Why I watch the World Cup ... despite Qatar | Will Bunch Newsletter
Plus, the conversations America needs to have after a Colorado massacre.
The tritest newspaper-columnist move is to ease into a lazy, tryptophan-soaked Thanksgiving by listing all the things he’s grateful for — like, his amazing family, including the joy of watching two offspring wrapping up their 20s in full stride, or his oddly loyal canine companions, or the best friends he’s (mostly) never met (the readers who inexplicably show up every Tuesday). So I’m absolutely not going to do that.
Did someone forward you this email? Sign up to receive this newsletter weekly at inquirer.com/bunch, and I promise you’ll be at least mildly thankful that you did.
Don’t turn off Qatar’s World Cup for the human-rights crimes. Cheer for the human spirit.
At 2022′s ever-weird, train-wreck version of what has long been the planet’s truly greatest sporting event — soccer’s World Cup finals, the nearly month-long free-for-all that kicked off Sunday in Qatar — courage means a lot more than rising for a header knowing that a 6′6″ fullback is headed straight for you.
No, true grit at this men’s World Cup — the first ever held in the hostile-in-every-way climate of the sweltering Middle East — is what Ehsan Hajsafi, captain of the Iranian national team, did when he was faced with a bank of microphones for the kind of news conference that is typically a rah-rah, Allah-and-country event. His words were more powerful than any free kick you’ll see these four weeks. He spoke the truth about his own nation.
“Before anything else, I would like to express my condolences to all of the bereaved families in Iran,” Hajsafi started off, quickly acknowledging what is happening back home, just across the Persian Gulf, where government forces have killed an estimated 400 people and injured or arrested many more in an uprising that began when a young women died at the hands of Iran’s morality police. “They” — the victims of this brutality by the Islamic regime — “should know that we are with them, we support them, and we sympathize with them.”
Said Hajsafi: “We have to accept that the conditions in our country are not right and our people are not happy.”
That was driven home a short time later when the Iranian team took to the pitch for its opening match against England. Players stood stone-faced, refusing to mouth the words to the Iranian national anthem as it blared from the loudspeakers at Khalifa National Stadium in Doha, as many fans booed in a gesture of solidarity. That no doubt infuriated the hosts, Qatar — an ally of Iran, which shares its strict impositions of Muslim law — as did protest signs in the stands with messages of support for the female-led revolution, such as “Woman. Life. Freedom.”
It was a moment of triumph for human rights and dignity at a sporting event that threatens to bury those things in a constant, powerful sandstorm of corruption, intolerance, and autocratic cruelness — so stained with the blood of abusive practices that even the most diehard soccer fan could question whether it is moral to watch.
I know, I know ... it seems silly at this debauched stage of our civilization to express shock that a major pro sporting event has been corrupted by money or politics, but what is happening in Qatar is the ultimate reductio ad absurdum of those trends. It was pretty clear from the day back in 2010 when soccer’s global governing body, FIFA, announced that the World Cup finals were coming to a tiny nation that had no sporting culture or fan traditions but gazillions of petrodollars (not to mention inhuman temperatures that required moving the timing of the matches from June to November) that bribery and grift on a massive scale must be involved. I won’t bore you with the details.
That would be the Situation Normal of this snafu, but it’s far worse. The bribes were also necessary for FIFA, and for the nations that ultimately compete, to look the other way about playing in a monarchy rife with human rights abuses, and not just toward dissidents. The nation is governed by laws that enshrine its misogyny — including an insane list of things women cannot do without a man’s permission — and its extreme homophobia.
And yet that awful stuff pales in comparison to the fact that human beings were killed in the making of this production — thousands, according to most estimates, of migrant workers from other lands who toiled in inhumane conditions to build the stadiums and other infrastructure.
