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Waves on graves: The moral dubiousness of the Qatar World Cup

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Slave labor in Qatar is commonplace as repeatedly proven by international organizations. It’s a “common practice”. Hiring a foreign worker, depriving him of his passport, halving his promised salary, and lashing him for drinking a cup of wine in a moment of sadness or driving him to an early grave with twelve hours of hard labor each day is not an outrageous crime but an accepted custom which leans on the crutch of Sharia laws.

All through the 12 years of preparations for the World Cup, human rights activists around the world were crying out about thousands of mysterious deaths during the construction of sports facilities, demanding that FIFA look into it. The Qatar organizing committee, together with FIFA, “sorted it out” and announced that there had been three (3) such deaths. (The trick was that only the construction of the stadium itself was taken into account, although the preparation for the World Cup had triggered a construction boom in the country that spawned a new subway network, highways, hotels, the expansion of the airport and the construction of the entire city of Lusail, etc.)

All through the 12 years of preparations for the World Cup, human rights activists around the world were crying out about thousands of mysterious deaths during the construction of sports facilities

Other deaths at other venues were attributed to “natural causes” (in the ARD documentary series “The World Cup of Shame,” Qatari doctors declared that all the reports citing “natural causes” were issued under heavy pressure from the authorities). The Russian reader, however, is well aware, even without Bastrykin's magnifying glass, of how all-encompassing state lies work, going hand in hand with enormous material gain, state-patriotic arrogance, and outright crimes that, in a cultured manner, are called “human rights violations” by the international community.

Doha Port Stadium, Qatar
Doha Port Stadium, Qatar

For decades Qatar’s human rights ratings have been dangling below one hundred, right next to Venezuela, Zimbabwe and Cambodia. A rating, in itself, is a mere number, but what it signifies is legalized torture, corporal punishment, death for homosexuals, humiliation of women and, most importantly, the unabashed arbitrariness of those in power, covered by a fig leaf of confusing and knowingly illegal “legislation”, that has, of course, been declared a national spiritual bond and the right to “cultural peculiarity.”

The Qatari regime is not a secret or a worldwide conspiracy, but a truth accessible to everybody and even more so to FIFA officials, sport-minded individuals – at least via Wikipedia. At the same time, the Swiss prosecutor's office has been trying for years to get to the bottom of numerous accusations of corruption, money-laundering and extortion against FIFA officials. The 2010 decision about the World Cup in Qatar is one of such episodes (to be fair, the Swiss court acquitted the then head of FIFA, the elderly Sepp Blatter, on one of the main defendants, but there are dozens of similar episodes and suspected officials). To keep the officials from changing their minds, Qatari authorities have spent hundreds of millions of euros on surveillance of each of them, and surveillance can easily lead to blackmail as fan of crime shows knows.

One way or another, the public, that tried to prevent the World Cup in Qatar, has lost. The scandals continue, but the advertising money are being absorbed, the ball has been rolling on the emerald luxury lawn since Sunday, millions of gallons of popcorn have been consumed by viewers, and the Qatari authorities have hired special fans to keep order and comfort in the stadium.

Encouraged by this “victory,” Infantino, FIFA's current leader with a telling name, went on the offensive: “Europeans teach many, many lessons. I am a European. I think that for what we Europeans have done around the world in the last three thousand years we should be apologizing for the next three thousand years before teaching other people morality.” Not surprisingly, he was immediately quoted by the Russian “Komsomolskaya Pravda of the Thousand Hills” radio station, which put the quote in the headline.

Does Gianni Infantino recall one of Europe's most striking lessons, when in 1936 the entire civilized world embarrassed itself at the Berlin Olympics? There were more swastika flags than Olympic symbols, and the athletes were forced to do the Nazi salute in the presence of Hitler. Similarly, the Qatari authorities, acting in collusion with FIFA, have banned foreign athletes from wearing symbols in support of persecuted minorities. (It is fair to point out that the Berlin Olympics were decided before the Nazis came to power and were held in Germany to replace the 1916 Olympics cancelled due to the World War.) But by 1936, Jewish and gypsy athletes had already been expelled from German sports, and the overall shape of the regime was clear to everyone other than the dove of peace and gravedigger of Czechoslovakia Neville Chamberlain. All in all, what happened, happened: the “triumph of the will” and the gray moth of those times.

By 1936, Jewish and gypsy athletes had already been expelled from German sports

Or maybe Gianni Infantino will remember the 1980 Olympic Bear, when the Soviets were ironing out Afghanistan and the global community behaved very differently. The Moscow Olympics was boycotted by 65 countries, and the sale of Pepsi-Cola and Marlboros in soft packs in Moscow fooled no one. It was still a spoke in the wheel of the Soviet colossus, albeit a minor one, which also played a role in its gradual collapse.

Athletes at the Berlin Olympics doing the Nazi salute
Athletes at the Berlin Olympics doing the Nazi salute

And in contrast to the 1936 Olympics, one may recall the triumph of another gray moth at the Sochi Olympics, when the Russian Federation hosted winter athletes from around the world, which was doing “business as usual” with Putin just one day before the occupation of Crimea and the subsequent invasion of eastern Ukraine (the triumph was marred by urine transmitted through secret holes in the walls, but that’s a “different matter”).

