By Azu Ishiekwene
The shenanigans were always there, but until FIFA president, Infantino Giovanni, called them out in his down-to-earth press conference in Qatar, they remained the elephant in the room.
The hint of displeasure goes back 12 years ago when Qatar won the bid, defeating Australia, Japan, South Korea and the United States. That outcome was unexpected.
The Persian Gulf is good news for Western oil and gas supply and tales of mysticism and Arabian opulence, but an Arab World Cup was a different matter altogether.
European interests pounced. They immediately insinuated that the process had been compromised and later expressed discomfort that the timing could also disrupt major European league schedules and leave players too exhausted to finish the season. Of course, they conveniently forgot that Arab money sustains some of the best European leagues!
When the excuse of disruption didn’t stick, they expanded the field of resentment, taking care to deploy, from the reserve bench, thorny issues of migrant labour and LGBT rights. Explanations by the Qataris that they were doing everything possible to improve their migrant labour records and FIFA pressure on Qatar to do even more did not satisfy the large sections of the press, the British being perhaps the most notable antagonists.
They carried the LGBT matter on their heads, leaving their own domestic turmoil unattended. Their attitude seemed to suggest that since football started in England 159 years ago Europeans also have the responsibility of not only setting but also insisting on the cultural rules under which fans can relate and watch the game, regardless of the sensibilities of local communities.
If Giovanni sounded angry and unsparing in calling out the West over its hypocrisy, he had good reasons to do so. And he was absolutely right that another 3,000 years of atonement would be insufficient to right the wrongs.
Yet, hypocrisy is a flaw embedded not just in the West’s historical relationship of exploitation, slavery and a sense of entitlement, it remains the hallmark of a number of its current engagements with other parts of the world, especially Africa and the Arab world.
A number of fairly recent sporting and social events organised in a number of Western countries bear the same marks of abuses and significant social displacements, over which Qatar was threatened at gunpoint, but which the Western press was very pleased to turn a blind eye to in its own backyard.
During the Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996, for example, an estimated 30,000 people were displaced by Olympic-related demolitions, while at least 6,000 residents were evicted from their public housing.
A number of these displaced persons, mostly blacks, uprooted from their homes and community, never had their lives back again. They deserved as much protection and dignity to life as migrant workers in Qatar.
And they also deserved to have their voices heard by the global press. But that was obviously too much to ask. Or perhaps the rights of the socially displaced paled into insignificance in comparison with benefits expected from the Olympics?
As you read this piece, there are reports that many undocumented migrant workers are being illegally used by the French authorities to construct venues for the Paris 2024 Summer Olympics. A powerful network of contractors has been using hundreds of migrants as cheap labour and deployed them, without shame, to build the Athletics Village in the Parisian suburb of St. Denis.
I’m not sure the Western press or human rights campaigners there can find their way to St. Denis yet or other locations in the West where such abuses are still prevalent. Perhaps after Qatar, they will take interest in the scores of migrant workers, mainly of African descent, pining away at these sites?
But this hypocrisy is not only limited to sports. London had a flavour of it before the burial of Queen Elizabeth in September. Hundreds of “rough sleepers,” a psychedelic phrase for the homeless, were cleared from around Westminster and many parts of London and herded to isolation camps on the fringes.
They suffered the same fate of forceful removal, during the Queen’s diamond and platinum jubilees, to prevent the nuisance that their presence might have constituted to the pomp and circumstance of the celebrations! Since such weak and vulnerable people obviously had no rights, standing up for them was, understandably, hardly a matter of interest for the British press.
Let me be clear. No government, Qatari or not, should exploit the weak and the vulnerable and get a soft pass. Yet, as Thomas Sowell eloquently argued in his book, Migrations and Cultures, it is a reality of economic history that, quite often, out of the pool of migrant workers who may have otherwise been squashed by poverty, would emerge a generation of future entrepreneurs and innovators.
And by the way, for those who think that migrant labour only comprises the deadly crossings of the Mediterranean by Africans, it may be useful to keep in mind that Giovanni’s parents were Italian immigrants to Switzerland, in the search for greener pastures!
It is funny that while the press found it quite easy and convenient to scapegoat the Qatari government on migrant labour, it has maintained a hypocritical silence on Western companies in Qatar that are the main employers and beneficiaries of migrant labour.
From FTSE-quoted contractors to well-heeled New York-based consultants, the monster of migrant workers is the product of a seed planted by Western greed and nourished by Qatari desperation to stage an event that is one-of-a-kind. And beyond the red-herring of migrant labour, LGBT arm-band and moaning over the ban on booze, what an event it turned out to be!
Favourites, like Brazil, got beaten by Cameroun; Morocco, Africa’s best performing team, crushed Belgium, Spain and Portugal in a dizzying dance to the semifinal; while Tunisia spanked defending champions France in the opening round robin matches.
And did you notice how maliciously confused the British press was as the tournament progressed – first calling the Moroccans Africans and then Arabs and then everything in between!
Argentina redeemed themselves after the shock 2-0 defeat by Saudi Arabia, by winning the trophy in one of the most dramatic finals in World Cup history; but there would be a lot more to remember about Qatar 2022.
With FIFA reporting a revenue turnover of $7.5billion, Qatar 2022 has set a new benchmark, compared to $4.6billion generated in Russia 2018. A report by the organizing committee for Russia 2018 indicates that the tournament added $14billion, about 1.1 percent of GDP, and about 315,000 jobs to Russia’s economy between 2013 and 2018.
The tournament was projected to add $17billion to the oil-rich kingdom (despite the ban on alcohol which affected profits) in the next few years and billions more in tourism. Most importantly, the success has positioned Qatar, which has had more than a passing interest in landmark sporting events, to bid for the Olympic games in the near future.
It’s quite a paradox that the tournament whose hosting by Qatar former FIFA boss, Sepp Blatter, had considered a mistake has turned out to be reckoned as the best ever in the history of the game.
And despite starting with controversy over migrant labour and sundry issues and ending with a tiff over the bisht put on Lionel Messi by the emir, the Qataris can look back with pride and say it was truly one World Cup that left the press – the Western press – eating the humble pie!
Ishiekwene is Editor-In-Chief of LEADERSHIP