CBS News: One of the biggest sporting events on earth.
BBC: It’s a sporting occasion like no other.
Vanemas: And South Korea have scored!
John Oliver: A country even qualified for it is a cause for huge celebration.
France 24: It was a moment that people were craving. It was as if a bottle of champagne had finally exploded and it was indeed cathartic.
Two-thirds of the team are of immigrant origin. This is something we should celebrate.
BBC: France beat Croatia in the final in Moscow…
FIFA: Spain are world champions.
FIFA: Italy are champions of the world.
FIFA TV: It is a World Cup final the world will never forget.
The 2022 World Cup has officially kicked off in Qatar, with 32 nations competing for the championship title. You may have seen some of the big moments so far - like Saudi Arabia’s crazy upset of Argentina in the first round. At the same time, you've probably seen some of the news coverage too. This year’s games have been embroiled in controversy, from Qatar’s human rights abuses, to FIFA corruption, to political conflicts happening along the sidelines.
Soccer - AKA Futbol - is the most popular sport in the world, and every FIFA World Cup final is watched by billions of fans internationally. Think of it this way: if aliens studied Earth, they would probably note in their report that all humans, regardless of where they live, are driven to fits of passion by 22 people kicking a ball up and down a field. There’s simply nothing else like it on the planet.
But why? Why does this game garner such universal attention? Why do countries spend billions in order to host? And what does the World Cup's power mean when it is wielded by a country like Qatar?
I’m Gabrielle Sierra and this is why it matters. For today’s episode, I sat down with Laurent Dubois. He’s the Academic Director of the Karsh Institute of Democracy, and a professor at the University of Virginia, where he teaches a course called Soccer Politics. Enjoy!
Gabrielle SIERRA: I thought it would be appropriate to open our chat by telling you that I was in fact the captain of my high school soccer team, two years in a row. We were just truly terrible. We lost constantly, but I love soccer. And so in that spirit, we’re an international relations think tank. We don’t spend much time discussing sporting events. So, why are we talking about the world cup?
Laurent DUBOIS: The way I put it is that every World Cup final is watched by more human beings than have ever watched anything before in the history of the human race. Right? Just to put it in context.
SIERRA: Oh, that’s a lot.
DUBOIS: So, you do have, I think the achievement of some kind of universal competition that is really shared. And I think we all know that if you want to start a conversation probably anywhere in the world, you can bring up soccer and the World Cup and most of the time you will have an interesting conversation and people will have opinions about it. And I think that's a certain kind of success, for all the other issues with it, it's worth taking stock of that as something pretty remarkable in our world.
So, the origins of the World Cup, I think are interesting in that this is a competition that emerges in the wake of World War I, out of a certain sentiment, a post-World-War-I sentiment that was very much linked to the rise of the rules-based international order or the project of the League of Nations. The whole idea that, effectively, the world was seeing a serious, violent breakdown of an international set of relationships. And for those who were boosters of soccer, they hoped that this kind of sport that was already well established in many parts of the world could be a kind of language. Some people even described it as an Esperanto at the time. And the idea would be that understanding that people were going to continue to be focused on their nations and want to represent and be proud of their nations. But was there a way of doing that, that was not a war-like relationship, but an engagement and a set of rules.
Flash forward a century. The World Cup has not ended war - but it has become the most popular event on Earth. For decades, it was dominated by two regions: Europe, and Latin America. But in 2010, something unexpected happened. FIFA president Sepp Blatter announced that for the first time in history, the world cup would be held in the Middle East, in the tiny petrostate of Qatar.
PBS NewsHour: The winner to organize the 2022 FIFA World Cup is… Qatar!
The news sent shockwaves through the world of soccer, and for many fans, it just didn’t add up. The host country was not just small, it also had no sporting infrastructure or domestic soccer culture to speak of. Its desert climate reaches temperatures over 100 degrees fahrenheit in the summer, which is when the Cup is usually held. And to top it all off, Qatar’s politics were at odds with Western democratic values. Allegations of bribery and corruption swirled, and a long stream of protests began.
