The first ten days were soccer as it is, rather than as you want it to be.
By Sam Knight – December 3, 2022
Asmiling ghost came up through the floor. La’eeb, the mascot of this year’s World Cup, in Qatar, is a bodiless figure in a thobe, the white gown favored by the men of the Arabian Peninsula. He materialized during the tournament’s opening ceremony, sometime after Morgan Freeman asked Ghanim al-Muftah, a Qatari YouTuber, who was born without legs, whether he was welcome in the country—he was—and before Jung Kook, of the Korean boy band BTS, sent the mostly Qatari crowd into a conservative mode of ecstasy. La’eeb wafted across a spotlighted plain populated by previous mascots, going all the way back to World Cup Willie, a Teddy-bear lion used by England fourteen tournaments ago. For soccer fans, each iteration of the World Cup, which was first staged in Uruguay, in 1930, carries immediate associations: Pavarotti singing “Nessun Dorma” in Italy, in 1990; the vuvuzelas of South Africa, in 2010. The Qatari edition was born in corruption, paid for with hydrocarbons, and built on the labor of hundreds of thousands of workers, imported from the Global South and frequently abused in one of the smallest and richest countries on earth. According to fifa, which owns the World Cup, La’eeb was from “a parallel mascot-verse that is indescribable.” Everyone was encouraged to find his or her own meaning, even if that meaning was death.
The first ten days of the World Cup in Qatar were soccer as it is, rather than as you want it to be. It was venal, closed, and transactional. I saw some terrific goals. I drank Coke and paid with my Visa card. I lined up for the Adidas store. Everything was brand new, air-conditioned, and covered in an almost invisible layer of pale desert dust. I was safe and occasionally delighted, most often by the people I met. It was a case of situational ethics, in which the spontaneity and the fellow-feeling of the world’s most popular sport were disrupted and modified by the circumstances in which it was played.
When I arrived for the opening match, at Al Bayt Stadium—which stands alone in the desert, a soaring industrial confection of a Bedouin tent—I knelt down to pick a sprig of the perfect grass, just to check if it was real. It smelled of nothing at all. (The turf at the World Cup is a trademarked seashore paspalum imported from the United States; each field is irrigated with ten thousand litres of desalinated water a day.) There was camel shit, and that was real, too. At night, in the capital, Doha, you were never more than ten yards from a crowd marshal, waving a green or a red light stick, showing you where to go. The scores of ongoing games were projected onto the flanks of skyscrapers, which winked across the city. It was like being inside a QR code.
Qatar is smaller than Connecticut. All but three teams were based in Doha, and, unlike at any previous World Cup, it was possible to attend more than one match in a day. The entire world was there, in generally small proportions. I met a Mexican couple on the sparkling new metro, grousing about the lack of beer. “The beer is the atmosphere,” one of them said. Canadian fans discussed the rumored electronic surveillance. (The German authorities advised visitors to wipe their phones after using Qatar’s Hayya app, which functioned as both a visa and a pass for the tournament.) Welsh supporters were ordered to remove their rainbow-colored bucket hats.
Doha is a city of six-lane highways and unwalked sidewalks. There are compounds in every shade of beige. Away from the stadiums and the malls, there was never anybody around, which gave rise to an occasional feeling of going to the World Cup alone. One morning, I tried to find the Dutch team, which was training at a facility on the Qatar University campus. The campus, a vast maze of roads and checkpoints, was closed. (Qatar’s school and university semesters ended early, to make way for the tournament.) No one knew where the team was. Instead, I stopped by Caravan City, a trailer park for fans, where a windswept gravel plain was decorated here and there with simple stone mosaics of flowers. I bumped into Jaime Higuera, from New Jersey, who was staying in a trailer with his brother. The trailer was sweet enough, decorated with paintings of stags. Outside, there was not a soul to be seen. “I’m, like, ‘Are there other people staying here?’ ” Higuera said. “I don’t know.”
fifa awarded Qatar the rights to host the World Cup on December 2, 2010. On the same day, the organization’s executive committee voted to give Russia the 2018 edition. Of the twenty-two men who voted, fifteen were later indicted by American or Swiss prosecutors, banned from soccer, charged by fifa’s ethics committee, or expelled from the International Olympic Committee. External advisers pointed out that Qatar did not have a single suitable stadium, that it was a potential security risk, and that temperatures in the summer reach a hundred and ten degrees. (The tournament was originally scheduled for June and July.) In the following twelve years, the World Cup catalyzed a breathtaking construction boom in Qatar, which relied overwhelmingly on migrant workers from South Asia. Human-rights organizations reported deaths, poor workplace safety, and misery among unpaid workers, who were trapped in Qatar’s unequal immigration system. Gay and trans people expressed shock that the World Cup would be held in a country where homosexual activity and all forms of extramarital sex are punishable by up to seven years’ imprisonment. “It’s not just sad, it’s sick,” Thomas Hitzlsperger, a gay former member of the German national team, told the Guardian.
On November 8th, twelve days before the tournament began, Sepp Blatter, the former president of fifa, admitted that Qatar had been “a bad choice.” His successor, Gianni Infantino, said that it would be the best World Cup ever. He wrote to the thirty-two teams taking part and asked them to focus on soccer, “without handing out moral lessons to the rest of the world.”
