Having spent roughly US$200-billion on the World Cup, the country of Qatar secured its first historical superlative on Friday.
It is this, possibly the saddest sentence to be included in a news release: “There is no impact to the sales of Bud Zero.”
Until Friday, this World Cup was being set up as an intersection of cultures – Qatar’s conservatism versus soccer’s excess. How would the two sides accommodate each other on things like, say, alcohol?
Finding booze in Qatar is an Indiana-Jones-level adventure. If you don’t want to be robbed blind at a hotel lobby bar (think 20-bucks-plus for a bottle of beer), you have to find a guy who knows a guy who has a licence to purchase.
With that in mind, there had been an early promise of moderately priced beer at World Cup games. On Friday, 48 hours before things get under way, that agreement was broken.
Qatar announced that beer is now banned at stadiums. FIFA backed its play with the wan promise that near-beer will be offered instead.
Worst World Cup ever? It’s early, but you have to like Qatar’s chances. It is certainly coming out strong.
There have always been two World Cups – the one on your TV, and the one on the ground.
Host countries pay for the one on TV. That’s the ad targeted at four or five billion viewers.
The World Cup on the ground is a mixed bag. It’s hard to say what works exactly, but it’s mainly to do with an organic combo of local enthusiasm and compelling competition. The high-water mark is France ‘98 – back when metal detectors were for FBI headquarters.
The past couple of tournaments – in Brazil and Russia – have been successes on TV and busts on the ground. That left Qatar with a low bar to clear. It’s beginning to feel as though its intention is running straight into it.
Qatar’s plan wasn’t hard to understand – throw buckets of money at something and wait for the rave reviews to roll in.
An example: Doha’s new airport. It was built with the next month in mind, and cost US$16-billion. It’s awfully big. The baggage hall goes on and on. I would have been even more impressed had it contained my baggage. Sadly, less design attention was spent on the lost-luggage office.
Similarly, downtown Doha looks like it was built yesterday. It has a strong Vegas feel, complete with perfumed malls and wall-to-wall LED.
But when the sun’s up, the sidewalks are empty. It’s too hot to be outside. The most visible effect of the World Cup thus far is traffic. Car culture plus a lot of visitors all at once plus a place about the size of Halifax is not good transportation math.
Rather than a city of the future, this one feels like one from the very recent past. Garish displays are out. Climate activism and social justice are in. That leaves Doha badly out of fashion.
The closer we got to this thing, the less people were inclined to give Qatar the benefit of the doubt. People have front-loaded their outrage over dead migrant workers, LGBTQ rights and whether Dua Lipa is performing at the opener. (She would really, really like you to know that she is not.)
Not all that long ago, you’d hear downtown types talking about watching soccer like they’d discovered fire. Now the hipster move is going online to let everyone know that your conscience will not allow you to watch this tournament. This is the first World Cup that it’s more cool to dislike.
Perhaps the Qatari leadership is only just beginning to understand that. That all the money that has been spent is not enough to purchase the world’s approval. That, in fact, that sort of thing is now held against you.
As a result, this event already has a ‘grit your teeth and hang on until it ends’ vibe. Everyone you deal with is invariably welcoming and kind, but there is little sense of anticipation.
You know the feeling because you’ve felt it before. It was there in every half-hearted gesture at the Tokyo and Beijing Olympics. It’s what happens when something sounded like a great idea as you were agreeing to do it, and feels like a gigantic irritation now that it’s here.
None of this is new. Complaining about major sports tournaments is the Western media’s new way of preparing for major sports tournaments. That’s made the ‘worst ever World Cup/Olympics’ storyline self-reinforcing.
But how Qatar reacts is an open question. We’re used to places such as Russia and China shrugging this sort of criticism off and continuing on with the show. What if someone didn’t do that? What would that look like?
It might look a bit like what just happened here on Friday. How else should we interpret a last-minute reversal following years of promises to the contrary, but as a shot across the bows?
A more honest news release might’ve read: ‘You don’t like our way of doing things? Fine. Maybe we don’t feel like trying things your way, either.’
It’s Qatar’s party and so it’s Qatar’s rules. But if the goal was reducing the temperature, I’m not sure that was the best way to go about it.
A few hours ago, this country had several hundred thousand visitors on their way over. Now Qatar is set to be invaded by several hundred thousand amateur booze detectives, all looking for the patio closest to the stadium. For a certain sort of travelling soccer fan – a group not famous for their forbearance – what was a bit of a hassle has been turned into a challenge. Good luck controlling that.
This was already an unpopular World Cup, but there’s nothing special about that. I’m sure it will look great on television, and that most people who say they aren’t will watch it anyway. But it still needs an on-the-ground identity.
I’d have said dead-on-arrival World Cup or just-make-sure-no-one-gets-heatstroke World Cup were top contenders.
But what about the no-one-wants-you-here World Cup? Or the open-fan-revolt World Cup? Or a genuine-mystery-of-a World Cup until we see how things shake out?
I’m not sure that’s worth a quarter-of-a-trillion dollars, but you know how it goes with this sort of thing. No matter how much you spend, you don’t get to pick what you buy.