At this point, it’s probably worth mentioning a few things about Qatar itself. For most of its modern history, it had a modest stature. At the beginning of the 20th century, its economy still relied on pearl diving in the Gulf. But in 1939 it discovered more lucrative resources—oil and natural gas. By the time Qatar became independent of British rule in 1971, it had the third largest oil reserves in the world. Now, the country is fabulously wealthy, especially given its tiny population of 3 million, 88 percent of which consists of foreigners and foreign laborers. That’s right, there are only about 300,000 native Qataris.
Qatar is a semi-constitutional monarchy that has enshrined sharia in its legal system, but it nonetheless seems liberal compared to its neighbors After all it does observe some elections, and its the home of Al Jazeera, which is considered the most independent large media organization in the Muslim world.
SIERRA: Let's talk about this year's World Cup. I've been following along with the World Cup coverage and so much of it seems incredibly negative. Could you speak on this year's World Cup drama in particular?
DUBOIS: I mean, there are many things that are peculiar about this World Cup. For one thing, it's happening at a different time of year than the World Cup has ever happened before. So, it's happening in the winter because of the heat conditions in Qatar. It is in a small country with a very particular social matrix and political matrix. It is well known that there have been a lot of human rights abuses and labor abuses in the construction of stadia. So, there's a lot of concern, specifically about the cost, essentially, of this World Cup, the human cost. And there have been a series of corruption scandals that emerged from the awarding of the World Cup to Qatar and the broader question of how FIFA makes these decisions. At the same time, it's the first World Cup held in an Arab country, in a Middle Eastern country. It comes in the wake of several other World Cups that have, themselves, been controversial in terms of the politics. And so, it feels like it's crystallizing things that have been building, actually for a while, around the World Cup. And the fundamental thing I think is this kind of feeling of contradiction between what the World Cup is meant to be, which is a celebration of human contact and of the joy of the sport and of people coming from all around, and then the infrastructural, economic, social dynamics of the World Cup. And I think we'll be seeing that a lot as it unfolds and people, journalists and fans, trying to navigate those contradictions in certain ways.
Same sex marriage is illegal in Qatar, and sex between men is technically punishable by prison sentence. This has led to widespread frustration among LGBTQ groups and their allies. Qatar, for its part, has noted that its laws are consistent with others across the Arab world, and that they are generally not strictly enforced.
The other major issue has to do with migrant labor.
BBC News: There are just days to go before the start of the World Cup in Qatar but the build-up to the event has been blighted by safety concerns.
France 24: Six-and-a-half thousand migrant workers lost their lives in the construction of the stadiums and infrastructure to enable soccer to be played in the intense heat.
Channel 4 News: Nirmala Pakrin’s husband, Rupchandra Rumba, died while he was employed in one of the new World Cup stadiums in 2019. Rupchandra’s death certificate states he died of natural causes, a vague term used to describe thousands of migrant deaths in Qatar.
In order to build World Cup infrastructure from scratch, Qatar brought in hundreds of thousands of migrant laborers, mostly from Africa and South Asia. Under the so-called Kafala system, migrant workers are entirely dependent upon their employers, leading to unfair or nonexistent wages, racism, and dangerous working conditions. Reports have found that thousands of such workers died during preparation for the Cup.
Taken together, these issues have led some observers to declare that the Qatar cup has permanently sullied global soccer. Others note that this isn’t the first Cup to transpire amid human rights problems and political debate.
DUBOIS: I mean, it's worth reminding people, the World Cup in 2014 was preceded the previous year in Brazil with a major social movement. I mean, one that happened during the Confederations Cup, which is a tournament that happens in the place that's hosting the World Cup the year before. It's a warm up tournament. But it was a massive protest movement and people really expressed a lot of disgust with the fact that the Brazilian government had had to spend so much money to host this tournament and build infrastructure that wasn't going to help the people. So, there have been huge controversies around this and thinking back to 2018, this was hosted by Russia. Putin presided over the whole thing, certainly got a lot of help in some ways from hosting that tournament, in terms of his image. Something that now, a few years later, strikes us again as a problematic thing, I think in ways that many people recognize. So, this is not the first time, it may be just stark in a certain kind of way that I think is bringing things home.
