We’re addicts, hooked on a game, on thrills. And like any addict, we justify our behavior in search of that next fix.
Heroes engage in repulsive acts, and our horror lasts until the next hat trick. Racism permeates the game that we love, and we accept the pablum of t-shirts, banners and armbands. A petrostate acquires a football club and we tell ourselves that it’s fine, that our heroes are untainted. The outrage is, as always, temporary. We forgive and forget a lot because of the need for that fix, and the World Cup is the ultimate drug.
The Qatar World Cup is soon to begin, a month in which for me, football ceases to exist. It will be on everywhere, but not in my world. It’s the second World Cup that won’t attract very much of my attention, but the first that I won’t watch a single moment of. I love football too much to watch.
It’s always fair to wonder what is a bridge too far, what makes an addict quit. What’s the thing? Even before a recent viewing of the excellent Netflix FIFA documentary “FIFA Uncovered,” my resolve was to not watch a second of this tournament, a commitment that came away from those four episodes etched in concrete.
The money. So much money that can wash away everything, that can make everyone turn a blind eye to everything, even the piles of migrant worker bodies, even an alleged carbon-conscious environmental footprint that somehow magically withstood the detrimental effects of building stadiums, roads and hotels.
Everything’s fine. Focus on the football. Unless you’re part of the LGBTQ community. You’d better watch your step in the host nation, especially if you heeded the words of the ambassador of the event. A journalist, Grant Wahl, snapped a photo of a World Cup logo while picking up his credentials, and a guard rolled over and told him to delete the image.
The Qatar World Cup is, as with most big athletic events hosted by a nation, a display of soft power. From World Cups to Olympics, that’s just what happens. And many are asking the question, “What makes this one so repugnant?” Every nation has skeletons that rattle in closets in the face of even the lightest breeze. The U.S. was one of the host nations vying for this World Cup. It’s conscience is far from clean. Same with Britain. And people will likely say, “Is there a truly clean place that can host such an event?”
And maybe the answer is found in the question, “What makes an addict finally face up to reality,” to stop overlooking, and rationalizing. The hosts claim otherwise, but most human rights organizations and investigative journalism outfits believe that thousands of migrant workers have given their lives to erect this monument to soft power.
The Guardian did an investigation that estimated more than 6.500 migrant workers have died during the process of bringing this World Cup to life. That is the population of small town.
Courage is a hard thing to muster, to find. Heroes come when someone says, enough. People don’t really say enough in football. Racist chanting happens and officials might not even note it in the match report. The game continues, rather than both teams deciding to leave the pitch, that at some point we need to be human.
There was talk that a nation might boycott this World Cup, might say, “Enough. This is a bridge too far for us, that we have more to lose by going than we would by staying home.”
That didn’t happen, and nobody realistically expected that it would. Jurgen Klopp, manager of Liverpool, said that it’s unreasonable to expect the athletes to take stands like that, that the players are much like pawns, doing the bidding of their FAs. And Klopp is right.
But think about Tommie Smith and John Carlos in 1968.
Think about Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid.
Imagine the courage it must have taken for these athletes to say, “Yes, this event is sport. Yes, we’re supposed to think about the sport, but there is something much more important to say.” Kaepernick’s career ended with his silent protest, the lives of Smith and Carlos were irrevocably altered. If courage had more time to think, it likely wouldn’t happen. Who would choose to make that kind of sacrifice? It’s easier to go along and get along, to say, “Well, it must be okay because my football association has sent us here to represent our country.”
Do you wonder if, in a team’s dressing room as a player laces up the boots, or over dinner and just enough liquor to loosen the tongue, if people don’t wonder about being courageous; if it doesn’t slip into a rarely visited cranny of their brain, that contemplation of making a statement. Not an armband or t-shirt, but a real statement, a thing that people would label stupid and Pyrrhic as they miss the very point of such a statement. What might have happened had one FA said, “We can’t do this.” Would others have followed?
Won’t happen, such a statement. And the question lingers: How many human lives would be necessary to be bigger than the game? Sport makes a great show of soldiering on in the face of unspeakable things. A Formula One race weekend rolled along to its conclusion during an event at which two people died, including the great Ayrton Senna. The 1972 Olympics rolled on. Hell, it took almost 50 years for even a moment of silence to happen at the Games in memory of the 11 athletes who were slain. Sport needs to carry on, needs to think, and make us think, that everything is fine. There is something that is bigger than all that.
A great many questions were raised about the bidding process in the Netflix FIFA documentary, and few of them were answered. An internal audit done by FIFA found that everything was fine. In the here and now, a few lone voices, including Blatter’s, are saying it was a mistake to award the World Cup to Qatar.
People will say, “Football has long been corrupt.”
People will say, “Your beloved Barça was sponsored by Qatar, that one year the team chose to play in an empty stadium while heads were being cracked outside as a people protested for their right to choose how they want to be governed.”
We bicker over SuperLeagues and it makes us feel better, palliative care for a game that is dying as it drowns in money.
People will say, “What are we supposed to do?”
That isn’t a question for me or anyone else to answer. The only possible response for me to muster is only what will happen in my world, one in which football that doesn’t involve my club will cease to exist. I can’t tell anyone else what to do, but I won’t watch a second of that event. It’s impossible for me to stomach it. I think of a scene in the Coen Brothers film “Blood Simple,” in which a man presses on a car seat cushion, and blood wells up. So much blood. Yes, it’s hyperbolic to imagine footballers’ boots, squishing across pitches, but it’s an analogy that popped into my head, unbidden. I can’t watch that. Can’t watch any of it.
But football doesn’t care what I do. A World Cup will happen, matches will take place, fantastic finishes and amazing goals will be scored. And everything will eventually be fine, because it always is as we look for that next fix.