2022 World Cup in Qatar is lost in the desert

Ian Walton

FIFA chief Sepp Blatter sees soccer as both a game and an agent of social change. He's proving himself wrong in Qatar, home of the 2022 World Cup.

There is the realization of how little the universe cares for and about us; there is the success and very existence of TMZ, which proves it. There are alligators, which are basically mean living dinosaurs that want to drown you, and perhaps more terrifying, there is that annual cruise that Kid Rock does. But while this world does not lack for frightening things, there are few things more menacing, with more evidence behind that menace, than men in suits impassively watching sporting events from luxury boxes.

The people on the Kid Rock cruise may well vomit on you, and you definitely don't want to talk to them about politics or Uncle Kracker, but they will not rob you. The men in suits in those luxury boxes will take everything they can, and believe they're right to do it. They will take your tax dollars and raze your neighborhood and still have the stones to gouge you on parking, ask female fans to dump their purses into plastic bags, and lecture everyone else on probity and responsibility.

They engage in decades-spanning systematic fraud and organized crime-style racketeering at their day jobs, and their personal lives are worse. These are bad dudes (and they're all dudes), but only one of them can be called king. And of all the nightmarish white collar sports-criminals at large in the world today, none is bigger -- in terms of his imperium or unaccountability or unshameable grandiosity -- than FIFA boss Sepp Blatter.

During his 16 years in charge of FIFA, the organization has consistently been revealed to be comically, world-historically corrupt. There are comparatively small amounts of FIFA money that disappear into the pockets of local soccer grandees, and larger amounts -- tens of millions dollars to CONCACAF chiefs Jack Warner and Chuck Blazer, for instance -- that were last seen near larger grandees. And atop it all, periodically suspending various FIFA executive committee members for accepting bribes and straightfacedly kinda-sorta positing himself as a future Nobel Peace Prize candidate, is Blatter.

If FIFA's deep, dreary corruption and general casual rottenness is familiar -- you know it from most governments, and the Olympic selection process, and Graham Greene novels not set in England -- Blatter's relationship to it is something new. While he never fails to be Deeply Disturbed By These Latest Revelations whenever they arise, and to not-know about various misdeeds as and after they occur, Blatter also speaks -- earnestly and with great feeling and no apparent irony -- about soccer as an agent for social change, a beautiful game that can make a more beautiful world. The rent-seeking and profit-taking and actual outright graft continue within Blatter's organization, and his rhetoric soars untethered; FIFA only recently removed a page on its website detailing the 100 or so humanitarian awards Blatter had won for his work. Here is a man who talks as if he's running Doctors Without Borders, but is actually running a cross between the IOC and Goldman Sachs. It's satire too pointed to laugh at.

Naturally, both the 2018 World Cup, which will be held in Russia, and the 2022 World Cup, which will be in Qatar, were awarded to countries whose approach to human rights can be described as existing along a continuum ranging from Not So Good to Actual Official Laws Making Homosexuality Illegal. Naturally, the process through which Qatar received its bid was marked by outright bribery and less outright if not considerably less shady influence peddling.

There are numerous ridiculousnesses surrounding Qatar's selection beyond how it came to pass -- because temperatures routinely reach 120 degrees in Qatar during the summer, and because the promised air-conditioned outdoor stadiums have proven as impossible as they sound, FIFA has argued for moving the World Cup to the winter, which would disrupt most major European leagues. It would also upset Fox Sports, which paid $425 million for the rights to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, only to find itself airing the World Cup opposite the NFL playoffs.

This is all familiar stuff, and the sort of thing that Blatter has survived in the past both without quite being touched by scandal or experiencing any apparent shame. But there is some reason to think that Qatar is different, and a number of good reasons to think that it's worse than any of the various and sundry white collar grifting and corporate dishonesty. At the very least, recent stories about widespread human trafficking, forced labor and other aspects of crypto-slavery in Qatar among the Indian and Nepalese laborers who have been brought in to build those stately air-conditioned stadiums should reveal the outer boundary of Blatter's blithe shamelessness -- where it is, and whether it in fact exists.

Of course -- and, also of course, this is a horrifying thing to type -- this sort of thing was widely known to be how things get done in Qatar well before it was awarded the World Cup. Like many of its fellow tiny, dazzlingly resource-rich neighbors in the Middle East, Qatar brings in foreign laborers from the global south to do the jobs it has decided its citizens shouldn't have to do. In Qatar, imported labor comprises an astonishing 99 percent of the private sector workforce. And Qatar, like its neighbors, generally treats those laborers abhorrently, denying them every inconvenient right, beginning with the right to any sort of recourse for their treatment. At least one foreign laborer has died in Qatar every day this year, and it has all happened quite naturally.

The specifics in this Guardian story detailing the various appalling mistreatments of the laborers Qatar imported for the World Cup construction push are harrowing, but they're most disturbing for how familiar -- shocking to the conscience, but not surprising -- they are. As Charles Pierce wrote in Esquire, none of this is exactly new. Blatter will doubtless find them Very Upsetting And Worthy Of Consideration if he's moved to comment, but even this grand master at not knowing things he doesn't want to know can't claim to be surprised.

The alpha predators of sportscrime share one singular talent: the ability to do terrible things, and never see themselves as anything less than virtuous. It's cynical, if maybe not wrong, to say that this is how great fortunes -- the kind that enable people to own sports teams and tilt politics so spoils spill downhill, and the kind accrued by men who pay themselves many millions of dollars per year to run organizations like FIFA -- are made. It certainly is how they're justified.

Start from a position of half-sanctified virtue and any action-- active corruptions and criminality, or just the decision not to know unpleasant things -- is easy enough to justify. If it had been that bad, the men in suits are inclined to believe, they would've known about it. They would've done something. This is silly, but it must be a comforting thing to believe. Give it long enough, and the questions just stop being asked. Might makes its own right, and creates its own sort of queasy gravity. Things just fall the way they fall, and keep on falling.

Those who rule Qatar -- where 225,000 residents live in the comfort provided by the labor of 1.8 million rights-less helots -- may have their own justifications for how and why their nation is what it is. Blatter always has his for why he does what he does. But there's no justifying having the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, for practical reasons and ethical reasons, but mostly for Blatter's favorite justification.

For soccer to be more than a game, as Blatter insists in his most wildly inflated moments, it will need to be more than a business. It will need not just to inspire vague species of sunshine-y change, but to catalyze it. Blatter and FIFA never should have given the World Cup in Qatar in the first place; they knew what it was when they put the games there. After this latest reminder of what that means -- that Qatar is not just An Exciting And Motivated New Market too long overlooked, but a human rights abomination -- now would be as good a time as any to make a little of that vaunted change, and fix that first shameful mistake.

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