This Was the Perfect World Cup for Our Strange Era
Whatever happens in the World Cup final this Sunday, Europe will remain the dominant power of global football. An Argentinean victory over France will not change the facts of economic globalization. The English Premier League alone usually turns over more money every season than the quadrennial World Cup, and European football towers over the rest of the world, which is why half of the players at the tournament play in just five big European leagues. Yet something will have changed, too.
It is now 16 years since a World Cup final was played in Europe, as some of the rising powers of the Global South — South Africa, Brazil and now Qatar — have taken their turn. South Africa 2010 carried Pan-African aspirations that for a moment seemed to become reality, with Ghana poised to make a semifinal. Brazil 2014 was a celebration of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s Brazil, and by association the leftist governments that had transformed the continent, though it ended up as more of a wake.
Qatar 2022, by contrast, was always about Qatar — its visibility, its reputation and its strategic survival. Despite criticisms of the country’s treatment of migrant workers and disregard for L.G.B.T.Q. rights, it has achieved much of what was intended. After four weeks of near-constant football, and the sometimes bitter off-field conversations that accompanied it, Qatar’s position in the world is palpably stronger.
Yet as the first World Cup in an Arabic-speaking, Muslim-majority nation, it also aspired to stand for something more. In its timing, its crowds and its narratives, the tournament offered a version of the world in which the Global South, in all its myriad complexities, is more present and more powerful. This, truly, was a World Cup for our era.
The Southern Hemisphere is used to a winter World Cup, but in the North, especially in Europe, watching the tournament is a monthlong summer fiesta of outdoor revelry in public spaces and beer gardens. Even FIFA, though, couldn’t face the prospect of playing in the heat of a Gulf summer, air-conditioned stadiums or not, and rearranged the entire world football calendar around Qatar’s climate. The upshot is that Europe right now is cold and indoors; although viewing figures are good, there is much less sense of the World Cup as a collective ritual. The considerably warmer streets and squares of Dakar, Rabat, Rosario and Riyadh, by contrast, have been flooded by celebrations.
The crowds in Doha, inside and outside the stadiums, reflect this global recalibration. Of course, what we see of them on the screen has been carefully curated. Qatar recruited its own “ultras” — highly organized soccer fans who can be found across the globe — from Lebanon and from among Arab migrants to Doha, and paid for groups of fans to travel from every qualifying nation. But we have still seen enough to know that these are the most diverse World Cup crowds on record — and despite the earsplitting volume of the stadiums’ public-address systems and the relentless music they emit, it is still the crowd, its voices and energies, that is the living heart of the spectacle.
Qataris, for their part, have been a considerable if restrained aspect of that spectacle. Men have been dressed in their pristine white thobes and women in black abayas, creating an entirely different aesthetic from the unironed masculinity and drab color palette that predominates in Europe. Other Gulf States have been well represented, Saudis and Emiratis in particular, mixing replica national team shirts and traditional robes.
In this congenial atmosphere, Pan-Arab and Pan-African solidarities have been on proud display. Tunisia’s postcolonial rebuke to France, beating its B-team though departing the group stages, was especially enjoyed, as was Saudi Arabia’s shock victory over Argentina. But it was Morocco’s remarkable march to the semifinal that drew the biggest crowds and provided the most intense celebrations.
They combined visiting Moroccans, Qatar’s significant Moroccan migrant worker population and the hundreds of thousands of Egyptians, Jordanians and Lebanese who live and work in Qatar. They have been joined by huge crowds in Morocco itself, across the Arab world, among the Moroccan diaspora in Europe and, perhaps more intensely than anywhere, among Palestinians, whose flag and cause have been a very visible part of the Moroccan team’s celebrations and the subject of many of the crowd’s songs.
South Asians, and Indians in particular, have also been an important presence throughout. They are not, of course, the South Asian migrant workers who toiled in abominable conditions to build Doha and its stadiums; those who remain in the country have been confined to their camps. Rather, they are a mixture of long-established Indian migrant families in Qatar and a new stratum of wealthy Indians who have acquired a taste for football. To judge from the footage of enormous ecstatic crowds in Kerala and Bangladesh celebrating Argentina’s goals, they are not alone in their ardor, even in a region where cricket is king. As for Argentina, it has provided — along with Mexico, reinforced by a tranche of Mexican Americans — the largest and noisiest of foreign followings.
Such vivacity and energy stood in stark contrast to European contingents, which have mostly been small and relatively restrained — exemplified by the tiny strip of Dutch orange in an ocean of Argentinean sky blue in the quarterfinal. The Welsh, at their first World Cup for 58 years, were a presence, as were the Americans, English and Germans. But compared with attendances at the past three World Cups, let alone at Germany 2006, they were shrinking minorities.
The same shift could be seen in the framing of the tournament. For almost a decade the Global North, especially the United States, Britain, Germany and Scandinavia, have set the agenda on the Qatar World Cup. Aided by the relative openness of the country to foreign journalists, the media, N.G.O.s and football federations have relentlessly criticized Qatar’s shortcomings on migrant workers, L.G.B.T.Q. and women’s rights, press freedom and environmental protection. In contrast to the free pass it gave to Russia in 2018, the mainstream media have integrated these critiques into their coverage.
But much of the rest of the world does not see things in this light. Strikingly, coverage in almost all the Global South has been strictly sporting, while the Arabic press has been unequivocal in deeming Qatar 2022 to be the best World Cup ever. There has also been considerable support for Qatar’s last-minute decision to restrict already limited alcohol sales around the stadiums. It is not really about the ethics of prohibition — Qatar has long tolerated drinking for wealthy migrants who have access to expensive hotel bars — but about a shift in the balance of power. Unlike the South Africans or the Brazilians, the Qataris were able to impose their will on FIFA and a global corporation of the scale of InBev without missing a beat.
This clout was manifest in the official response to European teams’ plans to wear rainbow armbands and spectators to sport rainbow insignia. Sides were threatened by FIFA with yellow cards, and supporters endured brusque treatment from security and the confiscation of flags and clothing. Nasser al-Khater, the chief executive of the cup’s organizing committee, felt confident enough to dismiss the death of a migrant worker on a site close to Saudi Arabia’s camp, saying, “Death is a natural part of life, whether it is at work, whether it is in your sleep.” (A second migrant worker, who worked as a security guard at one of the stadiums, has since died.)
European hypocrisy has contributed to this confidence. After the Germany team protested the supposed denial of its freedom of expression, Qataris responded by showing posters of Mesut Özil, the German footballer whose outspokenness seemingly led to his being silenced by the German media and football authorities. Environmentalists have pointed out the madness of staging a carbon-intense event in a place so threatened by climate change, and rightly so. But given that the German government sealed a 15-year deal with Qatar for liquid gas during the tournament and that the next World Cup, to be held in North America and Mexico, may carry a larger carbon footprint, such charges were easy to dismiss.
If France win, we’ll be heralding the first back-to-back winners in 60 years; if Argentina prevails, it will be Lionel Messi’s ascent to divinity that concerns us. Either way, this has been the most closely scrutinized and culturally contested World Cup ever, and that is a good thing. The personal, cultural and political presence of the Global South has been made tangible and that, too, is important. Perhaps the tournament’s biggest legacy will be a global media and public more critically sensitized to the political and cultural meaning of spectacle? That, at least, would be worth celebrating.
David Goldblatt (@Davidsgoldblatt) is a visiting professor at Pitzer College, California, and the author, among other books, of “The Games: A Global History of the Olympics.”
The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: [email protected].
Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.