The example of Russia stands out in particular. Just four years ago the world was celebrating France’s victory in Moscow. Now Russia is engaged in a brutal war that aims to change the borders of a democratic neighbor. Gay marriage? Also illegal in Russia.
It's a good reminder that the Qatar cup is only the latest in a series of global events hosted in the authoritarian world.
SIERRA: Well, in that vein, I want to ask you about this term sports washing. I think it's something that people have heard the term more and more. So, do you think that you could just go into that a little bit and how it pertains to this World Cup?
DUBOIS: The most famous case, maybe this is Adolf Hitler's hosting of the Olympics in 1936, there were World Cups hosted by Argentina under dictatorship. There have been many other cases where you can point to this. And the basic idea is that a country that hosts the World Cup kind of gets to burnish its image. It's an opportunity for the country to kind of be seen by the world in a light that it wants, right? And to perhaps, sort of, put under the rug other problems with the country or political problems.
This trend is pretty salient when it comes to Qatar. Remember, it’s a very small country that has only been independent since 1971. Qatar has a lot of money, but on the global stage they tend to be overshadowed by their larger and more assertive neighbors, especially Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates.
For Qatar, the World Cup was a chance to draw the world’s eye, and to brand themselves. And for this they were not only willing to pay billions of dollars in infrastructure costs, but billions more to develop a global soccer profile.
In 2011, one year after winning their World Cup bid, Qatar purchased the Paris St. Germain soccer team, following the lead of other middle eastern countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. They proceeded to pour enormous resources into the team, scooping up world-class stars like Neymar and Lionel Messi, while purchasing exclusive media rights to broadcast soccer around the world. It has certainly brought them recognition, but that has also come with scrutiny, and accusations that they have soured European soccer by making it impossible for other teams to compete financially.
The World Cup will be a big test for how much of a return they get on their investment.
DUBOIS: The issue is that it only works to some extent because of course, what also happens is journalists descend on your country.
SIERRA: I was going to say, doesn't it also call attention to some of the things?
DUBOIS: Yes. So, it does, in a certain way. I mean, I think that it's very clear that the question of migrant labor and the oppression of migrant laborers in Qatar for instance, would likely have not been on many people's radar but for the World Cup. And it's an issue that exists outside the World Cup and now it's visible. So, I do think that there's a double-edged sword to it. We're talking about a larger context in which the investments in sport have really skyrocketed over the last couple decades. So, there's a lot of questions of also, ‘whose money is going where?’ in the professional game. And so, I think there's a way in which these things are interlinked and there's no doubt that the sport is deeply embedded in all these other troubling questions. And then at the same time, it can't quite be contained or controlled by that, because the thing about it is it's a sport, which means you have no idea what's going to happen on the field. You also, and this I think is maybe important to emphasize, put on the field players, who most of the time, in most of their societies, have often come from pretty marginalized parts of society. Right? A lot of athletes are people who have experienced, to some extent, the worst of a particular nation. They have found in sport a form of social mobility that they couldn't find in other places. So, many, many of the athletes who become icons during a World Cup represent the nation they come from in a way very different from the political or economic elites. And I think that's part of the double-edged sword too, is that a country's identity gets represented by people who in many other cases wouldn't have the ability to represent that country in the same way but for the World Cup.
SIERRA: FIFA likes to claim that the World Cup is apolitical. I mean, do you think that's true?
DUBOIS: Absolutely not. It's sort of an absurd statement. What they mean by that is, "We don't want people to say political things that we don't like or that are controversial." I mean, is it political in the sense that it's directly related to elections and countries? Well, not exactly in that sense, but I mean if you have a slightly larger sense of what's political, it's obviously political. And if you ask yourself, “when do you get to see your nation in some sense, outside of just an abstraction?” You can see the president of the country, you can see the parliament, you maybe see the armed forces, you see the flag. But those are a little bit more abstract.
