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People gather around the official countdown clock showing remaining time until the kick-off of the World Cup 2022, in Doha, Qatar, on Nov. 25, 2021.Darko Bandic/The Associated Press

When Hayley Ashman arrived at a “fan village” near Doha’s international airport, one of several temporary accommodation sites set up for supporters at Qatar’s World Cup, it took three tries to find a fully functional cabin.

“The first one didn’t have power, the second one didn’t have water,” the native of Wales said of the $270-a-night village. “Turning up on the first day it felt like they were going ‘Oh, we’re hosting a World Cup?’ You turn right out of the cabin and there’s a building site.”

There is a strange sense of unpreparedness around this competition, despite Qatar having spent 12 years and tens of billions of dollars to get ready for the World Cup. Some fans have struggled with ticketing issues, and half-finished construction is a common sight around fan zones and accommodation, much of which will be torn down at the end of the tournament.

One thing the Qataris should have been ready for was the criticism, over migrant worker rights and the emirate’s criminalization of homosexuality, which has dominated World Cup coverage from the day the Gulf state secured hosting rights in 2010. But that, too, seems to have taken authorities in Doha aback, especially as the clamour has continued beyond the first game, defying FIFA president Gianni Infantino’s prediction that “as soon as the ball rolls, people will concentrate on that because that’s what people want.”

“It’s something that I can’t really fathom, when you look at some of the people that are criticizing,” Saad Al-Kaabi, the emirate’s Minister of Energy, said this week. “If you look at their countries and their track record and historical events and things that happened, [they] were actually much worse than what they’re talking about with Qatar.

“We need to just forget all that,” he added. “Enjoy the game and hopefully … people can visit Qatar and actually see what Qatar is all about and I think they will be very impressed.”

Online, other Qataris have hit out against what they see as “orientalism” or “cultural imperialism,” and some local commentators have defended the emirate’s tough laws on homosexuality, even as FIFA has sought to reassure LGBTQ fans they are welcome at the World Cup.

Thousands of cabins at a Fan Village in Qatar are an accommodation option for people visiting for the World Cup. The cabins in modified shipping containers have two beds and basic facilities for about U.S.$200 a night, and some fans are more impressed with the rooms than others.

The Globe and Mail

As the first week of the tournament draws to a close in Doha, the soccer is certainly taking headlines – Saudi Arabia’s and Japan’s surprise wins, Cristiano Ronaldo setting records – but the politics isn’t going away.

After FIFA threatened to give European players yellow cards if they wore rainbow “One Love” armbands during games, the German team posed for a match photo with their hands over their mouths and rainbow laces, while Wales has switched all the flags on its training ground with rainbow ones. Multiple European sides said they may take FIFA to the Court of Arbitration for Sport over the ban, which has attracted criticism from players and fan groups.

“We have been absolutely furious about this,” Noel Mooney, chief executive of the Football Association of Wales, said this week. “We think it was a terrible decision.”

Ketty Nivyabandi, Secretary-General of Amnesty International Canada, which has been pushing the country’s soccer authorities to take a firmer line, said she was “encouraged to see that the conversation is not going away, that players are spearheading this conversation, and fans are continuing it.

“I think it speaks to how they underestimated the extent to which soccer fans care about these issues,” she said.

Fans from multiple Western countries who spoke to The Globe and Mail in Qatar expressed a sense of disquiet in being at the tournament.

“Ultimately we came for Canada soccer, not because it was in Qatar,” Todd Kerry, of Mississauga, said at a fan event ahead of Canada’s opening game against Belgium. “So we separated Canada soccer in our minds from some of the very real concerns we have about Qatar’s history as a country.”

Danyel Reiche, a visiting research fellow at the Doha-based Center for International and Regional Studies, pushed back at the idea that politics was dominating the conversation around the World Cup.

“I think it depends where we look. It might be in Canada, and in Germany the papers are super critical, but I don’t see these controversies in the Global South,” he said. “This is a debate that is happening in a couple of Western countries.”

Mr. Reiche said that “one aspect of this Western criticism is how the Arab world is rallying around Qatar, which is a bit of an ironic development,” given that Saudi Arabia and other neighbours were blockading the country until last year.

“The primary objective of Qatar when it started investing in sport was to overcome the invisibility of a small state,” he added. “Nobody knew Qatar, now everybody knows Qatar, it’s on the map.”

Ms. Nivyabandi, the Amnesty head, said she disagreed with the idea that developing nations care less about human-rights criticisms of Qatar.

“The narrative that this is mostly a Western-driven initiative and Global South countries don’t care is absolutely false, the majority of migrant workers in Qatar are from the Global South,” she said. “Some of their governments may not be speaking out publicly for political reasons but the people are very, very much engaged.”

One common response to the criticism has been that other countries have not faced similar scrutiny when they held international sporting events, despite the most recent Olympics in Beijing attracting widespread criticism and even diplomatic boycotts.

Broadcaster and former England international Gary Lineker said this week the BBC should have done more to speak out about Russia’s annexation of Crimea and human-rights abuses when that country held the World Cup in 2018.

“I do look back four years ago and feel slightly uncomfortable,” Mr. Lineker said.

Both Russia and FIFA did face criticism around that tournament but Qatar has perhaps been unlucky in that it followed both Russia and China in holding a major event, and is reaping the effects that four years of authoritarian sportswashing have had on audiences around the world.

Ms. Nivyabandi hoped this was indicative of a larger shift, saying that “every future host should expect to be under renewed scrutiny and intense scrutiny going forward.”

That includes Canada, she said, which is a co-host of the 2026 World Cup alongside the United States and Mexico. Ms. Nivyabandi said while there has been “a great reckoning” around Indigenous rights and historical abuses in the past year, “there’s still a lot ordinary Canadians don’t know about the human-rights violations that occur in this country or occur as a result of Canadian policies.

“I would see it as an opportunity to work very strongly and genuinely towards change,” she added. “We saw that to be fair to them, Qatar did put in some measures in the lead-up to this World Cup, it’s just the changes weren’t deep enough or sufficient. And I hope Canada does not do the same but actually accelerates its work.”

With a report from Reuters