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Opinion: On covering the World Cup in Qatar

What obligations does a Tottenham blog have in covering a controversial World Cup?

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I love the World Cup. I always have. I grew up playing youth-level football in grade school with my local YMCA league, but it wasn’t until World Cup 1994, hosted by the United States, where like so many other Americans my interest really took hold. Watching soccer was an alien concept back in those days, and it just wasn’t a sport that permeated the American consciousness at all until 31 of the best international football nations sent teams to USA.

As an 18 year old, freshly graduated from high school, I watched transfixed as the world came together to play this sport that I only really knew from a few summers playing as a grade school kid. It was spectacular. It’s what got me to fall in love with soccer as a spectator sport, not just a childhood game. And while my obsession with club football has led me to grumble about international fixtures interrupting my chosen team’s schedule and injuring my favorite players, and the football itself is usually not stellar, the spectacle is incredible.

There’s something about the international aspect of the World Cup, and the fact that it only happens once every four years — watching nations compete against nations for true sporting world supremacy is intended to foster a special feeling of togetherness that bridges differences between nations. It’s cheesy, but it’s one reason why I have always looked forward to it.

I can’t this time. Not this World Cup. Not in this country. The World Cup in Qatar has been a gigantic mess of corruption, scandal, and human rights abuses from the moment it was awarded to the host country twelve years ago. Even then, it was unfathomable that FIFA would award such a prestigious tournament to a tiny desert country smaller than Connecticut, with little in the way of soccer infrastructure, and with summer temperatures that could reach as high as 110º F.

It turns out that initial skepticism was warranted. It became clear over time that the process that awarded Qatar the World Cup was rotten all the way through, and FIFA became embroiled in several bribery and corruption scandals that led to the indictments and resignations of several top officials, including Sepp Blatter, as well as officials in the North American CONCACAF federation. The tournament itself, even after Qatar insisted it could hold a major tournament in the summer heat with newfangled “artificial clouds” and air conditioning, was moved from June to winter, a decision that forced nearly every club football league to bend over backwards to accommodate it.

That would be bad enough, but even this pales in comparison to the actions of Qatar itself, a repressive regime that restricts the rights of women within its borders, criminalizes homosexuality, restricts freedom of speech and of the press, and issues harsh penalties for public intoxication and disorderly conduct within its borders. There are significant questions as to what will happen when literally millions of football fans flock to Qatar, along with the inevitably drunken revelry and fan-related behavior that will follow. Some of those fans will be LGBTQ+ supporters of their national teams, traveling at potentially great personal cost, and it is not clear what the Qatari authorities will do and who might get swept up in those actions.

And even that is not the end. According to a report in the Guardian from a year ago, more than 6500 migrant workers have died in Qatar constructing the stadia, airports, roads, and other infrastructure needed to present this tournament, most of them from south Asian nations such as Nepal, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. This death toll is almost certainly an undercount. Migrant workers were subjected to long, brutal hours in stifling heat, housed in squalid conditions, paid poverty-level wages, and were not allowed to change or leave their jobs without permission of their employers, which was rarely given. With very few exceptions, the families of migrant workers killed in Qatar have not been financially compensated. While it should be acknowledged that some worker reforms have been implemented over the past few years, it goes without saying that the Qatari World Cup infrastructure is drenched in blood.

Meanwhile, Qatar has done everything in its power to sweep these, and numerous other issues, under the rug. This includes discounting evidence of migrant deaths and appalling working conditions (and also actively preventing the release of death statistics), to paying football fans with free transportation and tickets to World Cup events in exchange for only saying positive things about the country and the tournament, a scandal that has now caught up American fan group The American Outlaws, according to the New York Times. Qatar hosting this tournament and all of its actions since are an example of extreme “sportswashing,” attempting to lauder a country’s image through the association with and presentation of major sporting events.

Only it’s not working this time. All of this — and more — have left more than a sour taste in the mouths of football fans, human rights organizations, and even nations participating in the tournament itself. Some national federations have issued strong statements of condemnation for Qatari and World Cup officials, and/or expressing support for LGBTQ+ football supporters. The US Soccer Federation is planning on using a rainbow-themed version of its crest in support of LGBTQ+ rights during the tournament. The Danish national team have a (small) protest in their national team kits, with kit makers Hummell washing out Denmark’s details and numbers, making them hard to read. “We don’t wish to be visible during a tournament that has cost thousands of people their lives,” Hummell said in a social media post. “We support the Danish national team all the way, but that isn’t the same as supporting Qatar as a host nation.” All of these items are, essentially, lip service, but important statements nonetheless.