DUBOIS: Whereas, the national team just feels like for a little while you're just looking at Brazil. And everyone knows you're probably not going to win the World Cup, but maybe you have a good run, you have a couple games. People celebrate just any World Cup victory. I mean, just an example, the first game of the 2018 World Cup, Mexico-Germany, Mexico defeated Germany, and the earthquake monitoring division in Mexico City registered a small earthquake when the goal was scored and when the game ended, just from people jumping up and down in Mexico City.
SIERRA: Oh my god, really?
DUBOIS: That wasn't winning the World Cup, that was just the first game of the group stage-
SIERRA: Aww, that's amazing.
DUBOIS: But it was a national event that everyone will remember. So, there's a way in which, on that level, I guess it's joyously political in a way that we sometimes don't think of.
SIERRA: I like that, joyously political.
SIERRA: I mean, sometimes teams and matches in the World Cup are seen as symbols for geopolitical changes and tensions. So, are there any teams out there that symbolize a changing world for you?
DUBOIS: There's several powerful examples in this World Cup. Probably the Iranian team is one of the most clear, because there are, obviously given the situation in Iran and the protests in Iran, there are many athletes who have started to express support for the protests. Some are, it seems, not being included perhaps, or punished in a certain way. This happened in 2009 too, where athletes on the Iranian football team supported the 2009 protests in Iran. So, there you really see a deep tension, which is in some ways the Iranian team is an official team by the federation and therefore in a sense a kind of governmental representative. I mean not a formal governmental representative but they do represent the country. And yet, I think for a lot of the players, they think they are representing the Iranian people who are right now, many of them, in revolt against their government. So, I think that's an opportunity for players, but it's also an opportunity the government wants to contain.
Sky Sports News: Now before the game, none of the Iran players sang the national anthem of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The captain, Ehsan Hajsafi, said before the tournament that the national team supports those who have died in protests across the country.
DUBOIS: A case that I've written about a lot, of course, is the French national team and you can think of other European teams where you have teams that are actually majority made up of children of immigrants, often. And so, who are representing Europe but also representing home nations, or represent multiple identities. And at times you've had people attack those teams for not representing the country.
SIERRA: Oh, interesting.
DUBOIS: Not representing France. And of course, they do represent France, they represent maybe just a different version of France than other people want to be seen.
SIERRA: Of course.
DUBOIS: We have a US player, Chris Matthews, who's very strongly invested in Black Lives Matter and anti-racist activism, and a lot of players around the world who also speak up about essentially the issues in their home countries that they're passionate about. Athletes can do that in all kinds of settings. But when you are representing your country in the most watched sporting event on the planet, you do have a different kind of platform that's just on another level.
SIERRA: At the same time, all of these players are here to win right? I mean that is what most viewers are expecting to see when they tune in, like just a good soccer match.
DUBOIS: I think that there's a way in which the World Cup gives us a break from other things, right? Notably from the political conflicts in our countries, from the news and everything that's happening in our world. It's going to be a time where we can maybe forget about all that for a while. And then at the same time, it plunges us right back into geopolitics, right? We're thinking about nations and their relationship, but maybe refracted in a slightly different way. And I think that's part of the point, is that when we're thinking about our nations and then thinking about the larger world through the World Cup, maybe it's giving us a more hopeful way of thinking about that. I think at the best you can say, can we take some of that more positive energy about unity and connection, even affection across differences, and then bring that into our political lives. That's what would be the most hopeful version of what can happen in that context.
SIERRA: So, going from beautiful and inclusive and amazing, to FIFA, because we have to talk about FIFA for a moment. I read a piece that said, "FIFA is actually more powerful than the UN." Which seemed maybe impossible to me. I mean, what's up with FIFA?
