Welcome to the Joy-Free World Cup
DOHA, Qatar — For six long years, the Qatar World Cup has dominated Gianni Infantino’s thoughts. There had been months upon months of meticulous planning, delicate negotiation, seemingly incessant troubleshooting. Infantino, the president of FIFA president, had dedicated his life to it. He had moved to the Gulf. He had, reportedly, enrolled two of his daughters in school here.
Now, at last, it was here. The tournament that had come to occupy his every waking moment was only a little more than 24 hours away, the slow-cooked reward for all of his effort and energy. Infantino, though, did not seem jubilant, or excited, or even just relieved. He was, instead, very clearly unhappy.
The sources of his discontent are many and varied. He is unhappy about “3,000 years” of European oppression. He is unhappy about the cold rapacity of global capitalism, with its greedy eyes set only on “profit.” He is unhappy with the news media’s priorities. He is unhappy that “nobody cares” about disabled people. He is unhappy at the speed of the enfranchisement of women in certain cantons of Switzerland during the 20th century. He is unhappy that nobody else has thought about taking major sporting tournaments to Iran.
Mostly, though, he is unhappy about what he perceives as the “hypocrisy” of Europe — the West in general, really, but especially Europe — in chiding Qatar for its treatment of gay people and migrant workers when Europe only legalized homosexuality in living memory, and does not “care about the destiny” of those “young people” who arrive on its shores, or die in the attempt.
As strange and as disorienting as Infantino’s monologue might have seemed — by turns bitter and furious, outraged and disappointed, but steadfastly and unapologetically long, delivered over the course of 100 minutes — it was somehow fitting, too. This is a tournament, after all, where almost everyone appears to be unhappy.
The Qatari organizers, in recent months, have grown more and more unhappy in recent months at what they perceive to be the “very racist” criticisms of the western news media, and what they contend is a refusal to acknowledge the progress — particularly in terms of the country’s labor laws — that has been made.
A Brief Guide to the 2022 World Cup
What is the World Cup? The quadrennial event pits the best national soccer teams against each other for the title of world champion. Here’s a primer to the 2022 men’s tournament:
Where is it being held? This year’s host is Qatar, which in 2010 beat the United States and Japan to win the right to hold the tournament. Whether that was an honest competition remains in dispute.
When is it? The tournament will open on Nov. 20, when Qatar plays Ecuador. Over the two weeks that follow, four games will be played on most days. The tournament ends with the final on Dec. 18. Here’s the full match schedule.
How many teams are competing? Thirty-two. Qatar qualified automatically as the host, and after years of matches, the other 31 teams earned the right to come and play. Meet the teams here.
How does the tournament work? The 32 teams are divided into eight groups of four. In the opening stage, each team plays all the other teams in its group once. The top two finishers in each group advance to the round of 16. After that, the World Cup is a straight knockout tournament.
How can I watch the World Cup in the U.S.? The tournament will be broadcast on Fox and FS1 in English, and on Telemundo in Spanish. You can livestream it on Peacock, or on streaming services that carry Fox and FS1.
When will the games take place? Qatar is five hours ahead of London, eight hours ahead of New York and 11 hours ahead of Los Angeles. That means there will be predawn kickoffs on the East Coast of the United States for some games, and midafternoon starts for 10 p.m. games in Qatar.
Got more questions? We’ve got more answers here.
Anheuser-Busch InBev, one of FIFA’s principal sponsors, is unhappy because, only 48 hours before the tournament started, those same authorities declared that actually they could not sell beer to fans at stadiums after all.
Plenty of fans are unhappy that not only have the rules changed at the last moment, but that there appears to be little consistency: It is still possible, after all, to buy beer at games. You just have to have paid several thousand dollars for a VIP ticket, or hold a position with FIFA.
A number of fans who have been paid by Qatar to attend the tournament and be nice about it are unhappy, because their daily food and drink allowance has been withdrawn by the organizers after The New York Times, and others, reported on it.
Those tasked with actually competing in the tournament do not seem to be full of the joys of spring, either. The coaches of the teams are unhappy: some, like Carlos Queiroz, the roving Portuguese coach in charge of Iran, because he keeps being asked awkward questions about working for a nation whose government is currently brutally crushing protests; others for the rather more prosaic reason that they have been given around six days to turn disparate groups of players into coherent teams.
And those players themselves seem rather more unhappy than might be expected, on the eve of one of the events that will define — for good or for ill — their careers and their legacies. They are caught in the middle of a rumbling dispute over whether they should, or whether they must, wear armbands emblazoned with a slogan that, in certain lights, borders on the meaningless.
Doing so would risk upsetting both the Qataris and FIFA — which has now launched its own, vaguely meaningless set of slogans — but not doing so runs the risk of upsetting pretty much everyone else. Hugo Lloris, the French captain, has said that he will not take part, preferring instead to respect local mores, and has been roundly criticized for it.
It is into this morass of grievance and resentment that the soccer itself will now plunge. For Infantino, and for Qatar, that cannot come soon enough. “It is sad that we cannot talk about football,” the FIFA president said on Saturday, roughly halfway through a speech that started with the rights of migrant workers and ended with him suggesting soccer could reunite North and South Korea.
That is the golden rule of World Cups. Slowly, over the last few days, color has started to flourish on the streets of Doha, fans draped in Ecuadorean tricolors and brandishing Moroccan flags and wearing thobes in Croatia’s checkerboard pattern while wandering through Souq Waqif, Doha’s purposefully vintage market, and along the waterfront Corniche.
This is what happens, no matter how deep-rooted and sincerely-held the concerns and the doubts and the distaste: the carnival erupts and the sport takes hold, the spotlight that had scoured the shadows of the tournament now focused resolutely and unapologetically on the brilliance of Brazil or the romance of Argentina or the ruthless poise of France.
Qatar 2022, in that sense, is unusually rich. This tournament will provide the swan song for a whole generation of players, not only Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo but an entire roster of names who have dominated the sport for more than a decade. So open is the field that each and every one of them will harbor some realistic hope that their farewell may be glorious.
That, of course, is what both FIFA and the Qatari authorities are not so much hoping for as relying on. Infantino, at one point in his soliloquy, sounded almost beseeching, urging the news media — presumably — not to criticize the players, not to criticize Qatar, not to spoil the fun for everyone watching at home.
“We all have difficult lives,” Infantino said, though he chose not to discuss whether all of those difficulties are equal or even, really, comparable. All any of us craves, he said, is the chance to forget those worries for a while, to have some time “when we don’t have to think about this,” but can instead “concentrate on something we love, and that thing is football.”
It is hard to think of a more fitting summary for this World Cup, for the World Cup in general, for the way FIFA sees the world. Life is hard, and complicated, and unhappy. But try not to talk about it, or ask any questions about it, or even think about it all. Better, far better, not to resist, but instead to sit back and allow it wash over you and through you, an opiate against the pain.