The day before the opening, Infantino addressed some four hundred reporters in an auditorium in Doha. “Today, I have very strong feelings,” he began. “Today I feel Qatari. Today I feel Arab. Today I feel African. Today I feel gay. Today I feel disabled. Today I feel a migrant worker.” Infantino recalled his own struggles, as the child of Italian migrants in Switzerland. He was bullied because of something red on his hands. He asked his director of communications what these were called. “Freckles,” Infantino said. He berated the reporters for not writing more about disabled people. “Nobody cares,” he said. He mourned the deaths of African migrants at sea in the Mediterranean, attempting to reach a better life: “Where are we going? Where are we going with our way of working, guys?”
Whatever Infantino was trying to say, it didn’t make much more sense than the words of “Tukoh Taka,” the insanely catchy anthem of the tournament’s Fan Festival, which took place on a shadeless, concrete expanse, not far from Doha’s waterfront: “Some say ‘football,’ some say ‘soccer’ / Likkle shot go block-a (block-a).” Thank you, Nicki Minaj. Or a TikTok video that circulated showing some England fans, apparently from Liverpool, who were having a good time in Doha—just having a moosh, in their words—on the lookout for some beer, ending up in a rich Qatari’s house and playing with his pet lion.
Abandoned by politicians, who don’t like to offend Qatar, which is the world’s largest exporter of liquid natural gas, players and coaches had to juggle an impossible multiplex of sports, human rights, and authoritarian capitalism. Gregg Berhalter, the head coach of the United States team, addressed a press conference before the team’s first game, against Wales, like a marine colonel trying to explain an air strike on civilians. “We don’t necessarily reflect the view of Infantino,” he said. A group of European team captains, including England’s Harry Kane, who had planned to wear rainbow-colored “One Love” armbands, to show their support for L.G.B.T.Q. rights, changed their minds when they were threatened with yellow cards by fifa. The Iranian players showed their Western counterparts what actual courage looked like, by refusing to sing their national anthem, in solidarity with recent protests against the clerical regime.
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The Qataris, to varying degrees, were terrified of the influx. Families installed security cameras and checked their window locks. In the days before the World Cup, social media filled with prayers and stoic messages for the test ahead. “I was, like, ‘This is very strange,’ because it’s the type of stuff you would say or tweet, like, literally, when you’re going to war,” a young Qatari, whom I will call Ali, told me. (Qatar ranks a hundred and nineteenth out of a hundred and eighty on Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index, below Ethiopia. In this article, single names are pseudonyms.) Two days before the opening ceremony and the first match, between Qatar and Ecuador, the authorities reneged on an agreement to allow beer to be served at the stadiums. On the day of the game, which Ali was preparing to attend with his siblings, his father announced that his youngest sister wasn’t going. “There’s this huge fear,” Ali said. “My parents always talked about: What if people don’t leave—they come here for the World Cup and just, like, start selling drugs or doing whatever?”
After the opening ceremony, I talked with a group of young Qatari men who were hanging out in the stadium concourse. Qatari society is considered the most conservative of the six nations of the Gulf: Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar’s great rival, the United Arab Emirates. The men almost always wear national dress: an ironed white thobe and a white headdress kept in place by a black cord called an agal. Women cover their heads and wear the abaya, a long black gown. At a 2019 soccer match between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the Saudis teased the Qataris for coming as if dressed for a wedding. Mohammed Hussein, who was twenty-five, seemed preternaturally calm. “This is our culture,” he said. “This is us.” He had never been to a soccer match before.
The teams took to the pitch. “Al Bayt Stadium, the wait is over!” the announcer yelled. Qatar, whose team plays in deep red and is nicknamed the Maroon, has never qualified for a World Cup on merit. (The host country always plays.) The team wasn’t terrible. In 2019, Qatar won the Asian Cup and was ranked fiftieth in the world, only six places below Ecuador. But the Qatari players were nervous. Their passing was scrappy. The ball wouldn’t stick. In the stands, Qatari fans chatted with one another, including with people they didn’t already know—something that rarely happens in public places. “All those rules just kind of disappeared in the stadium,” Ali said.
Ecuador scored two goals in the first thirty-one minutes. The team’s supporters chanted, “Queremos cerveza! ” We want beer. Behind the Qatar goal, a bloc of hard-core fans, dressed in maroon T-shirts, kept up an impressive performance of drumming and chanting for the home team. But they weren’t wearing thobes and seemed to have a lot of tattoos. It turned out that they were Lebanese.
At halftime, the Budweiser fridges stood empty and unlabelled. Fans prayed near a Visa-gift-card stand. I came across Garga Umaru, a broad man dressed in a tall straw hat and a long gown in the colors of Cameroon. He was offering to pose for photos with Qatari children. “Cameroon, no problem!” he called out. Speaking quietly, Umaru was skeptical of the host country’s chances. “Qatar is not at the level of the World Cup,” he said. “Football is in the feet.” Umaru said that he was one of about two hundred fans who had been flown in from Cameroon. He wasn’t sure which soccer federation had paid for the trip. Ahmed, a Syrian Palestinian in his twenties, who had grown up in Qatar, was worried about how the team was playing. “The pass accuracy is just horrible,” he said. No host country had ever lost the opening match of a World Cup; Ahmed feared that Qatar might not score a single goal in the tournament. “All the pressure is getting to them,” he said.
Ecuador remained in complete control in the second half. Seats began to empty. Qatari families, who had clapped politely during the first half, made for their Land Cruisers. “In the West, the idea is to say, ‘I’m here for you till the end. And I cheer for you,’ ” a Qatari who left at halftime told me later. “Here, though, the approach, it’s more ‘Hey! I came all the way here to see you. . . . You should have been playing better than that.’ ” Ali and his siblings stuck it out until the eighty-second minute. Then they left to beat the traffic.
