No other sport comes close to football in its global reach. American football has failed miserably in its attempt to cross the Atlantic. American baseball only extends to chunks of Latin America and pockets of Asia. Cricket is confined to the former British Empire. Golf is global but niche. Football is watched anywhere you can get a TV signal and played anywhere you can buy a football. Even Osama bin Laden, an Arsenal fan, encouraged his troops to play football while entrenched in Afghanistan.
The globalization of the beautiful game continues to grow. Xi Jinping has set China the ambitious goal of hosting and winning a World Cup by 2050. After being capped in the post by Qatar for 2022, the United States will host the 2026 World Cup in conjunction with Canada and Mexico. With women‘s football gaining momentum and the sport’s association with sexist violence on the decline, at least in Western Europe, football is also gaining more female fans: at the last World Cup, 40% of spectators were women.
The Qatar World Cup, which begins on November 20, will mark several firsts. It is the first time that a World Cup has taken place in a country with an Arab and Muslim majority. This is the first time the Cup has been held in winter (the original plan to hold the games during the 47-degree summer heat in Qatar had to be scrapped). And, above all, it is the first time that the Cup has been used as the centerpiece of a vast development project.
Qatar’s ruling Al Thani family uses the country’s untold wealth from liquefied natural gas to both ensure its security and ensure its long-term prosperity. In the mid-1990s, he built a billion dollar airbase, which he gifted to the United States, and launched Al Jazeera, which is now a global media network. Since then, he has increasingly focused on the reputation-enhancing (and hopefully revenue-generating) power of football. Qatar Sports Investments bought Paris Saint-Germain in 2011 and turned a rickety French club into a European powerhouse. Various Qatari organizations have sponsorship deals with marquee European clubs such as Barcelona (£30m a year to sponsor his shirt), Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and AS Roma. The government is also spending lavishly to create a Qatari home league, examining the footballing prowess of every 12-year-old Qatari, with unlimited support for high-flyers, and scouting Africa for future stars.
Since winning the competition to host the World Cup in 2010, Qatar has spent more than $250 billion on football-related development, a figure that dwarfs the estimated $42 billion China has spent on the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and the $55 billion that Russia spent on the Winter Olympics in 2014. Ten billion went to eight football stadiums. The rest was spent on a wholesale transformation of the country: the complete remodeling of downtown Doha; the construction of nearly a hundred new hotels; expansion of the port and airport; a revamped road system; the creation of three metro lines; and a new city with homes for over a quarter of a million people.
So far, the West has been overwhelmingly hostile to Qatar’s extraordinary project, far more hostile than it was to Vladimir Putin’s games four years ago. The list of accusations against the oil state is long: that the ruling family is using the World Cup to consolidate its power; that more than 6,000 people died delivering the “vision”; that Qatar is hostile to homosexuals and other minorities; that it is obscene to see a quarter of a trillion dollars of petrochemical wealth being used to pay for a sporting extravaganza that will encourage even more theft; and that Qatar 2022 represents everything that has gone wrong with the beautiful game in the age of globalization. The Qataris barely advanced their cause when their World Cup ambassador (and former national player) Khalid Salman called homosexuality “haram” (forbidden) and “damaging to the mind”. Many people were also unconvinced when the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, the cup’s organizing committee, claimed there had been no more than three ‘work-related’ deaths on projects for which he is responsible. The World Cup therefore represents a unique opportunity to ask two questions: how is football shaped by globalization? And what impact will the backlash against the Qataris have on the 2022 World Cup?
The globalization of football is driven by the most basic market forces: teams that can attract the best talent make the most money, and teams that make the most money can afford the most talent. This led to the creation of super-leagues of football teams which distanced themselves from the rest of the football world. It has also led to an increase in cross-border trade: in the British Premier League, the most globalized league in the world, three-quarters of players and more than half of managers were born abroad, and half of clubs have owners.