The mantra “sports outside politics” could never disguise the powerful propaganda function of global sporting events. A world-class sporting event, held in a particular country, demonstrates to the world the involvement of that country in the peaceful family of nations, mutual respect and equality (pardon the banality, but we’re convinced that banal truths have to be constantly repeated). It was well understood in the past by Hitler and Stalin, who, despite all his anti-Western isolationism, scrambled to join the Olympic movement immediately after the war, as it is now understood by the crazy Putin and by the Emir of Qatar, Mr. Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani.

Yes, the ball, rolling across an emerald field, is round and neutral, and the World Cup can be an honest demonstration of the best aspirations and civilizational achievements. It is not for nothing that Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dmitry Muratov, in a recent interview to former sports journalist Yuri Dudem, bitterly recalled: “You, Yura, must have covered the 2012 European Cup held in the city of Donetsk, among other places. And the very image of Donetsk with its high-tech and, at the same time, extremely lovingly rendered old-fashioned houses, with that stunning stadium, a magnificent airport and avenues. It was Europe's biggest, most fantastically attractive city. And then it was taken away. Nabbed...”

Donetsk Arena stadium, 2022
Donetsk Arena stadium, 2022

But we can also remember the wild contrast between cheerful and flamboyant soccer fans from all over the world walking joyfully around Moscow and other Russian cities in 2018 – and the news of the hundreds of undesirables already jailed by Putin, torture in occupied Crimea, the murdered Boris Nemtsov (the reader can easily continue the list). The insane full-scale invasion of Ukraine was three years away (just as the Nazi invasion of Poland at the time of the Berlin Olympics). But the cheerful and flamboyant fans, just like FIFA, just like European politicians, didn't care all that much at the time. They, like Infantino today, didn't want to “teach other people morals.” Nor did they want to teach themselves.

There is one important point about the banality of evil and the effect of “business as usual.” FIFA and the sponsors, and even more so Mr. Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, have their interests that are quite substantial, and so they’ve made this decision. But isn't every single sponsor, every single local federation, every single Western tourist the emir’s loyal employee, like the fake soccer fans he hired? No one is forcing an indifferent burgher or a partially mobilized Russian to buy popcorn and “consume” soccer steams, bringing millions of clicks for the advertisers of this World Cup of Shame.

And again, to be fair, I'd like to make a reservation: after all, a criminal is a person who breaks the law, who actually kills people, not the one who just turns on the TV and watches the corner kick. Let's not be radicals in immaculate clothes, reproaching Russians for paying taxes that are supposedly used for buying weapons (that is not exactly true, but let's not get sidetracked). And yet, the line where diplomacy ends, where “oh sport, you are peace” ends, and where collaborationism, or simply complicity, begins, is very ill-defined, and sometimes has a sulfur scent to it.

The line where diplomacy ends, where “oh sport, you are peace” ends and where complicity begins, is very ill-defined

When in the spring I snagged the famous rock musician Boris Grebenshchikov, who had sharply condemned the war, and asked him a simple question, which has been tormenting absolutely everyone: “Boris, how did it happen?” - he replied curtly with a point that, admittedly, was not obvious to our inflamed minds right away. This war started because we didn't care about all the other wars. Isn’t Rwanda far away? What's happening in that far-off Pakistan? We didn't give a damn. And now we ourselves are in this situation: “Humanity's wars never stop. I'm afraid it's in the human nature, it's just that wars are usually divided into those that we don't think about and don't want to, because they happen somewhere in Africa or Chechnya, they are far away and we don’t talk about them at the bread store, and there are those we do talk about at the bread store. Hemingway wrote a book called “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” and it has an epigraph: No man is an island, that is, no one is an island. Don't ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for you,” Grebenshchikov said back then, and that's why I am so angry today when I’m writing this column about Qatar, about whose dead workers nobody in the world gives a damn, except for maybe 0.01% of the neighboring population, not to mention the burgher with his popcorn, his fat finger marking the time of the next broadcast from Doha in a newspaper.

The other day I was lucky enough to speak not with a rock musician, but with one of the world's most famous classical musicians of Russian origin, Evgeny Kisin:

“Western politicians have led to what Putin is doing now. Back in the sixties, when the West “turned its face” toward the USSR, it prolonged its existence, and many millions of people in the world died because of it. The Soviet Union supported terrorism around the world, including in Africa and Latin America. After the Soviet Union ceased to exist, instead of pursuing the same policy toward Russia that it had pursued toward post-Nazi Germany, the West forgave Abkhazia, Chechnya, and Russia’s support for Milosevic. Then came Putin, the invasion of Georgia, the de facto annexation of South Ossetia, the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbass - and the West again did nothing, except for a few toothless sanctions. It’s western politicians who are responsible for what we are calling all kinds of bad words today.”

Musicians sometimes, for some reason, understand the essence of things better than certain professional democratic politicians, international officials, not to mention peaceful and flamboyant soccer fans.

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