Nobody knows how many people died building the World Cup. Last year, the Guardian reported that sixty-seven hundred and fifty South Asian migrants had died in Qatar since the hosting rights were awarded—a total derived from figures collected by foreign embassies. In response, Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, the state body in charge of preparing the tournament, said that the true number was thirty-seven, of whom only three had died in workplace accidents. (During the tournament, the Supreme Committee revised the estimate of the dead to about five hundred.)
Trying to disentangle World Cup-related deaths and hardship from Qatar’s over-all economic structure is a mostly hopeless task. Doha’s infrastructure projects involve a mille-feuille of international contractors and subcontractors—an ecosystem of plausible deniability. Causes of death are haphazardly reported, and the default categories (“natural causes,” “cardiac arrest”) change from year to year. Autopsies, particularly of poorer migrants, are rarely performed. Barrak Alahmad, a Kuwaiti public-health researcher at Harvard, told me that heat exposure, for example, almost never turns up in official statistics. “Good luck finding people dying from heat, because you’re not going to find a problem,” he said. “No data, no problem. That’s it.”
It’s probably a mistake, in fact, to try to disentangle the World Cup from anything that has happened in Qatar. The Qatari Investment Authority, which manages an estimated four hundred and fifty billion dollars, didn’t build a stage for a soccer tournament; it built a city to encompass the stage. The World Cup cost more than two hundred billion dollars (that’s around sixty times the expense of the 2010 tournament, in South Africa), but the price tag included the metro system, an airport extension, bridges, man-made islands, fighter jets, a collapsible stadium, and a bulk order of five-star hotels. Doha tripled in size during the twenty-tens. The population of Qatar increased by a million people, or sixty per cent. A lot of that growth probably would have happened without the World Cup. “Doha has been ‘under construction’ since I was born,” Ali said. “Road closures or towers or new cities or whatever aren’t really a new sight.” The World Cup, as much as anything, was a deadline.
The work was done by migrants. Qataris make up about twelve per cent of the country’s population—a ruling class of around three hundred thousand people. Of the 805,810 workers in the construction sector in 2017, 0.0016 per cent were Qatari nationals. “You’re going to see two different populations living in the same country,” Alahmad told me, before I travelled to Doha. “And the migrant population is just invisible to public policy.” Throughout the Gulf, health inequality between full citizens and the thirty million migrant workers is structural and endemic. It takes in everything from housing to diet, workplace safety, and mental health. According to the Vital Signs Partnership, a coalition of migrant-advocacy groups, more than half of the estimated ten thousand annual deaths of South Asian workers in the region are “effectively unexplained.” In 2019, researchers concluded that around a third of almost six hundred deaths among young, otherwise healthy Nepali migrants in Qatar could have been prevented. Other studies have reported that CKDnt, a chronic kidney condition linked to dehydration, is disproportionately common among laborers in the region. In 2018, a survey of Nepali workers who had spent more than six months in either the Gulf or Malaysia found that a quarter suffered from mental-health problems. Alahmad explained that, in public health, you expect a society’s working population—younger, fitter, with fewer disabilities—to be in better shape than the rest. But, in the Gulf, the opposite is true. “I look at this, I’m astonished,” he said. “But then you look at all the list of things that can explain this, and it’s kind of clear.”
Qatar was like this before it was Qatar. (The country gained independence in 1971.) Before gas, there were pearls. “We are all, from the highest to the lowest, slaves of one master, the pearl,” Sheikh Mohammed bin Thani, the first emir, said, in 1863. Many of the divers who swam down to the pearl beds off the coast of Doha were African slaves. In 1916, Qatar became a British protectorate. But slavery was abolished only in 1952, when six hundred and sixty slaves were freed, with compensation of fifteen hundred rupees (three hundred and fifteen dollars) per person, paid to their owners.
The modern labor system is largely a product of Arab nationalism and civil unrest, which began in the fifties, when Qatar’s resident population objected to being displaced from jobs on the new, British-administered oil fields by better-paid Indian and Pakistani workers. In 1961, everyone who could prove residence in Qatar before 1930 was offered citizenship. Everybody else needed to have a kafeel, or sponsor, to be able to work in the country. The kafeel could exert onerous control over a worker’s life and movements. “This is a labor system based on temporary labor,” Natasha Iskander, a migration scholar at New York University, told me. She did field work for three years among migrants in Doha’s construction sector, before her research was shut down, in 2014. “Every single aspect of their rights and protections are tied to their economic function,” she said. In 2020, following negative publicity surrounding the building of the World Cup, Qatar abolished its kafala system (the system is still in place elsewhere in the Gulf), but many of its principles remain intact. “The kafala system, under its current reform, is more protective than temporary-guest-worker legislation in the U.S.,” Iskander said. “But it’s not the law that determines conditions at work—it’s the power dynamics.”
Qataris often emphasize the diversity of the national population; the second emir referred to Qatar as the “Kaaba of the dispossessed,” a refuge for exiles and traders across the Middle East. At the same time, the separation of the Qatari people from the foreign migrants who work for them is woven into the fabric of the country. Doha’s zoning laws designate separate neighborhoods for Qatari families and for “bachelors,” as the migrant laborers are known.
