The World Cup will not bring soccer to the Middle East
Pretend for a minute that you're a non-corrupt member of the FIFA Executive Committee. I know, I know - a ridiculous hypothetical, but this is just a thought exercise. Imagine it's last Thursday. You're back in your suite at the five-star Baur au Lac hotel in Zurich, having just voted to give the World Cup to Qatar in 2022. You feel a tremendous sense of self-satisfaction. There is a chocolate truffle daintily laid on your pillow. You eat it. It is smooth and rich - delectably Swiss. You decide to dip into the mini-bar - better get some drinking in now, since alcohol might be hard to come by in Qatar! But after all, you deserve it - you brought the World Cup to the Middle East for the first time!
Just one thing: you didn't. I've heard the phrase "brining the World Cup to new lands" constantly over the past week - in fact, it's the only arguably-legitimate reason for giving Qatar the World Cup that I've heard offered. And on the face of it, it's a noble idea: soccer is the world's game, and people all over the world should be able to experience it in its finest form. It's only when you start to think about what "bringing the game to the Middle East" actually means that you realize a World Cup in Qatar won't actually do much of anything for anyone in the Middle East.
Start by thinking about who will attend the 2022 World Cup. There are about one million people in Qatar*. There are about 796 million people in the Middle East, so Qataris are .13 percent of the population. So, 99.87 percent of Middle Easterners will need a visa if they want to attend, and traveling in the Middle East isn't like traveling in the EU. In South Africa, there were enough matches being played in people's back yards that some middle and lower-middle class people could actually scrape up enough money to attend. Qatar won't be like that.
Wealthy Middle Easterners will travel to Qatar, but then again, wealthy Middle Easterners can attend any World Cup they want. In fact, the wealthy in the Middle East are rich enough to pay A-list actors and lingerie models to re-enact World Cup matches if they so choose. The rest of the Middle East is probably priced out of a World Cup - there's not much of a middle class. There aren't a whole lot of not-fabulously-wealthy people in the Middle East who have enough money to buy tickets, arrange travel (most people will need a plane ticket), and pay out-of-this-world prices at Qatar's top-drawer, business-oriented hotels and restaurants - 2022 will not be the people's World Cup.
Some say it's not about the attendance, it's about the psychological benefit that Middle Easterners will receive from proving they can stage a World Cup. How so? What will 2022 prove? That oil wealth can finance huge construction projects? Didn't we already know that? How is the 2022 World Cup emblematic of any sort of achievement or progress in the Middle East, as opposed to just something Qatar is able to do because oil and gas have made them fabulously wealthy? I actually bought into the psychological benefit argument in South Africa; they were once a country barred from international sports, now a country with a representative, democratic government and a model for the region. They came a long way...they earned it. The World Cup showed that Africa was moving forward, and that good things come with peace, democracy, and human rights. What has Qatar's government done? They're still a monarchy. There's no free press. Homosexuality is illegal. And, I'm sorry, "more tolerant of women than their neighbors" doesn't impress me much. All last week's vote proved was that countries awash in petrodollars don't need to reform in order to get what they want...another thing that we already knew.
What about the economics? I see no possible way that Qatar doesn't throw away a boatload - I'm sorry, a traditional dhow fishing boatload - of cash on this World Cup. The U.S. bid estimated that we would make $5 billion, and that's a rose-colored-glasses projection from the U.S. bid, with our giant stadiums and virtually nonexistent infrastructure costs. The proposed cost of the Qatar bid is...(camera zooms in, puts pinky to mouth)...54 BILLION DOLLARS! And that's the initial estimate for construction costs - has anyone ever heard of a construction project that comes in at anything even remotely resembling the initial estimate? And it's not like these are infrastructure investments that the country needs anyway; after the Cup, several stadiums will actually be disassembled and taken to "needy countries" (a strange idea. "Hey, Congo, we know you've had a rough time with that civil war. Here's a fifty-thousand seater with a jumbotron and luxury boxes."). The World Cup will divert tens of billions of dollars away from projects that could have done a lot more to benefit people in the Middle East.
Was it about connecting with the Muslim world? If that was the case, then you can argue that the bid should have gone to the country with the most Muslims: the United States. The U.S. has at least 2.35 million Muslims. And there may actually be more: Muslim groups estimate the number at about seven million, and Fox News leaves the impression that the real number might be something like 200-300 million, all of them lurking around a corner somewhere.
What about introducing soccer to a new part of the world? Um, if that's the concern, then I've got good news for FIFA: the Middle East is aware of soccer. That'd be kind of like introducing trans fats to the U.S.; not only are we aware of them, there are actually few things that we love more. I briefly lived in Morocco (not a Middle Eastern country, but a Muslim one), and soccer is right up there with drinking tea and searching for shade in terms of national past-times. There aren't Neilsen ratings in my Morocco, but I would estimate the audience for Champions League matches at: every single living male. So, sure, FIFA, you're going to introduce soccer to the Middle East. Why not introduce sand to the Middle East?
So, basically, the "Middle Eastern World Cup" is a multi-billion dollar sinkhole that will - like every previous World Cup - be watched on TV by all but a very few extremely wealthy Middle Easterners, and which says nothing whatsoever about the present or future of the region. It may instill some Middle Easterners with a sense of pride, but only if their pride is tied to commodity prices instead of actual progress. The real shame is that one day, a Middle Eastern country will actually make a legitimate bid for the World Cup, but the region will have used its turn on the inaccessible, petro-funded Qatar 2022 World Cup.
* Population estimates vary widely due to the large number of immigrant laborers. Fun fact: a large percentage of Qatari immigrant laborers are from Pakistan, a.k.a. one of the very few countries in the world that doesn't care about soccer.
| December 13, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories: Jeff Maurer, Soccer | Tags: Jeff Maurer, U.S. National soccer team, United
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