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Qatar Is the Best Soccer Team in Asia … but at What Price?

In 2010, Qatar was named host of the 2022 World Cup. Since then stories of corruption and modern slavery have clouded their preparations. So how do we reckon with the country’s Asian Cup triumph and its rising stock on the pitch?

AP Images/Ringer illustration

On Friday, in front of a hostile Abu Dhabi crowd that just days before launched shoes in their general direction, and under the watchful eye of FIFA president Gianni Infantino, Qatar did what all but Xavi doubted it could, topping Japan 3-1, to win its first Asian Cup. It became clear that the gulf nation was in control from the opening moments of the match, as an Almoez Ali strike gave Qatar the lead just 12 minutes into play. An Abdulaziz Hatem wondergoal doubled the margin 15 minutes later.

The victory wasn’t unlike the others that sent Qatar to its first Asian Cup final, having bested Iraq, South Korea, and the United Arab Emirates in the knockout rounds, and 2018 World Cup qualifier Saudi Arabia in the group stage. The win capped an impressive, if unexpected, come-up for the Qatari national team. In the eight-plus years since being named the unlikely host of the 2022 World Cup, Qatar has seen its profile rise from lowly continental afterthought to Asian champion.

At another time, for another nation, this kind of success story would be inspirational. After Friday, Qataris can reasonably claim to support the best team on the world’s biggest continent. But reports of high death rates among migrant workers, their further exploitation, and atrocities in Qatar’s build-up to the World Cup have forced a difficult thought: How do we reckon with Qatar’s Asian triumph and on-pitch success against a backdrop of human rights violations?

At first there was confusion. Or at the very least, surprise.

In 2010, five countries made their case to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Australia was the first to be voted out. Then Japan, then South Korea, until only two nations—Qatar and the United States—remained. The hype surrounding the American bid was overwhelming. The United States hosted the 1994 edition of the tournament, which still holds attendance records and garnered more than 32 billion cumulative viewers worldwide.

America’s bid was simple. Soccer was the global game, and the United States was ready to join the grown-up table. With mammoth American football stadiums speckled across the country and a well developed infrastructure, no nation on earth could rival the preparedness of the United States to host the world’s biggest event. Certainly not Qatar, a tiny peninsula in the Persian Gulf of just more than 2 million people and no noteworthy soccer legacy. Seven of Qatar’s final eight proposed venues for the tournament are being constructed from scratch. Four are in Doha, the capital city. One is in Lusail, a city that, like its stadium, has yet to be built.

Yet when the votes were tallied, the gulf nation emerged victorious: 14 votes in favor, eight against. In Doha, fans flooded the streets in celebration, but it seemed as if logistical hurdles appeared before the party ended. Normally, the World Cup is held in the summer months, when the major soccer leagues are between seasons. But Qatar is a desert state, and temperatures can often break 100 degrees Fahrenheit without respite. So the event will be held, for the first time, in the winter. Qatar’s governance practices align with Sharia; as such, public consumption of alcohol would require a change in law. Like Russia before it, Qatar has hostile stances on sexual orientation and identity (homosexuality is outlawed), meaning that LGBTQ fans will be alienated and risk their own safety to attend. More problems arose after ground was broken on the new stadiums, as disastrous working conditions for the laborers preparing the country for opening day have been a focus in the lead-up to the tournament.

“We go to new lands,” then-FIFA president Sepp Blatter told reporters of the decision. “The Middle East and Arabic world has been waiting for a long time. So I’m a happy president when we talk about the development of football.”

Rumors quickly gained traction that Blatter supported Qatar’s bid and even helped orchestrate its success in the secret balloting (though he has denied these allegations). At the time of the vote, accusations had been levied against six of 24 committee members, and two were disqualified from taking part. Of course, we know now that votes for Qatar were exchanged for millions in cash, thanks to a U.S. Department of Justice probe that brought down a handful of FIFA executives on charges of bribery and corruption. Still, despite multiple reports on the misdeeds that won Qatar the rights to host the World Cup, the tournament is scheduled as planned, with kickoff on November 21, 2022, in Lusail Stadium.

Off-field issues have dominated the news about Qatar in the more than eight years since the country was named host, and rightfully so. But on the pitch, Qatar has overhauled its soccer establishment. The country has never qualified for the World Cup—a first among host nations—and, before Friday, had never won a continental championship, either. Following a string of top-10 finishes in the Asian Cup to close the 20th century, the gulf nation regressed, finishing 14th in both the 2004 and 2007 editions of the tournament. When it was named World Cup host, this was the most memorable highlight in Qatari soccer history:

But shortly after it won the bid, things began to change. On the final day of 2010, just weeks after being named host, Qatar was rated no. 82 globally in Elo. In 2011, Qatar logged what was previously its best finish of the century in the continental cup, finishing seventh. In 2014, it won the Gulf Cup, beating its peninsula rivals to claim its only championship in the past half-dozen tries. Entering Friday, it sat at 40th, better than the finishing placement of eight of last summer’s 32 World Cup participants.

