By Lauren Jackson
The World Cup begins today in Qatar. The games, which normally start in late spring or summer, were pushed to accommodate the desert country’s climate — one of many reasons this is a weird World Cup.
The best national soccer teams will compete for the title of world champion. Around a billion people are expected to watch the final on Dec. 18. Tariq Panja, a sports reporter for The Times, is at the tournament (where it’s still about 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 a sense of how big the World Cup is globally?
Tariq: There’s nothing bigger than this, 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, particularly in Asia, where most countries historically do not qualify for the World Cup. People may adopt a team and support them with a fervent passion.
This is the fourth World Cup you’ve covered. What is different about this one?
This is the first time that the games are being played in November and December. Because of the desert heat in Qatar, the schedule had to be changed, upending the entire global soccer calendar. European soccer, for the first time, has been paused halfway through the season. Players now have less time to train with their national teams.
These games have normally been held in different cities across huge countries, like Russia, Brazil or South Africa. This is the smallest location ever to host this tournament.
In 2009, Qatar put forward the most extravagant bid in history to host the World Cup. Why did it want to host so badly?
Qatar is a tiny speck in the Gulf desert wanting the world to know it’s here. It’s the first Arab and first Muslim nation to host a sporting event of this size. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are looking on enviously, giving Qatar clout.
In 2009, Qatar spent tens of millions of dollars to try to host the World Cup. They paid famous athletes like Zinedine Zidane, one of the best players in history, to support their bid. Still, Qatar’s bid seemed like a joke. It was so outlandish as a concept. They were getting questions about the heat, about how they could fit the games in a country smaller than Connecticut and whether they would allow alcohol.
When FIFA’s president at the time opened the envelope and Qatar’s name came out, immediately everyone zeroed in on corruption. The investigations that followed forced FIFA to change the way it designated a host, and revealed how a country was able to bend the world to its will through force of cash.
You arrived in Qatar last week. What are you seeing?
Everything here feels shiny and newly built. It’s like a country with that new car smell. The clearest thing is that it is baking hot — and this is close to winter. There is very strong sunlight bouncing off concrete that’s been laid down for all the new buildings. They’ve also banned the sale of beer to fans in stadiums.
How has Qatar pulled off its preparation? Talk us through the controversy surrounding this tournament.
They essentially had to rebuild an entire country in 12 years to host this one-month event. They amassed hundreds of thousands of overseas workers, particularly South Asian workers, to do this construction. Thousands of those workers have died in Qatar since 2010, the year the country won hosting rights, according to human rights groups. Many more were injured building or refurbishing these eight air-conditioned stadiums, which Qatar will have little use for after the World Cup. It’s been a collision of some of the world’s poorest people with the ambition of some of the world’s richest people.
The country’s human rights record has been under scrutiny beyond the worker deaths. One key aspect of that is Qatar’s criminalization of homosexuality. The World Cup is supposed to be this festival open to everyone. How does that square with a country that would jail you for being gay?
FIFA’s president, Gianni Infantino, pushed back against the outrage yesterday, calling it “hypocrisy” from European countries. He asked fans to criticize him instead of Qatar.
Some European soccer fans are calling for people to boycott watching the games. What would you tell someone weighing that decision?
It’s a conversation people are having all over the world, and it speaks to the troubling nature of this tournament. It’s for each individual to figure that out for themselves. But from the players’ perspectives, this isn’t their fault. It’s the position FIFA has placed them in.
Ultimately, though, this tournament could be held on the moon, and it would attract the same number of eyeballs. Soon, most of the world is only going to be talking about what the matchups look like.
What are you watching for in the matches?
Everything is politicized. Iran is under a lot of scrutiny because of their national protests; a player from France, Eduardo Camavinga, has received racist messages on social media; some of Argentina’s fans have created a nasty, racist song about another French player, Kylian Mbappé.
In terms of the soccer, look out for Brazil. They’ve got a very deep squad. Then there’s Argentina. This may be the last World Cup for one of the sport’s greats, Lionel Messi. And a non-European team has not won the tournament since 2002. So maybe this will be the time to end that 20-year wait.
The first game of the tournament, Qatar vs. Ecuador, starts at 11 a.m. Eastern. The U.S. will play its first match at 2 p.m. tomorrow, against Wales.
Credit: New York Times