But to date, no nations have decided to extend their protests to their actual participation in the World Cup. The prestige of the tournament is still greater than the negative publicity and attention brought by the host nation. All qualified national teams have opted to play in Qatar and have not boycotted the tournament, much in the same way that no teams declined to participate during the politically charged atmosphere of the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

It’s also exquisitely clear that FIFA itself is complicit, not only with how it awarded the World Cup to Qatar but also everything that has happened after that fact. They are also unwilling to engage with the criticism — FIFA president Gianni Infantino penned an open letter basically begging people to “stick to sports” and pretend that none of this is actually happening.

“Please, let’s now focus on the football! ... We know football does not live in a vacuum and we are equally aware that there are many challenges and difficulties of a political nature all around the world. But please do not allow football to be dragged into every ideological or political battle that exists.”

And that leaves the fans, as they are so often, stuck in the middle. I know of soccer fans here in the United States who are planning to actively boycott this tournament. They will refuse to watch a single minute of it, even as they continue to offer full-throated support to their chosen national team. I know of more fans who are deeply uncomfortable with Qatar’s hosting and the way the tournament is planning on being covered on television in the USA, but who have fallen somewhere on the spectrum of “only watching my team’s matches” to “watching everything but feeling guilty and uncomfortable about it” to “only watching on pirated illegal streams.” There are also plenty of fans who simply don’t care about any of it beyond the football itself. The decision not to engage is also a choice.

What are we, as conscientious football consumers, to do with this situation? What is our responsibility as a loose coalition of individuals when faced with multi-billion dollar corporate sporting forces? What CAN we do?

The truth is, I don’t know. I struggle with this, both as a football fan and as someone who runs a highly-visible football blog that, ostensibly, will be covering this tournament. Should I decline? Just talk about something else for a month with no other football happening, screaming into the void all the while? I’ve thought about it.

But not everyone feels the same way that I do about this issue, and as strongly as I hold my personal convictions, others will make different decisions based on different calculus. That is fair, even if I may disagree. This is a blog for all.

So after careful consideration, I’ve decided that I will watch, engage with, and write on this World Cup, despite my outrage, my sympathy for those affected, and my reservations about how this tournament is going to be covered. I choose not to do it out of a sense of obligation or martyrdom, but because this is something that is important to so many people, and there are ways to do good even when things are bad. Shining a light on the issues at play within Qatar during the World Cup feels like a small way that I can help, in addition to covering the final scores of the matches and the player statistics.

This is a Tottenham Hotspur aggregator blog, and I feel as though it can be an important information source during the World Cup in a limited way. I plan to focus most of the coverage on the 12 Spurs players who are participating, and their respective national teams. For those who will be watching, Carty Free can be what it always is — a meeting place for discussion about the games, the players, and the issues that stem from the tournament. For those who choose not to watch, and I fully support their decision to do so, this can be a place where they can read about the players they follow in North London and elsewhere, and follow along if they choose with the results.

And if there are important stories about the World Cup that are important and deserve a (slightly) bigger outreach, I’ll shine a light on them too. That may involve some Spurs players as well, such as Hugo Lloris’ tone-deaf press conference answer about wearing a rainbow armband as France captain.

But I’d like to suggest something else as well. For those of you who will be watching this World Cup (and also those of you who won’t be!), consider also donating some money to a charity that supports and upholds human rights. For this purpose, I’ve chosen Amnesty International, but Human Rights Watch is also an excellent organization. Really, any charity important to you is fine. Maybe commit to a small donation — $2, say — for each match that you watch. It’s not much, and those funds will go to a good cause that helps people, and may help offset in a small way some of the damage that has been done or may be done by this World Cup. It might make you feel a little better knowing that you’ve done something good.

At its best the World Cup is one of the most entertaining spectacles in modern sports. Even with everything going on, there will still be outstanding matches, compelling storylines, players who rise from obscurity to do amazing things on the pitch, and teams that underperform expectations. It’s fun. It’s why we love football.

As we have seen numerous times over the years, football can be a force for good and catalyst for change, and it doesn’t have to be a contradiction to be interested in a tournament while still being critical of the sociopolitical issues that surround it. We should continue to hold countries and organizations accountable for their failures. It is especially important in THIS World Cup, with so many migrant workers dead in order to build the stadiums that we see on our screens, that we fully engage with the issues surrounding Qatar’s human rights abuse record, and also the greater issues of agency, money, and power in one of the world’s most popular sports. To do less than that is to ensure that these same issues will pop up again and again in future World Cups, and elsewhere.