Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 20, 2022

The World Cup Gets the Start It Deserves

A NOTE TO READERS:  On Sports and Life will be traveling over the upcoming long weekend.  There will be no posts next Thursday or Sunday, with the regular schedule resuming on Thursday, December 1.  As you celebrate a holiday that is now largely about family and football, don’t forget its full historical context – not just the Pilgrim stories told to schoolchildren, but also the centuries of violence against this continent’s indigenous people that followed.  Had the Wampanoags known what was to come, they likely would not have been so generous.

In the end, of course, there will be a winner.  In four weeks’ time, one country’s national team will celebrate on the pitch at Lusail Iconic Stadium, the 80,000-seat ultramodern arena located a dozen miles north of Doha.  In the stands and many miles away in their homeland, the players will be joined by fans delirious with joy that their country has claimed soccer’s ultimate global prize, the FIFA World Cup. 

Perhaps it will be one of the two South American powerhouses, Brazil or Argentina.  Or maybe the victorious teammates will be wearing the colors of one of the leading European contenders, France or England or Spain.  It is possible that some other national team will surprise, combining just enough talent, a well-timed streak of exceptional play, and a healthy dose of good luck.  After all, soccer is no different than any other sport in that talent on paper and the wisdom of the oddsmakers aside, the games must still be played.  But this is not a contest among equals.  The five teams noted above are the only squads with odds of less than 10-1, and only four others, all from Europe, are given a better than 30-1 chance of raising the championship’s fourteen-inch-tall gold trophy, at once one of the most diminutive in major sports competitions and, with its $20 million value, probably the most expensive.

Yes, some team is going to win, and perhaps the victory celebration will cause fans to forget, or at least set aside for a little while, all that is dreary about this World Cup.  Until then, despite the best efforts of FIFA, its broadcast partners, assorted sponsors, and most of all the authorities of host nation Qatar, the 2022 edition of the preeminent international tournament of the world’s most popular sport seems certain to remain mired in controversy.  The game may be beautiful, but this World Cup has been ugly from the start.

That beginning was more than a decade ago, when the two dozen members of FIFA’s Executive Committee stunned the sports word by awarding this year’s competition to Qatar, a tiny nation without notable ties to or history in the sport, and one that lacked the infrastructure needed to host a month-long competition involving teams and fans from 32 countries.  The shock vote eventually led to revelations of endemic corruption within FIFA and several regional associations, but even as those investigations intensified, Qatar was moving ahead.  The need to build multiple stadiums and related support systems in record time focused widespread attention on the Gulf state’s use of migrant labor and the often-horrific conditions for many of those workers. 

Abstract concerns about anonymous workers thousands of miles away became more personal as the start of the tournament approached and fans learned of Qatar’s noxious laws on homosexuality, strict religious edicts on dress and public activity, and, horror of horrors, rules against the public consumption of alcohol.

As the tournament began on Sunday, Fox Sports did its best to brush aside all those concerns, as presumably did FIFA’s other broadcast partners around the globe, and advertising for the various corporations that paid huge sums for the privilege was prominently displayed around Al Bayt Stadium as the host nation’s squad squared off against Ecuador.  Adidas, Kia, McDonalds, Budweiser and Coca Cola were all present, as was, though one hopes FIFA got its money from that particular sponsor well in advance of this weekend.  The Coke “believing is magic” advertising was particularly ironic.  The soda giant has marketed the slogan as celebrating the “passionate journey of football fans.”  Advertising aside, those whose journey includes a trip to Qatar need to be careful not to let their passion dictate how they dress, how they celebrate, or whether and to whom they choose to display affection.  And of course, while they are free to have a Coke, they cannot drink a Budweiser at a match – unless they happen to be watching from one of the luxury boxes.

It was thus appropriate that after the gaudy opening ceremonies, the first match of this World Cup quickly turned into a desultory affair.  While neither Qatar nor Ecuador is likely to go far in the tournament – neither may make it out of the group stage – but at least on paper the two were evenly matched, with Ecuador ranked 44th in the world and Qatar 50th.  The South Americans had played six straight matches, the team’s entire slate since qualifying for the World Cup in March, without allowing a single goal.  The host team, which won the Arab World Cup in 2021, had come close to matching that record, with five straight wins prior to the tournament in which Qatar allowed a total of just two balls in its net.

But past was not prologue, for Qatar allowed that many goals in the first 31 minutes.  Enner Valencia of Ecuador appeared to score less than three minutes into the contest, but he was ruled offside by the tiniest of margins.  It hardly mattered, as Valencia netted a penalty kick a short time later, then scored on a header with the match barely a half hour old.  The Qataris seemed overwhelmed by the moment, offering little in the way of offense.  Their one good chance, just before halftime, came to naught when Almoez Ali managed to get behind Ecuador’s defense only to send his shot well wide.

No host country had ever lost a World Cup’s opening match, but the die was cast by the break, and thousands of fans chose not to return to their seats for the second half.  Ecuador was content to manage the clock over the final 45 minutes, sending even more fans to the exits and leaving a stadium devoid of all but a few thousand hardy souls from South America by the end of the match.  It was hardly the celebration the Qataris had hoped for, but this is hardly the World Cup that the globe’s most popular sport deserves.

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