@GrantWahl’s Blood is on the World’s Hands

I had set a deadline of November 2022 for me to make enough of my life to move out from my dad’s apartment. Obviously, that didn’t happen. What happened instead was that, last Christmas, we reached an agreement for me to spend over a month with my mom in Seattle from before Thanksgiving until after Christmas, with arrangements for how I was to be supported during that time, which I’m in the midst of now.

Why go to all that trouble? Because I fully intended to boycott the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, and that would have to mean getting away from my soccer-crazed dad. 

From the start, there was no legitimate reason to hold the World Cup in Qatar, and countless reasons not to. It was announced during the peak of the period when it seemed like the only countries willing and able to pamper FIFA and the IOC and meet their extravagant demands to host the Olympics and World Cup were authoritarian regimes, or regimes willing to risk what at that point had become a growing backlash in pretty much every democratic nation. FIFA always had it worse than the IOC, partly because of its policy of giving every country an equal vote, but even by those standards Qatar was a dumb choice. From the moment it was announced it was apparent to everyone with a brain and a modicum of integrity that Qatar had only won the vote because of rampant corruption and its sheiks being able to spread the country’s oil wealth around, and that was seemingly confirmed by repeated corruption scandals befalling FIFA in the ensuing decade. Qatar had never qualified for the World Cup in its own right and despite using aggressive methods to attract world-class talent to the team, ultimately became the first host nation to lose their opening match outright and would finish the group stage with zero points and one goal. Originally promising to have twelve venues ready in time for the World Cup, skyrocketing costs ended up forcing that number down to eight, all of them at least extensively renovated with excess capacity being torn down and donated to other countries after the Cup and seven of them effectively built from scratch, using migrant slave labor that earned worldwide condemnation for the poor working conditions resulting in hundreds of deaths. Qatar also originally promised that a “state of the art” air conditioning system would allow the country to host matches in summer in the middle of the peak of the desert heat, but within a few years it became apparent that that wouldn’t work and the tournament would have to be moved to November and December, forcing the world’s winter-based football leagues to take a midseason break to accommodate the World Cup. Sepp Blatter, head of FIFA at the time the World Cup was awarded to Qatar, admitted that that was a mistake on the eve of the World Cup kicking off.

And yet despite all of that, despite numerous opportunities for FIFA itself to admit its error and find another country to host the World Cup, it never did. FIFA pressed through all the condemnation, all the scandals, all the obstacles to hold the World Cup in Qatar anyway. The world’s football leagues and national and continental federations could have drawn a line in the sand, declared that this was unacceptable, and boycotted the World Cup, perhaps held their own tournament to provide a World Cup experience to the world’s best teams and a rebuke to FIFA and its rampant corruption. None did. The world’s football fans could have joined me in rejecting the legitimacy of this World Cup, declaring that football is the world’s game, not FIFA’s, and boycotted the proceedings.

But that doesn’t seem to have happened either. By all accounts, the World Cup is as popular as ever. Even in the United States, where outrage over FIFA’s corruption seemed to be loudest and where ratings were expected to be so bad for a World Cup held in the middle of football season FIFA awarded another cycle of tournaments to Fox and Telemundo without a bid as compensation, viewership has not only been as strong as ever but Fox has threatened or surpassed marks for viewership of USMNT games set on ESPN during the 2014 World Cup. There was too much at stake, too many storylines for fans to resist: the United States and Netherlands returning after failing to qualify in 2018, whether or not countries like England or Brazil could finally get the monkey off their back and win a World Cup, whether Cristiano Ronaldo could lead Portugal to their first World Cup or Lionel Messi could claim the last piece missing from his greatest-of-all-time resume and lead Argentina to their first non-Maradona World Cup in what could be his last chance. For one reason or another, people put their misgivings aside and allowed themselves to enjoy the proceedings. FIFA even lucked into the fall setting being somewhat justifiable, allowing extra time for qualifying to complete after COVID disrupted the world football calendar. Once the tournament got underway, there were so many upsets and close finishes that some have taken to calling it one of the best World Cups ever. All it cost was affirming that FIFA and its shamelessly corrupt Executive Committee can do whatever it wants, award the World Cup to any country it wants no matter the cost or compromises involved, and the world’s other football authorities will fall in line, dutifully send its teams wherever FIFA asks them to, and the world’s football fans are so addicted to the sport they will follow it wherever it’s played and wherever FIFA stages it, no matter the lives it was built on or the consequences for those involved in its construction, for the people of the country, or even for those in attendance.