“There’s not a single South Asian who comes to Qatar that thinks he’s going to come and spend the rest of his life here,” a prominent Qatari businessman, Khalid, told me. When I asked Khalid about the country’s recent census, he described it as fake—meaning that it didn’t refer to real Qataris. “The population of Qatar is built around how many people are needed to work in the country,” he said. “The day you don’t have these construction projects, most of these people are just going to eventually be served their end of service. ‘Thank you very much. And now it’s time for you to go back home.’ ”
In 2020, E. Tendayi Achiume, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, described Qatar as a “de facto caste system based on national origin,” in which domestic workers were denied food, and women from sub-Saharan Africa were subjected to sexual abuse. Last year, Qatar introduced a minimum wage—two hundred and seventy-five dollars a month. The starting salary for a Qatari college graduate is around ten thousand dollars a month. “You do have the dichotomy in the approach between your own people, if you will, and the others,” Khalid said. “Those other guys, we don’t know them. We don’t trust them. We’re scared of them.”
Since 2006, a new city has been under construction to the north of Doha. Lusail, which will cost forty-five billion dollars to build, is one of the largest developments in the Middle East. According to its marketing spiel, Lusail will be “a beacon of smart living,” a pleasure dome of international hotels and underground parking. Qatar’s wealth and its quiescent civil society—political parties are banned; there are no independent media—make it a testing ground for extreme urban planning. Iskander described Lusail as a modernist imaginary. “The city is for the élite,” she said. “And it’s not just for the élite—it makes the élites. It creates an élite kind of life style, where, you know, everything is climate-controlled, everything is perfect. You’re highly surveilled. But everything is seamless.”
The World Cup final will take place at Lusail Stadium, an eighty-thousand-seat arena meant to evoke a handcrafted golden bowl. On the third day of the tournament, I visited the Place Vendôme, a fancy mall in downtown Lusail. A mobility scooter modelled on a stretch limousine waited outside a storefront bursting with luxuriant flowers. The brands—Cole Haan, Birkenstock, Nespresso, Skechers—were soothing and familiar. Outside, a sun-bleached futurama showed the rest of the unbuilt Vendôme neighborhood, complete with canals and two women in abayas, emerging from a black Rolls-Royce. Workers in blue overalls and high-visibility vests rested in the shade of an overpass. I stopped by one of the finished apartment blocks, where the rents are about four thousand dollars a month. “I would say it is the next big thing,” the building manager said. “It is a luxury city.” He was Lebanese and had been in Doha for three years. I asked him what he had learned there. He thought for a moment. “It’s a country for work, actually,” he said. “You don’t have to care about basic things.”
It is unclear who will live in Lusail. The city is projected to have around two hundred thousand permanent residents, which is two-thirds of the native Qatari population. But Qataris don’t tend to live in apartments—at least not when they’re in Qatar. “We’re closer to an L.A. standard of living than a New York or a London or a Paris,” Khalid explained. “Most Qataris live in big houses. They have aides at home. They go to these towers and it’s all two-bedroom apartments, three-bedroom apartments. As Qataris, what are we going to do with that?” There are perhaps two hundred thousand white-collar migrants in the country. But, with rare exceptions, it is impossible for foreigners to own property in Doha. The logical way to populate Lusail would be to relax the country’s migration laws and some of its social strictures—to create another Dubai—but that won’t happen anytime soon. Hosting the World Cup has emphasized the contradiction between Qatar’s international posturing and its cultural conservativism, which many Qataris regard as a deeply precious thing, along with their free electricity, free health care, free education, free land, eternal job security, and interest-free loans. “You see a duality—a struggle between wanting to be international and wanting to be left alone. The duality between playing global but staying local,” Khalid told me. “I don’t want to turn into an HSBC ad, but that is the reality.”
The first game at Lusail Stadium was Argentina against Saudi Arabia, or Lionel Messi versus someone or other. Argentina won the World Cup in 1978 and 1986, but since then it has often been the nearly team, full of wonderful players who can’t quite get it together. Nobody is more wonderful than Messi, who played and lost in Argentina’s last World Cup final, in 2014. He is thirty-five now. In the course of five tournaments, he has morphed from an elfin presence with shoulder-length hair, who floated across the turf, to an underslept dad, stepping out to buy some milk. During the warmup against Saudi Arabia, there must have been forty players on the field, going through drills, but the crowd watched only him. Messi stood outside the penalty area, taking casual potshots at the goal. Thousands oohed and gasped each time. When a shot hit the crossbar, he ambled away, apparently satisfied.
Messi walks a disconcerting amount during a match. Other soccer players, when they are not involved in the action, often jog to stay in position. Messi pads about. He has a low-slung dancer’s waddle. The game is elsewhere. Then, by magnetism, or spatial genius, or because it’s a good idea to pass to Lionel Messi, he has the ball, and eighty thousand people shift in their seats. Against Saudi Arabia, which had won one match at the World Cup in twenty-eight years, Messi nearly scored with his first or second touch of the ball, after a minute and forty seconds. Eight minutes later, he scored a penalty, rolling the ball to the right of Mohammed al-Owais, the Saudi goalkeeper. Everyone was pretty happy about it, even the Saudi fans. For the rest of the half, the Argentinean players kept trying to spring open the Saudi offside trap. Lautaro Martinez, a striker for Inter Milan, dinked the ball into the net, but the goal was disallowed by fifa’s new semiautomated Video Assistant Referee. After years of rejecting technological assistance, to preserve the human fallibility of the game, fifa was tracking players across twenty-nine body parts, fifty times per second, at the World Cup. The official match ball carried an inertial measurement unit. Offside decisions came down to the width of a nose hair.
At halftime, I met Ali al-Khaldi, a twenty-three-year-old ambulance dispatcher from Dhahran, an oil town on the coast of Saudi Arabia. Khaldi had worked the night shift before boarding a plane to Doha. He hadn’t slept since the previous day. “The offside trap is working perfectly,” he said. Argentina had not lost for thirty-six matches, a streak lasting more than three years. Khaldi said that he would be happy with a 3–0 defeat, as long as Messi scored a hat trick.