DUBOIS: Well, it's such a fascinating, international organization, and in a sense, I don't think people have analyzed it enough, just from a political science institutional background. They say they’re more important, partly because there's actually more members than the UN, because there are places that are members of FIFA that aren't countries, Palestine, Caledonia, obviously, the Faroe Islands, et cetera. You can mention various ones. So, they have a larger footprint, I guess. There are nations that are in FIFA that aren't recognized as nations otherwise, in that sense. This is a, originally, a cute, little organization organized mainly in Europe to organize games between countries. And then it grew, especially through the '60s and '70s, it grew as decolonization happened. And one of the first things that countries would do after getting independence would be, of course, join the UN and also join FIFA. Right? As it grew, the power of FIFA grew more and more, because FIFA can determine a lot of flows of money. They decide, of course, where tournaments are hosted, not just the big ones but small ones. And each of those tournaments brings revenue. They now control the Women's World Cup and Women's International Tournament, after many years of not being interested, but in the '90s they started being interested. But the real thing is the nexus that happened in the '80s and '90s when television rights became privatized and the money flowing into particular viewing rights became massive, is that you just have this organization that controls a nexus of institutional, structural, and economic power, in a way that does mirror the UN, in the sense that there's a general assembly, but then there's this group of people, group of countries who really have a lot more control.
PBS NewsHour: People who have even a casual understanding of what FIFA represents associate it with corruption, and cronyism, and a lack of transparency.
WeShow Football: But in no way can FIFA accept to be responsible for the welfare of workers. They belong to commercial and industrial companies of other countries.
Wall Street Journal: The upshot has been a radical reconfiguration of soccer’s power structure. A president can be elected without a single vote from Europe and South America confederations.
Real Stories: In order to win a bid to host the World Cup you have to convince a majority of the 24 voters on the FIFA executive committee. They are the gods of football.
DUBOIS: And then, people are not as familiar with this, but there's then the board related to FIFA, the International Football Association Board that governs the rules of soccer, which has a weird structure in that four of those eight seats are actually just England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
SIERRA: Oh, okay.
DUBOIS: So, half of that is controlled basically just by the UK, and then the other four are rotating. But in terms of the specific issues, which is that there is just a huge amount of opportunity for corruption within FIFA, and who is the body above FIFA that would police FIFA? Well, there isn't really one. And the real question is, does FIFA represent football fans and players around the world? Well, not exactly, it really more represents a set of interests within them,
SIERRA: Let's talk about money. So, how much money is at play when FIFA selects a new World Cup host?
DUBOIS: It's really a weird relationship, right? Because the country takes on all of the responsibility for the infrastructure. This was the issue in Brazil and in South Africa. It's not like FIFA gives the country a bunch of money to build the stadium. They just require them to build a bunch of stadia, according to rather specific rules, actually. Then FIFA actually totally controls what happens in the stadia and who gets to sell alcohol and stuff like that.
Side note, as you may have heard, Qatar banned alcohol sales in stadia at the last minute. This was bad news for many fans, and also for World Cup sponsor Budweiser, which eventually decided to award all unsold beer to the victorious country.
DUBOIS: Food is always really bad at World Cup games. You're in South Africa, but you just have to eat a bad hot dog. So, it's a weird relationship. Now, what the country gets in principle, right? Is people coming to the World Cup, the money from tourism and those sorts of things. On balance, I think when people have really studied it, it tends to be actually at a loss. The countries tend to have to spend more money than they get from people visiting, just because it just doesn't pan out, even if you really gouge people on their hotels and stuff, which places do. I think the reason that politicians go for it is not really because - they'll argue that it's good financially for the country, but really what they're thinking about is themselves. It's good for them to host this World Cup. So, it's sort of a losing proposition from a raw financial perspective, for a country, generally. I mean, it does create employment and you can argue a bunch of different ways about it. But I think again, it's more that symbolic draw. People are drawn to it like moths to the flame that they have to be hosting the World Cup. And of course, it depends on - like when the United States, Canada, and Mexico host the World Cup in 2026, to some extent, the infrastructural investment is going to be less of a big deal on some level than it was say, in South Africa, and Brazil, and Qatar, because there's already a lot of big stadia, et cetera.
