It is said that in ancient Rome, Emperor Nero used to hold extravagant garden parties. Poor people were smeared in tar and bound to wooden stakes. Then they were set alight to illuminate the garden. With all that is happening around us, it would not be insane to ask if we are all becoming Nero’s guests. Because all the greatest shows on earth are unearthing some kind of cruelty or the other. Nero’s guests could be excused for being ancient, therefore backward, but what is our excuse for keeping eyes wide shut to the cruelties done in Qatar for the World Cup commencing on Sunday?
While authorities in Qatar and FIFA president Gianni Infantino insist only three workers have died in the last 12 years during preparation work for the World Cup, human rights organisations like Fair Square say that number is a “willful attempt to mislead”. Their Supreme Committee claims 36 more from construction sites have died after a day’s work, but those deaths were not counted, blaming “natural causes”. If Human Rights Watch is to be believed, the number actually runs into thousands.
Forgive me, dear reader, if you are feeling cheated by the first couple of paras of this curtain raiser. You were expecting mouth-watering dishes made of Messi, Neymar, Mbappe, Lewandowski et al but the starter tasted like bitter gourd.I could not help bringing up the dead workers as England’s The Guardian newspaper’s investigation says 6,500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have died in Qatar since 2010. Coming just a couple ofyears after we saw migrant workers walking thousands of miles through our own country and dying on the road, it is impossible to ignore these facts in the excitement of a sporting spectacle.
Spectacle it shall be, no matter how many workers (Amnesty International says more than100,000) have been exploited and abused by lax labour laws of Qatar. Many have reportedly worked 14-18 working hours a day. To be fair, Qatar did not change their laws overnight to get the World Cup job done cheaply. Entire world knew how things were in that country and members of FIFA still voted for their bid. What role cash and kinds played is another story.
One can justifiably argue that this is all politics, not football. But having excluded Russia from this World Cup for attacking Ukraine, it would be rich of FIFA to dismiss the above criticism as just politics. The English FA has vowed to push for new labour laws and Migrant Workers’ Centre in Qatar. As many as eight captains are planning to wear rainbow-coloured ‘One Love’ armbands in support of LGBTQIA+ community during the matches, many teams have cancelled fan zones protesting the oppressive laws about homosexuality in Qatar. Also, many footballers and coaches are on record saying the World Cup should not have been held in that country. World Cup 2022, therefore, cannot escape politics.
However, this is not the first world event to be underscored by politics. Dictators have always exploited sporting events to prove their supremacy. Vladimir Putin did that with the 2018 World Cup, Argentine dictator Jorge Rafale Videla with the1978 edition and Benito Mussolini with the 1934 edition. Authoritarian rulers never seem to learn from Adolf Hitler’s Berlin Olympics experience, when his bid to showcase Aryan supremacy boomeranged as Jesse Owens reigned supreme. They have good reason not to. Those who played in Italy (1934) and Argentina (1978) remain divided in their opinion about the glory. Some believe they played and won for the people of their country, not the ruler. Some feign ignorance about what was happening at that point in time while others declare helplessness. None of them is fully wrong.
Considering what was going on in Mussolini and Videla’s regime, Qatar would just be dirty. Hopefully, there is no detention camp within walking distance of one of the stadiums, as was the case in Argentina. Moreover, Qatar cannot possibly lift the trophy on December 18, thereby further glorifying the monarchy. In fact, it would be an achievement if they progress from Group A, which has the always fascinating Netherlands and African giants Senegal.
Gareth Southgate’s ever-improving England should find it easy in Group B. Harry Kane& Co. have already made it to a World Cup semifinal and a Euro final, surpassing all the English sides of the past but one. Southgate has already said he knows the contract till 2024 cannot protect him if he fails to lift this trophy. Why should such a team be worried about Wales, United States and Iran?
