So it’s OK to buy gas from Qatar… but not to play football there?

Shouldn’t it be just as objectionable, to sign lucrative business deals with that same country: deals which, I might add, do a heck of a lot more to ‘legitimise’ (and therefore, ‘prop up’) that country’s outrageously corrupt and despotic government, than any amount of ‘FIFA World Cups’?

“It’s the most controversial World Cup in history, and a ball hasn’t even been kicked.”

That’s how Gary Lineker introduced viewers to last Sunday’s World Cup opening ceremony in Doha. Or to be more accurate (like Lineker himself once was, in his former life as England’s top-scoring striker): it’s what viewers would have heard him say… had any bothered actually tuning in to watch, in the first place.

Oh, OK: I imagine there probably were quite a few million viewers, around the world, who ended up doing precisely that; and I also imagine that a lot of the media hype surrounding this particular World Cup has been artificially ‘drummed up’, as usual.

But still: for the moment, at least, there can be no denying that something really is missing from Qatar 2022. And I don’t just mean ‘beer’, either...

After all, there was plenty of beer (and other alcoholic beverages) on sale at the three or four Gzira bars I happened to walk past yesterday afternoon: all of which were showing ‘England vs Iran’, on big screens they had only just put up for the occasion… yet none had more than around four or five customers, at the very most (and even those were hardly paying any attention to the football anyway).

Nor can this apparent lack of interest be put down to the other thing that is conspicuously absent from this competition: the Italian national football team.

For while the Azzurri’s failure to qualify may indeed have dampened enthusiasm among some – if not most - local football fans… it can hardly explain why even England supporters failed to celebrate their 6-2 victory with the time-honoured, traditional ‘carcade along the Sliema seafront’ (as, let’s face it, they would certainly have done for any other England win, in any other World Cup in history...)

Bearing in mind that the streets of my neighbourhood are usually the very first to be inundated, by all the madness and mayhem we normally associate with ‘World Cup fever’ - it’s almost as though there is, in fact, no World Cup even being played in Qatar right now, at all.

And to be perfectly honest: I find this a little disconcerting, myself. Not, mind you, because my own mood contrasts with everyone else’s (It’s actually the other way round: everyone else, it seems, has finally gravitated towards my own perspective; and suddenly recognises ‘football’ for the spectacularly boring sport it has always been…)

But, well, that’s exactly what I find so puzzling to begin with. After all, if I don’t feel particularly excited by the prospect of ‘Qatar 2022’: it’s for the same reason that I was equally unenthused by ‘Russia 2018’, ‘Brazil 2014’, ‘South Africa 2010’, and ‘Germany 2006’… all the way back to the first World Cup I actually remember: ‘Argentina 1978’ (and the only reason I remember it, was that it was my first-ever sight of colour TV).

In other words: it has nothing whatsoever to do with the choice of Qatar as venue… and even less, with any of the reasons Gary Lineker himself cites, for what makes this particular edition so ‘controversial’.

Namely, that: “Ever since Fifa chose Qatar back in 2010, the smallest nation to have hosted football’s greatest competition has faced some big questions – from accusations of corruption in the bidding process to the treatment of migrant workers who built the stadiums where many lost their lives. Homosexuality is illegal here. Women’s rights and freedom of expression are in the spotlight…”

And this brings me to the truly puzzling part. From the perspective of people who (unlike myself) normally DO follow international football… those really ARE the only justifications for distinguishing between this World Cup, and any other that was held before it.

In other words: if these people have suddenly lost all the passion they once had in abundance, for the World Cup… it’s not for any reason that has anything to do with the sport of football, in and of itself. On the contrary, it appears to be because of a bunch of ‘human rights issues’ that:

a) happen to be associated with Qatar at ALL times (and not just when FIFA chooses that particular country, to host its most prestigious international sporting event);

b) are by no means limited to Qatar, anyway; and

c) they’re all issues that most people (including many of those who now complain about them the loudest) never seem to pay any attention to whatsoever, at any other time.

