From the country where soccer is religion to the emirate where religion is law

Argentinean fans who invested four years of savings to watch Leo Messi play at his last World Cup are turning a blind eye to controversies surrounding the host nation

Qatar World Cup 2022
Fans counting down the days for the start of the World Cup, this Thursday in Doha.Jaime Villanueva

Lautaro, Maxi, Julio and Matías do not want to talk about farewell tournaments. “Messi could play one more, why not?” “Let’s have faith,” they say encouragingly to one another, decked out in their Argentina team jerseys. A 20-hour trip and “four years’ savings” have brought them from the country where soccer is a religion – it was after all the “hand of God” that aided Diego Maradona to score his famous goal at the 1986 World Cup – to the country where religion is law. “Yes, before coming we read up on the legislation. You have to be more careful, behave properly… In Argentina at this time we would be drinking beer out in the street, but not here,” says Lautaro, 26, between sips of yerba mate.

The Argentineans are the loudest fans on the waterfront promenade known as the Doha Corniche, where many team jerseys from Mexico and Brazil are also on display. Youssef and Mostafa, 15- and 14-year-old Qataris, are enthusiastically watching the scene. Both are wearing the yellow canarinha jerseys of the Brazil soccer team, but they also really like Spain and are sad about Piqué's decision to retire. “This year, the players on the Spanish team are younger,” they explain, demonstrating up-to-the-minute knowledge about Luis Enrique’s final squad list: 20 of La Roja’s 26 players are participating at a World Cup for the first time, and the average age of the squad is 25.2 years. These two young soccer fans have never set foot in Brazil, but it is their favorite team and today Tite’s star-studded side are here in their country. “This is amazing. The media are saying bad things about Qatar, but everyone is welcome here, no matter what their skin color or what language they speak,” says Youssef.

Major international media outlets have widely reported on the death of workers who helped build the infrastructure for the World Cup, sometimes working in 122ºF (50ºC) temperatures. Until 2019, the law still permitted working outdoors during the hottest hours of the day. Local residents who spoke with this newspaper complained about the “bad press” their country has been getting. They would rather highlight the changes that the country has undertaken after winning the bid to host the tournament in 2010, such as building seven stadiums, hotels and a subway system to accommodate more than a million people in a country that is smaller than Puerto Rico.

After befriending with the West through their money, their oil reserves and especially their gas, Qatari leaders now hope to attract tourists to their sun-drenched territory by attracting the most popular sports stars in the world: soccer players.

Qatari newspapers on Thursday highlighted statements by French president Emmanuel Macron, who spoke out against the boycott of the World Cup in Qatar. “It is a bad idea to politicize sport. These questions, whether about the climate or human rights, should not be raised when the event already here, but should be asked when the competitions are attributed.” Sepp Blatter, who was president of FIFA at the time, has admitted that it was “a big mistake” to award host nation status to the Arab country instead of the US, but implied that it was backstage maneuvering by former French president Nicolas Sarkozy that got Qatar selected. The controversial decision has led to the World Cup being held in winter, between November and December, for the first time in history, although the temperature on Thursday in Doha feels like a heat wave. Qatari men are walking around in short sleeves, some wearing the jerseys of their favorite teams. The women are covered head to foot in suffocating black abayas.

At 4.50pm, the call to prayer sounds and the crowd splits into two groups. Some head for a clock that is a favorite spot for selfies due to the row of towering skyscrapers in the background; others walk towards the mosque. At the World Cup press center, which looks like an airport without any planes, there are restaurants, shops and moving walkways, as well as a prayer area, or rather two: one for men and one for women.

There are 12,300 accredited journalists here to cover the World Cup, according to FIFA figures. The roof of the area reserved for the television channels is a spectacular jumble of cables that will connect the emirate with the rest of the planet for the space of a month. The South Korean delegation has taped a photograph on their cabin door that looks like a poster for a spy movie: three men in dark suits and ties standing on desert dunes. Some workers are putting in the last sections of carpeting: everything is new in this pavilion, and in this country, which became independent in 1971. After befriending with the West through their money, their oil reserves and especially their gas, Qatari leaders now hope to attract tourists to their sun-drenched territory by attracting the most popular sports stars in the world: soccer players.

The strategy is obvious: a Messi goal, a video of David Beckham praising Qatari culture and hospitality on a dhow – the traditional boat used to search for pearls before much more profitable raw materials were discovered – will hopefully make potential visitors forget everything else: the dead workers, the criminalization of homosexuality, the guardianship system for women...

For now, at least among the fans who have paid thousands of dollars to attend what will in all likelihood be the last World Cup appearance of their “messiah” Messi, the strategy appears to be working. Meanwhile, the British comedian Joe Lycett, who has 1.2 million followers on Instagram, has sent Beckham an ultimatum on social media regarding the former England captain’s deal to be an ambassador for Qatar. Calling him a gay icon, Lycett said that Beckham should not support a regime that imposes harsh penalties for homosexuality. “You’re the first Premier League footballer to do shoots with gay magazines like Attitude, to speak openly about your gay fans, and you married a Spice Girl, which is the gayest thing a human being can do,” said the comedian in a video, going on to say he is willing to shred £10,000 of his own money unless the soccer star ends his deal with Qatar. “Your status as a gay icon will be shredded.”

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