Renowned soccer journalist Grant Wahl died on Friday. Earlier in the tournament, he’d worn a rainbow shirt to the USMNT’s opening match against Wales to show support for the LGBT community in a country where homosexuality is outlawed, and was detained by Qatari security forces as a result. Wahl fought a nagging cold for much of the remainder of the tournament, eventually getting severe enough he had it diagnosed as bronchitis and given a course of antibiotics that seemed to bring him back to health. Then during the Netherlands-Argentina quarterfinal on Friday, Wahl collapsed in the press box and died of a heart attack. His brother posted on Instagram that he believes foul play was involved in both the “bronchitis” and eventual fatal heart attack, saying Grant had told him he’d received death threats and that he believed his brother did not “just die, I believe he was killed.” Indeed, foul play is so widely suspected that even conservative defenders of Qatar on social media aren’t saying that Wahl wasn’t killed, but that he was playing with fire by violating the laws of the country he was in, presumably betraying that they wouldn’t be fans of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement either.

It is entirely possible, of course, that Wahl’s death is just a harrowing coincidence. But if it isn’t, his death is not just on whatever branch of the Qatari government was directly responsible for poisoning him, but on all the forces that put him in that situation. It is on FIFA for awarding the World Cup to Qatar to begin with and stubbornly sticking with it as the evidence mounted that it was a mistake, on the world’s football leagues, federations, and fans for submitting to FIFA’s decision and acting like it was perfectly normal to hold the World Cup in November and December in Qatar in stadiums built on the back of slave labor, and to some extent, it is even on Wahl himself for traveling to Qatar to cover a tournament he had been one of the most outspoken critics of, to the extent he even attempted to unseat Blatter the year after the World Cup was awarded to Qatar.

Conservatives may claim that Wahl should have simply bucked up and followed Qatar’s laws, but there’s no way to guarantee that a throng of Westerners bringing their Western values to the Olympics or World Cup will all simply buckle down and let the event pass without trying to make a political statement, and they shouldn’t pay with their lives for wearing the wrong shirt. I’m willing to accept enough of the tangled politics of these sorts of global sporting events that I watched the Olympics in China and the Olympics and World Cup in Russia without protest, but if, as was argued after Brittney Griner was arrested, women’s basketball players shouldn’t have to play in oppressive regimes like Russia to make ends meet, why are FIFA and the IOC forcing their athletes – and journalists, and fans – to do the same thing? They talk a big game about wanting to reward growing economies, spread the virtues of sport around the world, and bring the exposure of the Olympics and World Cup to more than just the Western countries they usually go to, but hosting the Olympics and World Cup should be a reward for having your shit together enough to be able to absorb the costs, not a way to try and boost a country that never actually sees those sorts of benefits. For all the NCAA’s problems, they look like the picture of integrity for stripping states of the rights to host NCAA championships for having the Confederate flag prominently displayed, passing “trans bathroom bills”, or doing other repulsive things while FIFA and the IOC freely award massive global events to countries that reach a level of depravity red states can only dream of. If not because it’s the right thing to do, then simply to protect its athletes and the thousands if not millions of others that descend on the places where these events are held, FIFA and the IOC must require at least a minimum standard of freedom for any country to host their major events going forward.

That doesn’t have to require that these events have to rotate between the same set of Western societies, or even just the same set of established economies; the 2010 World Cup in South Africa was largely considered a wild success, and Brazil staged a perfectly fine Olympics and World Cup even if they ultimately helped destabilize its politics. Nor, in the case of FIFA, do they have to be existing powers in football, as evidenced by successful World Cups in East Asia and the United States. But it does mean making sure that countries that meet such a minimum standard are actually willing and able to host these events, and part of the problem FIFA and especially the IOC ran into in the 2010s was that, increasingly, they aren’t.