Three minutes into the second half, Saleh al-Shehri, a twenty-nine-year-old forward, playing in his first World Cup game, burst through the Argentinean defense and placed a shot past Emiliano Martinez, the startled goalkeeper. The screens in the stadium flashed green, showing the Saudi sword. Then the Green Falcons went ahead. The ball fell to Salem al-Dawsari, a veteran winger who once played a single game in the Spanish league. He pushed it out from under his feet and swiped a vicious rising shot past Martinez. Apparently, it was Dawsari’s signature move. The stadium went berserk. Dawsari performed a cartwheel and then a backflip. I looked at Khaldi, who put his hands over his face and then kissed his friend. He looked like he was having a panic attack.
The Saudis played like giants after that. Hassan al-Tambakti, a young defender from Riyadh, celebrated his tackles like goals. Mohammed Kanno, a tall, leggy midfielder, shadowed Messi everywhere he went. When the Argentinean fans, who came to Qatar in great numbers, tried to rouse their team, the Saudi fans waved their hands and whistled, to show that they were not scared. Messi picked the lock once or twice, squirting the ball to Argentina’s forwards, but the Saudis smothered them each time. Owais, the goalkeeper, came flying out and crashed into Yasser al-Shahrani, the team’s tigerish left back, fracturing his jaw. Celebrating in the din, Khaldi was hoarse: “The atmosphere is crazy. The result is stunning. The vibe is . . .” He could not describe the vibe. “I have the worst headache. It’s killing me.” Saudi fans streamed out in the golden light, into the modernist imaginary of Lusail, calling “olé”s and baiting the Argentinean fans. Three Saudis rolled out a Green Falcons prayer mat and turned in the direction of Mecca.
The Saudi victory kick-started the tournament. Spain defeated Costa Rica by seven goals to zero. Pablo Martín Páez Gavira, an eighteen-year-old midfielder known as Gavi, slanted in the fifth goal with the outside of his boot, becoming the World Cup’s youngest scorer since Pelé. A few hours earlier, Japan had defeated Germany, 2–1. The Germans are no longer the same team that won the World Cup eight years ago, in Brazil, but they cruised through the first seventy minutes, with a one-goal lead. The Blue Samurai equalized with a quarter of the game to go before Takuma Asano, a bleached-blond winger, squeezed the ball past Manuel Neuer, Germany’s imperious goalkeeper and captain, like a cat slipping through a closing door.
The Qataris cheered the underdogs. “Sometimes when I see people speaking about how there isn’t a football culture here, it really, really, really hurts me,” Asma, a twenty-four-year-old Qatari woman, told me the following day, on Zoom. Asma loves soccer in all forms. She plays midfield. Her younger sister is a mean goalkeeper. “Football is what we grew up playing,” she said. “We play football in the heat, barefoot, and we’re good.” Asma was having trouble leaving the house during the tournament because of all the games that she wanted to catch on TV. “I’m cheering for Japan against Germany by default yesterday,” she said. “Because of this sense of war against the Western countries that is going on.”
Neuer, like the other European captains, had wanted to wear a One Love armband. Before kicking off against Japan, the members of the German team protested their silencing by putting their hands over their mouths. Asma mocked them: “Going”—she covered her mouth—“and then losing it. You know, those things really help me sleep at night.” Like many Qataris, Asma closely followed Western reporting on preparations for the World Cup. She noted that criticism of her country, which once centered on its involvement in corruption at fifa, had moved on to labor conditions and the treatment of L.G.B.T.Q. people. “It’s just, honestly, weird,” Asma said. “It gets to a point where it’s confusing.”
At first, Asma assumed that rival nations were trying to get the location of the tournament changed. But now it seemed as if Qatar couldn’t do anything right. “I don’t know if Westerners do have their own outcome or desired goal to reach,” Asma said. “If they do, and we fail to see it, then it’s all for nothing. They’re not really changing anything, even though they might believe they are.” The fact that Dubai, a popular destination for European soccer players and their clubs, didn’t seem to attract the same kind of ethical scrutiny drove her crazy. “They go to Dubai and love Dubai,” Asma said. “And they don’t care about migrant workers there. They love to take pictures of Burj Khalifa”—the world’s tallest building—“but they don’t care about the people who build Burj Khalifa. It just gets, like, very confusing from an Arab perspective. Very, very, very confusing.”
After the Germany match, Qatari Twitter was a loop of homophobic memes. La’eeb, the ineffable mascot, held a rainbow banner that was on fire. Skirts were Photoshopped onto the German team. The Japanese were a big hit in Qatar, on account of their extreme cleanliness. A picture of Japanese fans helping to tidy up Khalifa International Stadium, after the team’s victory, was modified to show them putting rainbow flags in the trash.
The political subtexts of the World Cup were many, and updated by the hour. The day before Iran’s second match, against Wales, Voria Ghafouri, a popular former national-team player and a critic of the regime, was detained after training with his team, Foolad Khuzestan—an apparent warning to the players in Qatar. Carlos Queiroz, the team’s Portuguese coach, begged to talk about something else. “Why don’t you ask the other coaches?” he told a reporter from the BBC. “Why don’t you ask Southgate, ‘What do you think about England and the United States that left Afghanistan and all the women alone?’ ”
Gareth Southgate, the English manager, is a centrist, down to his zip-neck polo shirts. He seemed flummoxed by the possibilities. “I think there’s a risk that everybody tries to escalate,” he said at a news conference. “Were we to try to produce a better video than Australia did? That would be impossible.” (The Socceroos made a black-and-white film calling for better treatment of workers and same-sex couples in Qatar.) Southgate asked, “Do we have to come up with a better gesture than Germany?” After the German interior minister was photographed wearing a One Love armband, Qatari fans sported one in support of Palestine. Pan-Arab feeling was strong in Doha. “I’m cheering for all the Arab teams,” Asma said. “I’m cheering for Tunisia, Morocco, Saudi Arabia.” After the victory over Argentina, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, Qatar’s emir, wrapped himself in the Saudi flag.