Some of its success has to do with recruitment of dual nationals—five of the 23 players on Qatar’s current roster weren’t born there, including the Asian Cup’s leading scorer, Almoez Ali, who hails from Sudan. Other players were born in Portugal, France, Algeria, and Iraq, and the team’s manager, Félix Sánchez Bas, is a Spanish caretaker who got his start at Camp Nou.

Enlistment of dual nationals with dubious ties to their adopted countries has been used by other countries before in an attempt to bolster subpar rosters and has garnered criticism: Syria was famously disqualified from 2014 World Cup qualification for fielding a Swedish striker without seeking FIFA’s approval. Qatar’s Asian Cup semifinal opponent, the U.A.E., lodged a complaint after the match claiming that Ali and defender Bassam al-Rawi weren’t eligible to play. The Qatari federation’s lack of response has only raised more eyebrows, and FIFA’s deferral on the matter to the Asian Football Confederation suggests they might turn a blind eye as the next World Cup approaches. Even if the Asian federation uncovers nothing dubious about Ali and al-Rawi’s eligibility, the whispers will continue as long as they’re focal points in Qatar’s rise on the pitch.

Success on the field, however impressive, doesn’t negate the horrors unfolding as Qatar prepares to host in 2022. Qatar’s World Cup is being built on the backs of exploited migrant laborers lured into the country under the pretense of earning fair pay for work, who instead find themselves trapped in a system of modern slavery. In 2014, a report in The Guardian estimated that a Nepalese worker died every two days building stadiums and infrastructure in the lead-up to tournament, and figures regarding Indian, Sri Lankan, and Bangladeshi workers weren’t available. Even after a separate Guardian report inspired reform in the gulf state, Amnesty International still warned that the changes enacted didn’t go nearly far enough to protect laborers. And while it’s disconcerting that the national team has excelled while these events have unfolded, on-field triumphs are nothing new for totalitarian regimes.

The 1936 Olympics were supposed to cement Germany’s place as a leader in the world, using sport as a mouthpiece for Hitler’s white supremacist beliefs. Jesse Owens’s four gold medals notwithstanding, the Olympics were a success for the Nazi Party, as Germany topped both the gold and the overall medal tables. That same decade, Benito Mussolini used his national soccer team as support for his regime. At their opening game in France at the 1938 World Cup, as jeers rained down from the Marseille crowd, the Italian team was ordered to hold their salutes until the last protest whimpered. And the use of sports as an extension of politics still persists. Just two years ago, the Syrian soccer team—then just a handful of games away from qualifying for what would have been their first World Cup—incited division among their fans, donning the Ba’athist flag in support of the Assads.

Qatar’s alleged support for terrorist groups has also placed it at odds with its neighbors; Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the U.A.E. are just some of the countries in the region that have severed diplomatic ties. The resulting “blockade” was implemented with the goal of getting Qatar to capitulate to the whims of its political rivals, though representatives from Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani’s government suggest they’ve moved on. What effect, if any, the blockade will have when World Cup qualification begins is yet to be seen.

Hosting a major tournament is, above all else, a status symbol. There is no money to be made in the World Cup calling your soil home (at least not legally, or directly), but plenty to be lost. Countries foot gargantuan bills to host the tournament, and FIFA’s tax-exempt status means that the profits from the world’s biggest event go back to Zurich, rather than to public goods. The event costs billions to put on for the most developed nations in the world, and even more for those, like Qatar, that are building almost everything from scratch.

Still, performing well on a global stage opens doors. The expense of putting on a World Cup is enormous, but the hope, from the host’s perspective, is that it makes them a more attractive trade partner for big corporations. Qatar is no stranger to business, boasting one of the highest GDP per capita figures in the world. A successful World Cup would only serve to increase the viability of Doha as an economic center and increase the likelihood of even more valuable international trade partnerships.

Qatar isn’t new to this game. Qatar Sports Investments’ purchase of Paris Saint-Germain a year after securing the 2022 World Cup placed them at the front and center of the sport’s landscape. PSG saw a rapid improvement following Qatari investment, climbing from the fringes of Champions League qualification to a spot among the world’s elite. And while QSI paid their way to the top of Ligue 1, Qatar was already a Champions League regular by proxy, thanks to Qatar Airways’ kit sponsorship of Barcelona, which reportedly ended after members of the club expressed discomfort being linked to the gulf state.

Though the same type of advancement is unobtainable at the international level—countries can’t just pay €400 million and make Neymar and Kylian Mbappé citizens—Qatar’s recent success can’t be discounted. Less than a decade ago, the team was an afterthought, resigned to exit early from continental cups. Now, they’ve capped their most successful tournament in history, claiming their first major championship. This summer, Qatar will have a chance to build on its success as an invitee (along with Japan) to Copa América, South America’s continental championship, where the Qataris were drawn into a group with Argentina, Colombia, and Paraguay.

Scrutiny of the decision to award Qatar the tournament will only intensify as 2022 draws nearer. The dawn of the Qatari national team is coinciding with a period of time when the country itself is under a microscope, the likes of which it’s never before experienced. Former Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani suggested the choice of the gulf nation was one of change. But history suggests it could just be more of the same.

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