Mark Perryman argues that to understand the politics of Qatar, we need to start with how the World Cup has always been political
Sunday's Qatar World Cup kick-off approaches. 'Stadiums of Shame' screamed the Guardian back page sports headline on Tuesday, while inside there were two pages of facts and figures featuring the plight of migrant workers, former German international Philipp Lahm saying he won't be going because the World Cup doesn't belong in Qatar, and the launch of a new online resource beyond the football.
All of this is being framed by the editorial self-justification that 'This is a World Cup like no other.' Meanwhile on Saturday – as with every Saturday preceding a World Cup for as long as I can remember – there will be free with the Guardian a 56-page guide to the tournament, full of 'inimitable team-by-team guides' And on Sunday in the Observer there’s a free World Cup 'brilliant wallchart'. Confused? We might well be.
Mmmm....or as the terrace chant goes 'If you know your history...' because the idea that Qatar is 'like no other' is wrong, the product of a deep-seated ahistoricism. Qatar is simply the latest World Cup to be used as a political platform, and we can cut through both the cultural relativism and the liberal platitudes to recognise there is nothing remotely 'like no other' about this World Cup. It simply follows the well-worn norm, of mixing politics with sport.
To begin at the beginning, in 1930. It was the first World Cup, hosted by Uruguay. The tournament was invented by a Frenchman, Jules Rimet, and organised by FIFA, which was founded by another Frenchman, Robert Guérin. The Football Association, which never called itself the English FA – because after all we invented the game – promptly announced they would be boycotting it. Nothing to do with human rights in Uruguay or anything like that, rather it was the very idea that these Johnny Foreigners might think they can run our game.
England also boycotted the next two tournaments, in 1934 and 1938, before finally entering the 1950 World Cup. A squad of England legends, including Billy Wright, Stanley Matthews and Tom Finney, were promptly knocked out at the group stage, including a loss to the USA, at the time a team of amateurs. No, football didn't come back home (sic) back then either, and we've had to live with the ideological legacy ever since.
The 1934 World Cup was hosted by Mussolini's Italy and his Blackshirts explicitly used the Italian national team to build support for fascism. Italy won their home tournament, and the 1938 tournament in France too, becoming the first team to win an away World Cup. In 1966, Prime Minister Harold Wilson turned England 's win into a reason to vote Labour: 'Have you noticed we only win the Word Cup under a Labour government'. One old Labour pledge that has stood the test of time, more's the pity.
In 1970, Israel qualified for the World Cup via its membership of the Asian Football Federation (AFC). One World Cup later, Israel is forced to leave the AFC because most member countries refuse to play a nation that mistreats Palestine in the way Israel does. UEFA on the other hand welcomed Israel with open arms, the only non-European country that has been allowed to join UEFA.
In the 1974 World Cup, the USSR team were expelled from the tournament for refusing to play Chile following Pinochet's coup – and Chile promptly take their place.
The last World Cup in 2018 was Putin's World Cup, just four years after his annexation, aka invasion, of Crimea; this time round, all Russian participation has been banned. Qatar, a World Cup 'like no other'? No it isn’t, it’s just like all the others, framed by politics, and most of it is bad politics.
For this World Cup, the England team flew out to Qatar in a plane which has been renamed ‘Rainbow’. A powerful and very public statement of LGBT solidarity, in the face of widespread laws in Qatar outlawing both LGBT relationships and a variety of women's rights that we take for granted. The solidarity on show has been amplified by widespread coverage of the issue in the sports media too – good! However, there wasn't a single out gay male player on that plane, nor do any of the squad play alongside any out gay men, and none are managed by an out gay man. To be gay and out in England isn't illegal, yet to play professional football it might as well be. Perhaps a degree of self-reflection wouldn't go amiss?
Qatar are using and abusing the World Cup, and it was ever thus. This is the downside of football as the one truly global sport. Yes Rugby (both versions) and cricket (all versions) have their World Cups but they're not truly global, are they? They are sports fundamentally framed by the British Empire with a few other international hangers-on who can score upsets but never get remotely close to the latter stages of the tournament. The winners of football's World Cup are likewise a select few from Europe and South America, but in contrast to the cricket and rugby World Cups semi-finalists and quarter-finalists come from every continent and from every corner of the world.
A festival of popular internationalism
This is the upside of every World Cup, including the one in Qatar – it’s a festival of popular internationalism. I've travelled as an England fan to four World Cups including Asia's first, Japan and in Korea 2002, and Africa's first, South Africa in 2010. Never mind – well actually I do mind a lot – that England didn't come close to lifting the trophy, the experience was utterly unforgettable. Yes it's a holiday of privilege, but being there was despite all the differences also mixed with what we shared as visitors with our hosts – the love of football. Not as tourists, but as fans, united.
That's what Qatar should be about. The first Middle Eastern World Cup – good! The first in a majority Muslim country – good! The first that recognises not the entire world follows the European (in fact not even all of Europe) league season calendar from August to May – good! But of course, we all know it won't be about those things, and that is a huge loss, barely recognised by the media.
There are certainly plenty of good reasons to give this World Cup a miss. There is the mistreatment and appalling deaths of migrant workers who bult the magnificent stadiums that teams are so much looking forward to playing in. There is the corrupt way in which the bid was secured, too, though England were part of that round of bidding and played an international in Trinidad and Tobago with the sole intention of getting that country's vote. England won the game, lost the vote, and the moral high ground was abandoned.
To boycott or not to boycott? In the 1970s protests and disruption stopped overseas tours from apartheid South Africa and led directly to South Africa being banned from international football sport by FIFA, as well as the Olympics. Good result! But let's be honest, for Qatar it's a non-question. Despite all the coverage from a media determined to expose Qatar as an unsuitable host and at the same time give the tournament huge amounts of coverage, there is no mass, popular movement for boycott. Why? Because this contradiction is shared by all those looking forward to the games but not having much time for a wide variety of reasons – not all good – for the country where they're being played, and next to no time for the organisation that chose that country as the host.
So – what’s the best chance of a boycott? England exit in ignominy at the Group stage and the boycott will be unstoppable. Prospects for solidarity? Wales march on triumphantly to the knockout stages and there's a tidal wave of solidarity for their team. Basically, for the next four weeks any moral gymnastics can be reduced to four words – love football not FIFA!