Same for Argentina in Group C. An Argentine World Cup campaign, even during the days of Diego Maradona, used to be tumultuous. This is the first time the genius would neither be in the dressing room, nor in the stands looking like a child desperate to see his favourite side win. This is also the first time Argentina are coming into the tournament as firm favourites even though Messi refuses to acknowledge it. That is a good way to deflect pressure because who can be a favourite if a team that has not lost 35 games on the trot isn’t? Messi, for all his exploits in European club football, has always hit a wall called Maradona. Fans back home and critics world over always pointed out Messi has not won anything for Argentina. Maradona passed away in 2020 and Argentina won Copa America next year. That monkey is off Messi’s back now. It is highly unlikely that he will get another opportunity to emulate Maradona’s 1986. There could not be a better opportunity, too, as Lionel Scaloni’s team is the best Argentine side in a longtime. When was the last time they had a defender of Cristian Romero’s calibre?
The fight for top spot in Group D would be a competition between defending champions France and dangerous Denmark, unless Australia, struggling in the qualifiers, spring a surprise. Didier Deschamps’s side is a good unit even without Paul Pogbaand N’Golo Kante in the midfield. A mature Kylian Mbappe and in-form Karim Benzema could be nightmarish for any defence and the reliable Hugo Lloris is still in goal.
Luis Enrique’s Spain and Hansi Flick’s Spain in Group E are rich in history and have been poor in recent past. Germany, perhaps, have never been poorer in big tournaments. Their group stage exit from the last World Cup was followed by a second-round loss to England in Euro 2020. But this German side is again overflowing with top performers. If the striking power of Serge Gnabry, Leroy Sane, Kai Havertz, Timo Werner is not enough, there is still the old fox –Thomas Mueller. And Manuel Neuer remains one of the best to guard the goal.
Likewise Spain have talented attackers and young ones at that. Pedri, perhaps their biggest star at the moment, will turn only 20 during the World Cup. But he has already played almost 100 matches for Barcelona. Ansu Fati, another young Barcelona recruit, could light up the World Cup if he is fit enough. They would have the calmness of elder statesman Sergio Busquets behind them.
Group F should be a cakewalk for last World Cup’s runners up Croatia, with deteriorating Belgium as the only challenge for the top spot. While Croatia havegrown in the last four years and look a set team under Zlatko Dalic, Belgium’s golden generation seems to be over. Roberto Martinez does not have the services of a stalwart like Vincent Kompany anymore, Romelu Lukaku has lost some edge and Eden Hazard has been plagued by injuries, not being a regular for Real Madrid. Only Kevin de Bruyne and Thibaus Courtois remain the same force.
Cameroon have high hopes in Group G. When Rigobert Song’s boys beat Algeria in March to ensure qualification, legend Samuel Eto’o, now the head of Cameroonian Football Federation, told the team “We go to Qatar to win the World Cup.” Dreams are good but Cameroon will have to get past decent European teams Serbia and Switzerland first, assuming Tite’s Brazil will not have problems topping that group. Neymar, like Messi, never had a better team with him. Raphinha, Richarlison, Lucas Paqueta – coach Tite is spoilt for choice as far as attackers are concerned. Then there is Casemiro in the midfield and Thiago Silva at the back. Dreaming of the sixth title is not outrageous.
Cristiano Ronaldo, in his last World Cup, has landed in a tough group with his side. The other teams in Group H are Ghana, Uruguay and South Korea. Ghana played a World Cup quarterfinal in 2010, Uruguay are two-time champions and South Korea, apart from being the most regular Asian team in the quadrennial show, have been in the semi-final. In fact, it is Portugal whose best World Cup performance came way back in 1966, when they finished third. But Ronaldo has taken them through their best ever period, winning Euro 2016 and the inaugural UEFA Nations League in 2019.
However, Ronaldo’s form and fitness have become a concern now. For the last few days, he has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. Ronaldo claims he has not been given enough respect at Old Trafford either by Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag or the management. He has also spoken ill of Wayne Rooney unprovoked. Did Ronaldo need this distraction to charge himself up before the big event or will it further dent his team’s chances? Whatever it is, the campaign will be doubly difficult for Portugal if CR7 is not at his best.
Pray for him if you are a Portugal fan, pray for whichever team you support. But do keep the dead and the persecuted of Qatar in your prayers. We can do only that much because we cannot help becoming Nero’s guests. Today’s world does not have one Nero.
(The writer is an independent journalist based in West Bengal)