To put things in perspective, the 2022 world cup is astronomically more expensive than previous years. Qatar has spent more than twice the previous 8 cups combined. In 2018, Russia spent 11.6 billion, and in 2014, the cup cost Brazil 15 billion. Typically, countries don’t recoup the costs immediately, instead they hope the tournament will have a positive effect on their economy in the long run. Qatar, for example, only expects to make back 17 billion dollars of the 220 billion it shelled out in the short term, and South Africa is estimated to have lost 2.8 billion when it hosted in 2010. Who makes the immediate cash? FIFA. Each world cup rakes in billions of dollars through TV and marketing rights.
SIERRA: It just makes me think of all of the times that we see the photos of the almost ruins of the stadiums that they built after the game. Whether it's from the Olympics or the World Cup, I mean it seems like definitely a loss, not a gain.
DUBOIS: Yeah. In Brazil, I mean the only people who can fill some of those stadias are now these big evangelical rallies, which bring together 80,000 people sometimes. But yeah, there's no local league that has enough people to go in those stadia.
SIERRA: So, corruption keeps coming up, you’ve mentioned it a few times already. So can you tell me a bit more about that?
DUBOIS: What we're really talking about is that there are groups of elites or oligarchs in a particular country, who are deeply connected with the people who run FIFA and who make arrangements. And on both sides, a lot of people are making a lot of money from that, right? So, the government officials who decide to host the World Cup are also often tied to the contracts and can give contracts to their friends to build the hotels. It's not necessarily like someone handed a suitcase of money in a back alley to someone, right?
SIERRA: Right. With a wink. Yeah.
DUBOIS: It's more just that these things are so intertwined and the people who decide who's going to get the TV rights in a particular country, and which country's going to host it. I think it's that corruption that happens when there's almost no transparency. Again, what is the body that's going to really investigate FIFA in a way that is solid? I mean, even when the Swiss police and the FBI joined together, they made certain things stick, but it's actually really hard to investigate a body like that.
Rumors of corruption have only grown in the decades leading up to the current World Cup. The main accusation is that top soccer officials within FIFA were bribed into voting for Qatar. Numerous investigations have been conducted, and the US department of justice even indicted 16 officials in 2015 for racketeering conspiracy, and corruption. Later that year, FIFA president Sepp Blatter resigned, in part due to the ongoing scandal.
FIFA, for its part, has denied accusations of bribery, noting that no irrefutable evidence has been produced. They have also emphasized that “reform takes time”. In the meantime, the FIFA bidding process, for all of its global impact, remains veiled in secrecy.
DUBOIS: So, they deploy a ton of power without much transparency, and then brush off the idea that there should be transparency by saying that they're not really that important, in some ways. And all of it comes from the fact that they're controlling something that people around the world just love and are going to watch, basically. It's very difficult to convince people not to watch the World Cup. There's some courageous French towns that have said they're not putting up big screens, to boycott this World Cup because of the human rights abuses. But I think most people in those towns will still watch the French games in their houses. Its just like you can’t really stop people going for this. So, FIFA knows that on some level and no one in FIFA is elected by their countries. There's not a way to control them. And I think that’s part of it so, if you believe that human beings are often drawn to corruption when they're not controlled by some structure, FIFA's a good case of that. I mean, in the US case, like with the Sally Yates report that just came about, about sexual harassment and violence in women's soccer here, you have a federation that finally after really not dealing with an issue, I think is playing an important role in addressing systemic questions in the country.
Released this past October, the Yates report exposed extensive sexual and emotional abuse perpetrated by former FIFA employees within the women’s professional soccer league.
DUBOIS: These federations are nonprofit organizations. They're supposed to sustain people who play soccer in their country. So, they could and should be forces for good in their countries, and in some cases they are more than others. But I think people deserve better organizations than they have.
SIERRA: Yeah. I mean, all this said, are you going to watch the World Cup?