In early June, 2017, Qatar’s immediate neighbors—Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the U.A.E.—mounted an economic and diplomatic blockade. Air travel between the countries ceased, Qatar’s land border with Saudi Arabia was closed, and Qatari diplomats were expelled. (Egypt, Yemen, and the Maldives also joined the blockade.) The ostensible reasons were Qatar’s willingness to fund and shelter Islamist opposition groups (a long-standing issue—Osama bin Laden was a visitor to Doha in the late nineties) and the activities of Al Jazeera, Qatar’s pesky, state-funded news channel. Donald Trump, a recent visitor to the region, took credit on Twitter: “I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar—look!” He described the blockade as “hard but necessary.” At the time, Qatar imported ninety per cent of its food. There were rumors that Saudi troops were ready to invade.
The blockade, which lasted until January, 2021, had a galvanizing effect on Qatar. Eighteen thousand Holstein cows arrived from the European Union and the U.S. and were housed in the desert. (Qatar is now a dairy exporter.) The blockade was also a reminder of why the country wanted to host the World Cup. The fear of small, preposterously rich nations in the Gulf is what befell Kuwait in 1990, when Iraq invaded and the U.S. Congress had to think for a moment before doing anything about it. “Everything Qatar does arises from its security dilemma of being kind of wedged between these two regional major powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia, both of which the Qataris don’t trust,” Andreas Krieg, a researcher at the School of Security Studies at King’s College London, told me. Krieg spent three years in Doha, in the twenty-tens, establishing a staff college for the Qatari military. “The worst thing that could happen to Qatar is being kind of rendered irrelevant,” he said.
Under the previous emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa, who deposed his father in a coup, in 1995, Qatar modernized aggressively. “We have simply got to reform ourselves,” Sheikh Hamad told The New Yorker, in 2000. “Change, more change, is coming.” Since 2003, Qatar has hosted more than ten thousand U.S. military personnel at Al Udeid Air Base, twenty miles southeast of Doha. “That was like buying a gold-plated insurance policy,” Steven Simon, who worked on Middle East issues at the National Security Council during the Clinton and Obama Administrations, told me. In 2006, Qatar overtook Indonesia as the world’s largest exporter of natural gas. (Revenues were up fifty-eight per cent in 2022, following the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, the previous World Cup host.) The country’s sovereign wealth fund owns Harrods, many billions of dollars’ worth of New York real estate, and a ten-per-cent stake in Volkswagen. A former British diplomat, posted to Doha, told me that a Qatari official once asked him why he thought that the country had invested in a billion-dollar liquid-natural-gas terminal in South Wales. “To sell us gas?” the diplomat ventured. “No,” the official replied. “It is so, when we call, your Prime Minister picks up.”
But gas pipelines and defense agreements and department stores guarantee only so much attention in the Gulf. “We’re not the only ones with a lot of money. We’re not the only ones who are doing these arms deals. . . . So what do you do?” Khalid, the businessman, said. “You buy influence by getting into sports, because that’s where people talk about you.”
People also talk about “sportswashing,” to describe the activities of sovereign wealth funds like Saudi Arabia’s, which recently acquired Newcastle United, an English Premier League soccer team, and plans to spend two billion dollars on liv, a breakaway golf league. The term suggests using sports to launder a lousy reputation. But, in the case of Qatar, staging the World Cup was more about gaining a reputation at all. Even bad publicity—around labor practices and human rights—is publicity. “Criticism will only go so far,” Simon, the former N.S.C. member, said. “The subject is raised, and the Qataris respond politely and with assurances.”
In Doha, people didn’t want to take anything for granted. “I don’t know if Qatar has won or not,” Khalid said. But he had been watching a Netflix documentary about previous World Cups, and he didn’t think that Argentina’s military dictatorship had done too badly out of it, in 1978. Likewise, he recalled anxieties around Brazil’s favelas and the Zika virus in the run-up to the 2014 tournament. “That’s the point. These World Cups come and go,” he said. “But do people remember in the long run? Does this global conscience really exist, or is it a very short-term thing?”
Qatar’s second match was on a Friday, the country’s day of rest. In a restaurant in a busy part of Doha, I met Salim, a young clerical worker from Bangladesh. Salim came to Qatar six years ago, from Chittagong. He paid eighteen thousand Qatari rials (about five thousand dollars) to a middleman to get a job as a building inspector at one of the World Cup stadiums. It took Salim almost two years to earn the money back, and during that time he was terrified of falling foul of his employer, or of any Qatari he happened to meet. “First time when I see Qatari people, I feel afraid,” he said. “Because I thought if I do anything wrong with them . . . they will make any problem.” Salim said that he was encouraged to massage his inspection findings, to allow the project to meet its hasty schedule. “Everyone had a big pressure,” Salim said.