Surprisingly, these market forces are most vigorous in old Europe, a continent normally known for its reluctance to embrace commercial values, especially when those values are applied to such sacred things as football, which was originally a workers’ sport and is still saturated. with collectivist values best captured by Liverpool’s anthem, “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. America is lagging behind when it comes to soccer, not least because it held out hope that its own version of soccer could become the world game. By embracing open markets for talent and corporate control, Europe has transformed itself into a global investment hub, pumping money into stadiums, training programs and support staff, as well as a global center of excellence. European teams won five of the six World Cups between 1998 and 2018 and provided three-quarters of the finalists.
Politics also plays an important role. It starts with the role of the international and regional organizations that control the game: for all its faults, FIFA has pursued a strategy of spreading football around the world – hence, as FIFA puts it, its decision to give away the Cup in the Middle East this year and North America next time. But that extends to politicians more generally.
Politicians of all stripes, from social democrats like Tony Blair trying to prove he’s a ‘boy’, to authoritarians like Vladimir Putin honing their macho credentials, love to be associated with football. In 1993, Silvio Berlusconi announced his decision to enter politics by saying that he had decided to get into the field (“discesa in campo”). He also named his political party, Forza Italia, after a national football team chant. President Xi enjoys being photographed at football-related events, including taking a selfie with David Cameron and Sergio Aguero when he visited Manchester City’s training ground in 2015. Viktor Orban built a show stadium in his hometown, where he still maintains a dacha, with seating for nearly 4,000 people despite a local population of just 1,700. In 2014, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan christened the opening of a new stadium in Istanbul by playing himself and scoring a hat trick, all live on TV. North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un wrote a sports manifesto, “Let Usher in a New Golden Age of Building a Sports Power in the Revolutionary Spirit of Paektu”, in which he called on North Korea to “first ensure the world supremacy in women’s football”. .”
These two different forces, commercial and political, can sometimes pull in opposite directions: Britain regularly underperforms at the World Cup because, as the most international market in the world, it loses many of its best players for the benefit of their country of birth and is stuck with a group of players of English origin who are not used to playing together. But in general these two forces are mutually reinforcing. The quadrennial World Cup is just one of many football festivals, from the European Cup to weekly Premier League matches, that delight football fans around the world, from German chancelleries to the slums of Kenya.
How seriously should we take the backlash against the Qatari games? The treatment of construction workers in the heat and dust of the desert has often been horrible, that’s for sure. And bias, whatever it is, has no place in a global event that is broadcast around the world and sponsored by global corporations. But one should be wary of the tendency to see football as an embodiment of the enlightened values of the West now threatened by its contact with the Middle East: many football fans, particularly in Russia and Eastern Europe ‘Est, are hardly angels of tolerance and, as we have seen, many of the world’s autocrats are keen to bend football to their political ends. We should also recognize that the $250 billion will bring progress as well as problems in its wake. The Qataris have liberalized many of their policies – you’ll be able to get weak beer near stadiums and a full range of alcohol in hotel bars – and are sensitive to their international reputation on gay rights. Salman’s “haram” interview was interrupted by an official who was accompanying him. The Advertising Sun has done something to improve the country’s backward labor laws.
Then there is the game itself. I suspect billions of people will quickly forget their concerns about human rights as they get caught up in World Cup fever. Football is not only a beautiful game, but also an unpredictable game – small countries like Croatia can humble giants and obscure players can suddenly become superstars. I also suspect that some people will have a creeping admiration for what the Qataris have done in transforming their kingdom for the competition. We live in a time of diminished expectations, narrowed visions and defensive nationalism. The Qataris have bucked the trend by dreaming big, embracing globalization and building a pharaonic monument to the world’s most global game.
More from Bloomberg Opinion:
• World Cup in Qatar will be great football but a lousy game: Martin Ivens
• Olympic hype can’t hide China’s World Cup debacle: Adam Minter
• How England’s journey of redemption engulfed my life: Matthew Brooker
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Adrian Wooldridge is a global economics columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. A former writer at The Economist, he is the author, most recently, of “The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World”.
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