DUBOIS: Absolutely. Yeah. I'm falling right into that category. Yeah. I wish I could deliver a more morally cogent statement. I mean, I do think that, like in lots of other realms of our lives, there are organisms that we maybe don't like the way they're run, we don't believe in all their choices, and we participate in, nonetheless. I think we're all part of institutions in one way or another, or social institutions, that are like that. It feels like, to me anyway, there's still something that is very unique about this event, maybe in a time like now more than ever, where I do believe in that initial romantic nature of the World Cup, that there is something powerful about human beings being united in this. And if we can get a little bit of that and use that energy to do better as a planet and as a world, I'm for that. I also think that people need to call out the injustices and speak out about what's done. There isn't a reason why things had to be done the way they were in Qatar for building these, they could have paid laborers better, they could have treated people better. And so, I think it's worth calling those things out as well.
SIERRA: Whenever I think of the World Cup, I think of, especially lately, just so many people coming together, rooting for one team, and I guess once the US is out, another team, but all in the same bar, all cheering for the same thing. And aside from the Olympics and even then, I don't know anything as powerful as that.
DUBOIS: There just isn't anything else. And people do, they root for other countries. There's an interesting openness, right? You learn about other countries. At the beginning of the World Cup, you've never heard of a particular country and then maybe you fall in love with that country just because you love the way their team plays. Suddenly you're super into Croatia. And I think that’s education, that’s global education for people. It does affect the way that you see your country and your community, and maybe makes you open in different ways and think about your nation in a different way. So, I think all those things are very powerful and there isn't really any other thing that delivers it like the World Cup.
SIERRA: Alright, let’s end on a philosophical note then. Why soccer? Why not basketball or baseball? What made soccer the world’s game?
DUBOIS: It is this really interesting question, right? Obviously, sports are a huge part of human culture all across the world, but soccer just stands out in the sense that it is present pretty much everywhere. It comes out of a particularly specific place and time, but then it spread so quickly to Latin America, to Africa, to Asia, and by the end of the 19th, beginning of the 20th century, it's already becoming this kind of global language. And I think the question I'm always thinking about is why? What is it about this particular form that allowed so many people to embrace it? I think there are specific things actually about the nature of the game that allows both something universal, something that people share across cultures, which makes it a kind of language, and that's attractive. And at the same time, it allows, I think for people to express very local identities, local cultures, local ways of being through the sport. So, it enables people to both be very rooted in the way that they play the sport and also be playing something that they know is shared across the whole world. And you can have funny conversations about this in the United States, because there's people who love soccer. There's also people who just really hate it, who find it boring, incomprehensible. They don't understand what the thing is. "Why is the game 0-0? No one ever scores a goal. They're flopping around." We have all heard the critiques and had fun conversations with soccer haters, and all legitimate critiques. People love their sports for different reasons. But I guess what I would lean into is that a lot of the things that people who dislike this sport call attention to as its problems, I think are actually its virtues. And what I mean by that is that a lot of the things about the game create a very emotionally complex relationship to the game, in that it is very true that the outcomes of the games often just don't really feel fair. They don't really feel like they reflect what should have happened. Some kind of stupid mistake by someone. One instant the game can be going really well for a team and then they make a stupid mistake and they lose because of that. The referees, of course, notoriously, are dealing with lots of gray areas with offside calls, with handball calls, with different kinds of calls that even in the era of VAR and video assistants, still remain ambiguous and people argue about them forever. I have friends who still discuss refereeing calls from the 1982 World Cup, as if it just happened yesterday. Right? So, it's actually one of the things that people love doing about the game actually, is to talk endlessly about basically the system of justice and how it misfired, and how it's unfair to them. And then coupled with that, you just have moments of beauty and glory and people who carry out a set of plays that are just incredible to behold. So, you have this mix of things that you're watching, that I think just really reflect people's lived experience, right? The mix of possibility and joy and beauty, and then stupid things happening to you, basically, unfair things.
SIERRA: Which is universal.