Like other migrant workers in Doha, Salim was caught up in the spectacle of the World Cup. He was also working as a fifa volunteer. “This is very amazing,” he said. He took pride in what he had helped to build but also had a sense that he was disposable. “Me? This guy?” Salim gestured to a cousin he had brought to our meeting. “We are the same like animals. We are doing work. We are getting paid. After finish this project? ‘Yes, you can go. . . . You go to Hell. I don’t care.’ ” Salim helped to document poor labor practices in Qatar, on behalf of a human-rights organization. He had intervened in about twenty cases—ranging from inadequate food to nonpayment of workers—but he explained that it was risky to raise complaints. Trade unions do not exist in Qatar, and Salim’s visa did not cover his advocacy work. “This is not safe for me,” he said. He was nervous about a security camera in one corner of the restaurant.
Salim was considering his options. He missed his wife. They were planning to move to Europe. “I want to go there, and I want to stay there for a long time,” he said. “Until I die, that means.” Salim had found another middleman who might be able to help them get to Spain. The cost was around five thousand dollars.
Qatar is often most shocking in the ways that it resembles the most unequal corners of other societies, including our own. It is the frankness of the Qatari system, more than its iniquity, that is unusual. “This is a common and almost universal kind of setup,” Iskander, the migration scholar, said. “And this is one of the reasons that we are all implicated in the system. It is not, you know, the Qataris behaving badly. It is us, as a global community, really having to confront what it looks like when you rely utterly on a system that deprives people of rights beyond their economic function.”
During her research in Doha, Iskander noted that recruiters targeted communities in parts of South Asia and North Africa that were suffering the impacts of climate change. “Those are the best places to get large numbers of workers very quickly. It makes perfect business sense,” she said. Qatar’s wealth and hustle make it an innovator, rather than an outlier. “Whose bodies are we willing to sacrifice to preserve this system of production?” Iskander said. “I think Qatar is kind of a window onto some of these politics as they emerge.”
In the months leading up to the World Cup, bachelors were evicted from their lodgings in Doha, to make room for tourists and to comply with the city’s zoning laws. Many were moved to the Industrial Area, a district of some twelve square miles, with a population density similar to New Delhi’s. I had tea in the district with a group of laborers and mechanics from Peshawar, Pakistan. A crane operator in his twenties named Imran had been in Doha for a little less than a year. In Pakistan, Imran had worked on fifty-ton cranes, earning about two hundred dollars a month. In Qatar, he had learned to use a hundred-ton crane, with a computer, and was making almost seven times as much. “Crane is all math,” Imran said. “It is a very sensitive subject.” He was working on a development on the waterfront.
Imran was a buoyant, positive soul. But the long, hot days were a killer. He worked twelve-hour shifts and lived an hour’s drive from the construction site. “They have no respect for labor. No respect for other people,” Imran said. When an older relative named Asif joined the conversation, however, Imran deferred to him and agreed that Doha was a good place after all. “People want to show the negative face of this country,” Asif said. “We earn too much money, alhamdulillah.” Asif described critical reporting during the preparation for the World Cup as total bullshit. Until about five months ago, the group of men had lived in Al Wakrah, a suburb south of Doha, where the English team was staying. Their current lodgings were at the rear of a warehouse, the front of which was a scrap yard for old trucks, which were being dismantled for parts to sell in Lebanon and Nigeria. The men slept five to a room. Shalwar kameez, freshly laundered, hung from pegs above their beds. “Wakrah-side was neat and clean,” Imran said. “This side is not neat and clean.” Drinking water was a problem. A vaguely irritating burning smell, from the scrap yard, drifted in the air.
The Industrial Area had a fan zone, a temporary enclosure next to a highway leading out of the city, where workers could follow the World Cup. Like many young men from Pakistan, the laborers from Peshawar weren’t really soccer guys. Next to the fan zone, a game of cricket was taking place in the dust. The fan zone had a large screen and around four thousand plastic garden chairs. Everybody who entered was given a lottery ticket, with a chance to win a water bottle and other merchandise at halftime.
Qatar was playing Senegal, which in its first game had narrowly fallen to the Dutch. I was curious to see whose side the crowd was on, and it was most definitely the Maroon. “Qatar is our second home,” Asif had said. The hosts played better in this game. Each time a Qatari player went over the halfway line, there was wild excitement and the sound of hundreds of plastic chairs tipping over. A few minutes before halftime, Boualem Khoukhi, an Algerian-born defender, who was naturalized to play for Qatar, miscued a clearance and ended up sitting on the turf. Boulaye Dia, a Senegalese striker, slammed in the opening goal. A few rows in front of me, a man stood up and spun around with happiness. The biggest whoops from the rest of the crowd came when the camera settled on a large-breasted Senegal fan. According to figures from 2015, the Industrial Area’s population is 99.02 per cent male.
Qatar lost the match, 3–1. I didn’t see the Maroon’s first and only goal of the tournament because I was politely removed from the fan zone by the manager. It wasn’t a fifa facility, he explained; it was run by Qatar’s Workers’ Support and Insurance Fund, which disbursed more than three hundred million dollars in unpaid wages to migrant laborers in the first nine months of 2022.
The upsets continued. Morocco beat Belgium, which was ranked second in the world. In Brussels, fans set fire to a car and some electric scooters. The Belgians crashed out in the group stage. There were goal floods—fourteen goals in a single day—and goal droughts. There were five 0–0 draws in the first week, four more than in the entire tournament in 2018. It was unclear whether the winter timing was helping or hurting matters. After defeating Germany, Japan went one better and toppled Spain. The Germans went home. The French looked ominous. The Brazilians, more than anybody else, looked like they were having fun. Before their second match, against Switzerland, the team bus bounced on its suspension in the parking lot of Stadium 974—a reusable structure made largely from shipping containers—and then the players tumbled out, looking sheepish.
