Lionel Messi. And a non-European team hasn’t won the tournament since 2002. So maybe it’s time to end that 20-year wait.
The first game of the tournament, Qatar vs. Ecuador, begins at 11 a.m. Eastern Time. The United States will play their first match tomorrow at 2 p.m. against Wales. Register for our World Cup updates.
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Talk: Brian Eno on the purpose of art.
Read the full issue.
THE WEEK AHEAD
Alaska will tally the ranked ballots on Wednesday, likely resolving its Senate and House races.
Thursday is Thanksgiving Day. At Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York, new balloons include characters from the “Minions” movie series and the “Bluey” cartoon.
Friday marks Native American Heritage Day, as well as Black Friday, the traditional start of the holiday shopping season.
What to cook this week
Emily Weinstein’s advice for the days leading up to Thanksgiving: keep dinner simple, avoid sugary or pasty foods, and skip the roast chicken (too close to turkey). Instead, try a dish of orzo with spinach and feta, fettuccine Alfredo swirled with crispy chili, or baked pasta with cheese which is great for a crowd.
Four days to go: Buying wine is one of the easiest parts of preparing for Thanksgiving. Eric Asimov has some advice.
NOW IT’S TIME TO PLAY