The World Cup Runneth Over

Much of the world is fixated on the World Cup, the quadrennial soccer extravaganza that is the world’s most watched sporting event. Nationalist exuberance among the 32 qualifiers competing in the final stages extends far beyond sports fans. Pride in one’s team/country is classless as the Cup’s global enthusiasts passionately monitor the matches and will right up until December 18 when the winning team’s captain hoists the solid gold trophy signifying the world’s best soccer nation. Qatar hosts the tournament despite numerous misgivings about its human rights and social policies.

Can chronopolitics, a theory of the importance of the power of speed and time developed by the French cultural theorist Paul Virilio, offer an insight into how the current World Cup moved from FIFA’s (the Federation Internationale de Football Association) dubious selection of the host country to setting record breaking numbers of people watching in the stadiums and on television?

Did time collapse between the initial selection of Qatar, criticisms of the selection, and record attendance and television viewers?

There have been three noteworthy temporal moments.

The initial choice: Qatar was selected to host the tournament in 2010. It was the smallest, hottest, first Arab state to be awarded the lucrative prize. (The cost of hosting is offset by TV rights, attendees and publicity.) Initial reservations concerning the choice, in addition to the hottest and smallest country, focused on Qatar’s labor laws and social rules against the LGBTQ community.

Qatar had an agreement with the International Labour Organization (ILO) about workers’ rights. In 2021, the ILO issued an in-depth analysis of work-related deaths and injuries in Qatar. It showed that 50 workers lost their lives in 2020 and just over 500 were severely injured, with 37,600 suffering mild to moderate injuries.

Pre-tournament criticism: Pressure increased against the government’s policies just before and after the first kick-off on November 20. There was even post-mortem recognition that the choice of Qatar was an error. “Football and the World Cup are too big for that [Qatar],” Sepp Blatter, the former head of FIFA admitted in an interview in late November. It had been a bad choice, he recognized, “And I bore responsibility for that as president at the time.”

As the start of the matches approached and journalists began arriving from around the world, criticisms of Qatar grew louder. Many were focused on the poor working conditions of the foreign laborers hired to build the infrastructure.

Julia Kermode, the founder of iWork, noted on November 23, just after the matches started: “It’s shocking how migrant workers are treated in Qatar. Of some 30,000 workers there have been 6,500 deaths. These aren’t permanent employees either – they’re clearly all temporary workers brought in to help with the World Cup. According to Amnesty International, the World Cup was given to Qatar without any due diligence on how they treat workers.” The Qatari government rejects these figures.

Because of these criticisms, questions arose on how the public could sanction Qatar. In Geneva, the government denied public space for huge screens in fan zones that are normally erected during similar events. Some bars declined to show the matches on their televisions. Concerned citizens, including soccer enthusiasts, promised not to watch the matches as a form of protest.

The tournament begins amid nationalist fever: Then the matches got under way. Nationalist enthusiasm rose in the stadiums and on television. Simple statistics tell the story: As of December 4, after 13 days and 48 matches, FIFA reported a cumulative stadium attendance of 2.45 million spectators, which equals an average of 96 percent occupancy, higher than the corresponding figure of 2.17 million in 2018.

As for television, FIFA reported “record breaking number of viewers around the world.” Some selected figures: In Asia, 36.37 million people watched Japan vs. Costa Rica which was 74% higher than the average audience in 2018. The match Spain vs. Germany was watched by 65% of Spanish television viewers. In the Netherlands, 76.6% of all TV viewers watched their 1-1 draw with Ecuador. The highest TV audience for a FIFA World Cup match in Portugal ever watched Portugal vs. Uruguay. 19.65 million in the U.S. watched the match between the United States and England, the most viewed men’s soccer game in U.S. television history. In Mexico, 20.96 million viewers watched the match against Argentina, 67.9% of all viewers. In Argentina, the average audience for this match was 8.48 million; an audience share of 81.3%.

You get the point. What happened to the initial criticism? What happened to the boycotts? The excitement of the matches has diminished and/or obliterated all previous criticisms: Virilio writes how technology and speed diminish our traditional understandings of space and time: “As in a racetrack vehicle, where the driver has first of all to control the acceleration, to keep his engine in line while no longer paying attention to the surrounding space, tomorrow…it will be similar for all human activity…it will no longer be a matter of admiring the countryside, but solely of scanning one’s screens, one’s dials, the directing of one’s interactive trajectory, that is to say of a ‘distance’ without distance, of an ‘interval’ without interval.”

The interval” without interval between criticism, talk of boycotts and the matches is here. Nationalist passions have overtaken whatever hesitancy people had. Flags are being waved. Anthems are being sung. Blatter’s admission that Qatar was a bad choice is forgotten. New stars like the Frenchman Kylian Mbappé are being compared to legends like Pelé and Diego Maradona. Record numbers of attendees and television viewers are being set.

Qatar has successfully sportswashed its human rights and social policies.

The chronopolitical World Cup moment will pass. The geopolitical reality of Ukraine will return. But will that become another “interval” as well, like Yemen, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Myanmar, Haiti and so many others? The World Cup interval put the geopolitical off most radar screens. How many geopolitical realities will return? Which ones? Why? And when?

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.