The joy of watching the Seleção is not in how it scores stupendous goals. (In Brazil’s first match, against Serbia, Richarlison, a forward, popped the ball over his own shoulder and scored from a bicycle kick.) It is in how the players perform the most ordinary aspects of the game: little dabs here, slippery feints, ugly toe pokes, a shared urge for continual, needless experiment. In the first half against Switzerland, Thiago Silva, Brazil’s thirty-eight-year-old center back, sent the ball out to the left wing with a pass that looked like a chip with a golf club. The game was stodgy, to be honest. But, in the eighty-third minute, Casemiro, who is known as a defensive midfielder, sent a half volley flying into the top corner of the net. Yann Sommer, the Swiss goalkeeper, puffed out his cheeks and watched it go. The Brazilians ran to the corner of the pitch and bounced in a tight huddle. Their fans got going—thousands of windmilling yellow scarves—and soon the temporary stands of Stadium 974 were bouncing, too.
The U.S. team started promisingly, if unspectacularly, with draws against Wales and England. During the England game, in particular, the U.S. played with vigor and nerve, but without making many chances to score. The results left the team needing to beat Iran, of all countries, to progress to the knockout stages. In the semiotics of Qatar 2022, the many meanings of a showdown between the Great Satan and the Islamic Republic were almost too much to process. Two days before the match, the U.S. Soccer Federation displayed images of the group table with the Iranian flag altered to its pre-revolutionary design, in a gesture of solidarity with women protesting against the regime. In response, Iran’s football federation demanded that the U.S. be thrown out of the competition. At a crowded news conference, at which no female reporters were invited to speak, Berhalter, the U.S. coach, apologized, but expressed his support for the Iranian people and team. It was a minefield. By my count, Berhalter was asked twenty questions, nine of which had nothing to do with soccer. Tyler Adams, the team’s twenty-three-year-old captain, was scolded by a reporter from Press TV, an Iranian news channel, for his pronunciation of “Iran,” and was asked what it was like for a Black athlete to represent a racist country. Berhalter was criticized for the way that the U.S. deals with Iranian-passport holders. “I don’t know enough about politics,” he replied. “I’m a soccer coach.”
Berhalter’s opposite number was Queiroz, the sixty-nine-year-old coach of Iran, who was leading the country in a third successive World Cup. Queiroz is one of soccer’s great soldiers of fortune. He played as a goalkeeper in Mozambique before coaching in England, Japan, Portugal, South Africa, and the U.A.E. He did a spell with Colombia. He worked in the M.L.S., the American league. Queiroz is fluent in the language of healing in which the sport likes to speak about itself. He understood that people might see other questions riding on the match, but that wasn’t his concern. “Our mission here is to create entertainment,” he said. “And, at least during ninety minutes, make the people happy.” Queiroz’s father was a coach, too, and Queiroz said that he had taught him never to lie to soccer, which seemed to mean thinking about anything outside the sport. “If my mind falls into the trap,” Queiroz said, “I am lying to football, and I won’t do that.”
Outside Al Thumama Stadium, which was built in the shape of a gahfiya—an Arab woven cap—there were people dressed up as bugs, with large, L.E.D.-lit wings, along with a noticeable police presence. I met Amir Salek, an Iranian venture capitalist who has lived in the U.S. for twenty-seven years. Salek was wearing a star-spangled banner around his waist and a headdress with Iranian colors. He was attending his seventeenth game of the tournament. He thought that the stakes favored the U.S. “The psychology of the Iranian team is that they win if they really, really have to win,” Salek said. “But tonight they can advance with a tie, and that usually is a recipe for failure.”
The noise inside was ferocious. The Iranian fans had brought horns. The crowd was partisan, but polyglot. The flags of Lebanon, Palestine, Croatia, Mexico, and Colombia jumbled together. When Saeid Ezatolahi, an Iranian defensive midfielder, walked out, he raised his arms to the black circle of the sky, as if to better absorb the din. The Iranians never got going. Their play was skillful but disjointed. The U.S. kept its shape and passed in patterns. The team’s midfield trio of Adams, Weston McKennie, and Yunus Musah controlled the tempo. Seven minutes before halftime, Musah played a perfect pass out to the right. Sergiño Dest headed the ball back across goal, and Christian Pulisic hooked it into the net, injuring himself in the process. (Pulisic was taken to the hospital with a pelvic contusion.)
The second half was more of the same. The U.S. created better opportunities, but Iran competed fiercely. A single Iranian goal would have changed everything. The drums never stopped. In the ninety-third minute, Morteza Pouraliganji, an Iranian defender who grew up near the Caspian Sea, sent a low diving header skittering wide of the post. His teammates scratched their heads. Matt Turner, the U.S. goalkeeper, ran down the clock.
At the end, the U.S. substitutes ran onto the field in celebration, while half the Iranian players sank to the exquisite turf. The Iranian coaches and some American players encouraged them to stand up again, but they didn’t want to. So much of the act of watching sport is about making a story, willing a memory into existence—imagining how we want things to be—only for something more prosaic and unexpected to happen in its place. The U.S. went on to face the Netherlands. Qatari V.I.P.s emerged from Al Thumama and were stowed in Bentley S.U.V.s. Drones buzzed in the Doha sky. The hubbub of the dispersing crowd joined with the other sounds of the city. ♦
Published in the print edition of the December 12, 2022, issue, with the headline “Goals.”