Four years after Russian sportswashing, we're in for a repeat in Qatar

Just like the 2018 World Cup, flags will wave in Qatar, and billions will tune in

World Cup history is repeating itself, first as grotesque cynicism and then a travesty of what it purports to be.

In 2012 the fateful decisions were taken to award the 2018 and 2022 tournaments to Russia and Qatar respectively. How those outcomes were reached reeked of sleaze and corruption from the start. A decade later and some of those initial judgements seem almost charitable.

Even by Fifa standards the selection process was a rank exercise in sprinting to the bottom of the financial barrel. Practically half the selection committee were subsequently either banned, suspended or prosecuted for corruption.

But those deals to provide what were even then obvious vanity projects for unscrupulous leaderships got done and were allowed stand, even when the sinister implications of staging ‘the greatest show on earth’ in Russia were clear to everybody before a ball got kicked.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 produced lots of diplomatic ‘tut-tut’ noises and little actual pay-back. Neither did carnage provoked by Russian involvement in Syria dent determination for the show to go on.

The shooting down by pro-Russian separatists of the Malaysian airline jet MH17 over the Donetsk region, with the loss of all 298 people on board, got denounced in a spirit akin to Neville Chamberlain’s line about quarrels in far-away countries between people of whom we know nothing.

Hindsight casts a sorry light on such flippancy. But little foresight was required at the time to realise that allowing Vladimir Putin’s abnormal regime wrap itself around the normality of the biggest sports tournament of all was an affront to what sport is supposed to stand for.

Sure enough, Russia 2018 ticked the usual boxes, all the pomp and ceremony, public platitudes about the brotherhood of nations, yet another group of death, all of it minutely examined by global media with skin in the game of inflating each tournament’s twist and turn to monumental significance.

It could hardly have served Putin’s purposes better.

Failure to lose even a football tournament over invading territory and shooting down aircraft further encouraged his instincts towards acting with impunity. Rather than meaningful censure, his only World Cup impediment was the queue of football’s great and good desperate to board the gravy train.

It stopped at every profitable station in Russia and then some, allowing a ruthless autocrat rinse his fetid regime through a tournament in a classic case of ‘sports-washing.’

Repeat rinse

And now we’re back on track for a repeat rinse in Qatar this November, thankfully minus the more sinister aspects but still up to par in cynical calculation.

Once again it hasn’t been a straightforward run-in. The absurdity of staging the World Cup in a tiny Gulf state, with all the logistical and organisational difficulties involved, has been well aired over the last decade.

Extensive coverage has also taken place of the plight of those huge numbers of migrant workers lured to the Gulf to build the infrastructure required. Precisely nailing down the human cost is all but impossible because of the sheer scale of the entire enterprise but thousands have lost their lives.

But despite such widespread condemnation World Cup momentum has been remorseless.

It’s an appropriate irony that the group stage draw took place on April 1st with an implicit invitation to forget all that dreary human rights stuff and focus instead on the football as the countdown to November 21st begins in earnest.

Sure enough, the football world is taking up that invitation. But it shouldn’t deflect people’s attention from just how deeply preposterous this all is.

Such were the vested interests in awarding football’s greatest tournament to a tiny desert state that only afterwards did it seem to occur to those in charge about it getting quite hot in the Middle East during the summer.

As a result, the game’s European powerhouse leagues are going to grind to a halt so the health of some of their best players won’t be compromised in a football outpost that has zero pedigree in world football.

Just like Russia four years ago, flags will wave, and billions will tune in to watch the latest cartoon heroes and villains doing their stuff on the pitch

Over 1.5 million people - half the population of Qatar - will travel for the tournament although there is reportedly only accommodation for 175,000 in the whole place. Admittedly a pair of luxury liners will be employed as floating hotels too.

Once there, football fans, a cohort not famed for restraint, face slaloming their way around the local culture that includes a tricky situation with alcohol.

Drinking will be permitted in designated fans zones but not in public spaces like the street. It’s an offence to be drunk in public in Qatar with penalties of up to six months in jail. Throw in advice to wear ‘modest and respectful’ clothing and it begs the question as to what could go wrong?


The Netherlands manager Louis Van Gaal recently said the World Cup taking place in Qatar is "ridiculous" and succinctly dismissed Fifa's supposed rationale about developing the game in this tiny pinprick of desert as "bullshit."

That his comments came in a tone of resignation was hardly surprising. Everyone knows he’s correct, just as he knows that pointing it out will change nothing.

More party-line contributions, such as those by Harry Kane about ambitions to somehow "shine a light" on difficult issues by doing what Fifa and Qatar want in the first place are indicative of a general sense of it now being time to get on with the football.

Soccer’s stock narrative is kicking in, wrapping the beautiful game’s legitimacy around a deeply contemptuous exercise in corporate greed and political expediency.

Just like Russia four years ago, flags will wave, and billions will tune in to watch the latest cartoon heroes and villains doing their stuff on the pitch.

The corruption will get ignored, just as discriminatory laws against the LGBTQ community in Qatar will be parked to the side, and everyone can focus on the action in stadiums that cost thousands of lives to build while congratulating themselves on the game’s values and commitment to truth and justice.

Something to look forward to.