Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 11, 2022

Darkness and Light in Qatar

The World Cup will go on, of course; indeed, it already has.  On the day after American journalist Grant Wahl collapsed in the press box during the quarterfinal match between Argentina and the Netherlands and died shortly thereafter, the two remaining semifinalists were decided.  FIFA ran a brief tribute to Wahl, who was this country’s premier soccer reporter, on the giant screens at Al Bayt Stadium before Saturday’s match between France and England. 

That, at least, was more attention than was paid by the governing body of association football to any of the roughly 500 deaths among the thousands of migrant workers used by host nation Qatar to construct all the infrastructure needed for this, the most important of all soccer tournaments being played in a country with no discernable history or ties to the sport.  The most recent of those fatalities occurred even after play had begun in the Group Stage, when a Filipino worker died in a forklift accident at the training facility for the Saudi Arabian team.  Wahl reported on it in one of the last posts on his Substack site, focusing on the utter indifference of Qatari officials.  He had reported on the issue in the long runup to the World Cup, just as he covered the corruption within FIFA that led to the 2010 selection of Qatar as host nation for this year’s Cup.

Wahl loved this sport and reported on the Group Stage round-robin play and the first matches of the Knockout Stage with the enthusiasm of a true fan.  But unlike some sportswriters, who over time find it increasingly easy to gloss over issues on the business side of our games for fear of losing precious access to front office personnel and league officials, he was always willing to shine a journalistic torch on the darker side of soccer.  That is probably one of the reasons he wore a rainbow shirt to the match between the United States and Wales, an action that led to his brief detainment by officials of a country that criminalizes being gay.

The outpouring of horror by scores of his fellow sportswriters at Wahl’s sudden death, at the far too young age of just 49, was evidence of just how much he was admired by his peers.  While the suggestion that he may have been the victim of foul play, first made by Wahl’s brother, is almost certainly fueled only by understandable grief, the fact that it was not immediately dismissed speaks to the deep distrust of an event that is equal parts a celebration of the world’s most popular sport and an elaborate and shockingly expensive exercise in sportswashing. 

For those able to focus on the first part of that dichotomy, the quarterfinal matches were compelling.  On Friday, both went to penalty kick shootouts after being tied at the end of 90 minutes of regulation play and 30 minutes of overtime.  The shootouts are both a reasonable and necessary method of deciding a winner in a low-scoring sport which frequently produces ties, and an excruciating and intense denouement for both fans and participants.  Coming after two hours (plus stoppage time) of play, they also put the “sudden” in sudden death.  This weekend, they produced heartache for fans in one South American country, and relief for those in its neighbor. 

Brazil, the pre-tournament favorite, found itself locked in a scoreless contest with Croatia through 90 minutes of regulation and the first 15-minute overtime period.  But then, in stoppage time of that first extra session, Neymar broke through, scoring off a beautiful bit of back-and-forth passing as he and a teammate advanced through the Croatian defense.  The goal tied Neymar with the legendary Pele at 77 goals in international play, and meant all Brazil had to do was hold Croatia, which had yet to put a shot on goal, off the board through the final 15 minutes.  Instead, Bruno Petkovic scored from close range with only three minutes remaining.  The tally seemed to stun the favorites, who proceeded to collapse in the shootout, missing two of four kicks. 

In Friday’s other quarterfinal, Argentina netted its first score midway through the first half, and another just a bit later in the second period.  Needing only to run out the final minutes against the Dutch, Lionel Messi and company instead allowed the Netherlands to rally with a pair of late goals, the equalizer coming deep in stoppage time.  But after the mounting tension of a pair of overtime periods, Argentina jumped out to a big lead in the shootout by netting its first three shots while the Dutch misfired three times in a row.  Argentina advanced, but only after its usual dose of drama.

Saturday’s matches did not require shootouts, though Portugal and especially England will both long wish otherwise.  Morocco became the first team from the African continent and first representative of the Arab-speaking world to reach the semifinals by outlasting Portugal 1-0.  Ranked only third in its original four-team group at the start of the Cup, Morocco wasn’t favored even to advance to the Knockout Stage.  Instead, it placed first in Group F with two wins and a draw, before completing a sweep of the Iberian Peninsula with a Round of 16 win over pre-tournament second choice Spain followed by the dismissal of Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal squad. 

But while Ronaldo wept on the pitch following his team’s defeat, Harry Kane’s bitter tears are likely to last much longer.  England played defending champion France evenly or better through most of its match but found itself down 2-1 with time ticking away.  Kane, England’s captain and stalwart since 2015, was given the opportunity to tie the score when England was awarded a penalty kick at the 84-minute mark.  But his attempt sailed over the net, and a few minutes later France was through to the semifinals, its hopes of becoming the first repeat champion since Brazil in 1958 and 1962 still alive.  Kane’s Miss, as it will surely be remembered years from now, adds one more sad chapter to the story of a national team that believes the Cup will “come home” every four years, even though it has not done so since 1966.

Now only four remain.  By this time next week one team will have lifted the tiny trophy, and one nation’s fans will be rejoicing, as they should, for their country’s squad will have prevailed in soccer’s most intense spectacle.  But after they are done partying, perhaps those fans will take a moment to consider not just the glory of this World Cup, but all about it that is shameful.  As Grant Wahl showed us every day, celebrating the light while exposing the dark side of a sport and trying to make it better is the strongest proof that one is a true fan.


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