Let’s start with gay rights, for instance. Gary Lineker may have understated the case, by pointing out that ‘homosexuality is illegal’ in Qatar. The reality is that homosexuality is a capital offence in that country: just as it also is in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Yemen, and a bunch of other countries in the same region (and elsewhere in the world).

Yet strangely, this has never been cited as a pretext to ban any of those countries from actually participating in the FIFA World Cup. It only seems to ever crop up as an issue, when the country is chosen to actually host the event itself.

Hmm. What sort of message does that actually send out, to the world’s LGBTiQ community? That we are normally quite content to allow those countries to simply ‘murder their own homosexual population, and sweep the dead bodies under the carpet…’ only to suddenly make a great big stink about it, the moment the same atrocity becomes ‘too conspicuous to ignore’?

All the same, however: I can certainly understand how some people – especially, human rights activists (who, after all, tend to be rather consistent in such matters) would object to Qatar, as a host for the World Cup, on those grounds alone.

I’ll also admit that the same grounds never really existed, for any of the other countries that have previously hosted the same competition. But then: former host nations such as the United States also have the death penalty… albeit for other offences, apart from homosexuality. And on average, the USA executes more people each year, than much smaller countries such as Qatar.

Yet I don’t recall that ever having been an issue, when the United States successfully bid to host the World Cup in 1994 (a year in which 31 people were executed in that country: either by lethal injection, or the electric chair).

Meanwhile, Russia – which hosted the World Cup only four years ago – does not exactly have a squeaky-clean ‘human rights record’, either: least of all, when it comes to the second and third items on Lineker’s list… ‘women’s rights, and freedom of speech.’ [Note: look under ‘Pussy Riot’ for more details of each.]

But while the choice of Russia was also contentious, in its day: the controversy did not focus so heavily on ‘human rights issues’… and much more importantly, it didn’t ‘dampen the enthusiasm’ of football fans the world over, either.

All of which raises a couple of questions, at the end of the day. For starters… why IS there so much detachment, among football fans, from Qatar 2022: but not from other World Cups, hosted by other countries, which all had equally questionable human rights records of their own?

And the same goes for all the other objections, too, by the way. Corruption? In football? I mean, come on: we hardly needed ‘Qatar to host the World Cup’, to suddenly become aware of the existence of that particular problem (I would have thought a cursory glance at our own Premier League – whose enduring popularity has never been so much as dented, by any number of ‘bribery scandals’, and ‘match-fixing allegations’ - would suffice…)

I guess this leaves us with only one interpretation, really. It’s not that we really care all that much, about the human rights infringements actually committed by those countries.… it’s just that we suddenly pretend to care about them, when they come from predominantly Muslim countries like Qatar (as opposed to, say, predominantly Christian countries like Russia, Brazil, Mexico, etc…); and even then: only when they end up getting in the way of our ability to actually enjoy the World Cup.

How else can we explain why nobody reacted the same way, when – for instance – the governments of Europe all fell over each other, in their mad scramble to sign lucrative gas-importation treaties with the same country: literally, on the eve of the same competition?

Last month, for instance, France’s Total Energy signed a cooperation agreement with Qatar Energy for 1.5 billion dollars: making it the largest stakeholder and granting it 9.3% of Qatar’s North Field.

Germany is currently in talks with Qatar Energy Minister Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani: who has pledged to ‘increase his country’s gas supply to Germany in an effort to ease the continuing energy crisis in Europe.’

And the European Commission, no less, opened its first consulate in Qatar last September: with a view to “developing long-term strategic agreements with the government of Qatar.”

Now: if Qatar’s human rights record is so extremely atrocious (which it arguably is), as to preclude that country from even being considered as a possible World Cup host-country, in the first place…

… shouldn’t it be just as objectionable, to sign lucrative business deals with that same country: deals which, I might add, do a heck of a lot more to ‘legitimise’ (and therefore, ‘prop up’) that country’s outrageously corrupt and despotic government, than any amount of ‘FIFA World Cups’?

Just a little consistency, damn it. That’s all I’m asking for, here…