DUBOIS: Yeah, exactly. Unfair things happening. Being the best at what you do and still somebody mediocre gets the job, or something, right?
SIERRA: Yeah. Right.
DUBOIS: So, I think people relate to that, actually. So the game gives you a kind of language to think about life. And then that basic core thing, which is then having to pick yourself up even in the face of injustice and unfairness and get the energy to play the next game. And the one thing that the game offers and that the World Cup offers is it's going to keep happening. But you have no guarantee, in soccer, that working hard and doing all the things right is going to lead to the outcome you want.
SIERRA: Wow. I love that you're looking at that as a positive.
DUBOIS: Yeah. Well, I think the point is that it's like, you can want to see sports as a place that's outside of normal experience. Which is fair enough, like a place where things are different from the world and there may be more fair than the world. That's not something you're going to really get in soccer, actually.
There’s no question that some aspects of the Qatar cup are queasy. The stadiums were built on the backs of exploited migrant labor. LGBTQ fans have been told to ‘tone it down’ if they attend in person. There is evidence of corruption. And, in a year when climate effects grew even worse, it just seems strange to hold the Cup in a wealthy petrostate. With all this, it’s understandable that rights groups and others are frustrated when fans tune out the noise and enjoy the game.
But there’s another way to look at it. At a time in history where everything seems to keep falling apart, the world still has this funny little game that commands a shared feeling from billions the world over. No matter the host country, no matter the circumstances, the enthusiasm is irrepressible. And maybe it’s good to remember that’s possible, if only every four years.
For resources used in this episode and more information, visit CFR.org/whyitmatters and take a look at the show notes.
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Why It Matters is a production of the Council on Foreign Relations. The show is produced by Asher Ross and me, Gabrielle Sierra. Our sound designer is Markus Zakaria. Our associate podcast producer is Molly McAnany. Our intern this semester is Mormei Zanke.
Robert McMahon is our Managing Editor, and Doug Halsey is our Chief Digital Officer. Extra help for this episode was provided by Claire Klobucista and Kali Robinson.
Our theme music is composed by Ceiri Torjussen. We’d also like to thank Richard Haass, Jeff Reinke and our co-creator Jeremy Sherlick.
For Why It Matters, this is Gabrielle Sierra signing off. See you around!
As Qatar welcomes more than a million fans to its newly-constructed soccer stadia, billions more are watching avidly from every corner of the planet. Still, the 2022 Cup has long been overshadowed by accusations of corruption, exploited migrant labor, and the clash between Qatar’s domestic laws and Western democratic values. Qatar was willing to lay out more than $200 billion in order to burnish its image on the world stage, but it remains unclear whether they will get the desired return on their investment. In this episode, we ask what the World Cup’s soft power means when wielded by a tiny, authoritarian petrostate, and what lessons can be learned from the world’s irrepressible love of soccer.
Eleanor Albert and Jonathan Grix, “The Mixed Record of Sports Diplomacy”
Kali Robinson, “What Is the Kafala System?”
Rebecca Turkington, “Going for the Goal: Will the 2019 World Cup Be a Game Changer for Women’s Soccer?,” Women Around the World
From Our Guest
Laurent Dubois, The Language of the Game: How to Understand Soccer, Basic Books
Laurent Dubois, Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France, University of California Press
James Montague and Tariq Panja, “Ahead of Qatar World Cup, a Gulf Feud Plays Out in the Shadows,” New York Times
Jules Boykoff and Dave Zirin, “The Tragic Absurdity of Qatar’s World Cup Sportswashing,” The Nation
Marek Jan Chodakiewicz, “Politics and Soccer in the EU,” Institute of World Politics
Rory Smith, “Soccer Is Politics, Whether It Likes It or Not,” New York Times
Simon Evans, “Soccer-Politics and Protest in Sport: Have FIFA’s Rules Changed?,” Reuters
Watch and Listen
“The True Cost of the Qatar 2022 World Cup,” Business Insider
“World Corrupt,” Crooked Media
“The Qatar World Cup Explained,” Tifo Football