After the IOC was forced to choose between China and Kazakhstan for the 2022 Winter Olympics after pretty much every country that gave their people the slightest bit of say in the matter pulled out, Thomas Bach instituted a series of reforms to reduce the cost of holding the Olympics and make them more palatable to democratic countries, and the IOC awarded the 2024 and 2028 Games to Paris and Los Angeles (preventing them from going to a head-to-head showdown for 2024) in large part because of their established sporting infrastructure from past Games. It’s not clear FIFA has learned this lesson; a combined bid of Canada, the United States, and Mexico only barely beat Morocco for the 2026 World Cup (though by some reports, the three-country alliance was more of a hindrance than a help), and Morocco is the only confirmed single-nation bid for 2030, with all other confirmed bids involving three or, in the case of South America, four nations, with this last bid being the only one where the nations involved are all contiguous and one of the other bids involving Egypt and Saudi Arabia – and only two other nations, Cameroon and Kazakhstan, are even interested in single-nation bids outside Asia which isn’t allowed to host in 2030 under current FIFA rules. Of those three potential or actual single-nation bids, only Morocco is considered so much as “partly free” in the Freedom in the World index, and that only barely; indeed the other two rate lower than Qatar. (Personally I’m rooting for, and would put my bet on, the South American amalgamation that includes Uruguay, hosts and champions of the first World Cup that would be celebrating its centennial that year.)

I get why this is: even the Olympic football tournament has to venture outside the host city to venues all over the host country, and the World Cup, already twice the size, stands to get even bigger with the expansion of the tournament to 48 teams in 2026, a move I fully agree with given the evident parity shown in the last two qualification cycles. If countries with the population, economy, and established football infrastructure of Morocco and Cameroon are so much as considering single-nation bids, though, while freer, larger nations scramble to team up with one another, it’s a sign that FIFA hasn’t fully escaped its troubles, and after this World Cup it’s hard to see how they have much reason to. So it falls to the world’s leading football federations to declare that they will not accept putting their players and fans in harm’s way, will not take part in sending a message that the West’s values not only don’t matter but that they should be subsumed to the will of whatever regime pays off FIFA’s executive committee the most. So long as the world accepts the World Cup wherever FIFA puts it, no matter what the cost, FIFA will return to holding the World Cup in countries with oppressive regimes without the scruples in pandering to the committee or running roughshod over their population that more democratic countries do, and will continue to put fans of the world’s game at risk in the process.

2 thoughts on “@GrantWahl’s Blood is on the World’s Hands

  1. About the only disagreement I have here is on the 48-team tournament, but even that is because powers of 2 make for a drastically simpler and better-balanced tournament – as shown by the 24-team structures of 1982-1994 WCs (and, latterly, 2016-onwards Euros). For me, the 32-team WC format might be the platonic ideal of tournament structures – right-sized for a month of reasonably-scheduled games (or four weeks of slightly less reasonably-scheduled games, in this case), easily understood progression, group stages that provide a little but not a lot of margin for error. (How those 32 teams are chosen is another matter; perhaps a large intercontinental playoff could fill the year-before-WC window the Confederations Cup previously did, and also take place in the host nation(s) thus allowing them to fill the test-event role of that tournament too. I actually planned something along these lines as far back as 2006, the full details lost to the collapse of a French fork of LiveJournal a friend and I joined following Russian takeover of that site; plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

  2. Personally, I would have awarded the US every other World Cup starting with 2026 because of what happened with Qatar.

    As for Grant Wahl, apparently his death was a coincidence that it happened in Dubai.

    As for an expansion to 48 countries, I would do it where the Group Stage becomes double-elimination like we have here for the NCAA Baseball tournament here: https://wallyhorse.wordpress.com/2022/11/21/how-the-world-cup-can-handle-expansion-to-48-teams-in-2026-and-beyond/

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