The countdown to Sunday’s kickoff brought daily reminders that this was just as a terrible an idea as everyone expected for the last dozen years. Qatar’s monarchs stressed the first syllable in “dictatorship” when they reneged on a promise to allow alcohol sales inside the stadiums, just two days before the tournament. A goon squad stopped a news report from a Danish TV reporter for no discernible reason. FIFA has cravenly caved in to its oil-money-soaked hosts at every turn, telling European teams that players who followed through on a plan to wear rainbow armbands in support of LGBTQ rights would get an on-field penalty, a yellow card.
At some point, when does a fan shriek, “Enough!”? There is more than one way to answer that. On some level, it matters that this every-four-years event means so much to millions of people all over the Earth. Including, inexplicably, me.
Despite growing up a diehard sports fan in the $1.30 seats in the top ten rows of Shea Stadium, I, like most boomers, lived in blissful ignorance of the World Cup and soccer in general. That started to change in 1990, when an editor in my Manhattan newsroom dispatched me to some far-flung bars to report on World Cup fan fever among assorted Brits, Germans, and others. What I saw was contagious, and got me wondering what it would be like if the United States (which did play that year, but horribly) seriously joined the world party.
In 1994, when America somehow won the hosting rights, I was a new dad glued to a sofa with a 1-year-old daughter and my wife about to give birth to our son. Soccer felt like my connection to the outside world. I’ve been hooked ever since.
When the U.S. men failed to qualify in 2018, it felt like someone had died. I’ve been literally waiting eight years for Monday’s match against Wales, even if it occurred in the last place on Earth I would have picked.
But despite all of that, I would shut the set off if I truly believed it would bring back some of those deceased workers, or that a fan boycott would end sexism and homophobia in Qatar. At the end of the day, you don’t defeat inhumanity by staying home.
Iran’s heroes — risking harsh punishment when they return home — know this. The human spirit of the individuals at the World Cup — which manifests in many ways, like the U.S. players and their pick-up game with migrant workers, or Wales’ Nico Williams taking to the pitch after learning his grandfather had died — feels much more powerful than the depravity of Qatar’s ruling class. I want to cheer for these athletes, and hope that as the days go on, more of them will show courage, like Hajsafi and the Iranians already have.
I keep thinking about Jesse Owens, the Black American athlete who at the 1936 Olympics shattered Adolf Hitler’s showcase for his warped views on racial superiority by winning four gold medals as the dictator looked on. Sure, his athletic feats didn’t prevent the nightmare of World War II, and we can’t forget that Owens still faced racial discrimination when he came home to the United States. But you also can’t say the world is not a better place because he showed up in Berlin — because he competed, and inspired so many who came after him. So it is in Qatar.
Yo, do this
One flaw with this feature is that while I do love pop culture, I can be easily distracted by its cousin, sports; for the next few weeks I’ll be doing little else as I absorb the doings in Doha. Thus, I am duly passing along the rave reviews so far awarded to a Hollywood film I’ve yet to leave my couch and see: She Said, the inside story of how New York Times journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey broke through decades of denial to expose the sexual assaults and harassments of movie-mogul monster Harvey Weinstein. The Washington Post compares it favorably to Spotlight and All the President’s Men (!!), so if you see it before I do, tell me what you think.
In the same vein, a writer I’ve long admired — Jefferson Cowie, the labor historian whose Stayin’ Alive is a culture-laden guide to just what the heck went wrong in the 1970s — is out this week with a new tome: Freedom’s Dominion: A Saga of White Resistance to Federal Power. It’s a history of U.S. white supremacy as seen through the lens of one community: Alabama’s Barbour County, which (among other things) gave birth to George Wallace. It’s been added to my long queue of future reading.
Ask me anything
Question: Will Philly end up electing a mayor more like Eric Adams in NYC or Karen Bass in LA? Will “tough on crime” win over voters or will the electorate that picked Krasner twice keep its progressive preference going? — Via Jim Saksa (@saksappeal) on still-functioning-for-now Twitter
Answer: I’ve wondered the same thing, Jim. In the 2022 midterms, the GOP’s strategy of going all-in with blaming Democrats for big-city crime saw mixed results. Here in Pennsylvania, John Fetterman’s Senate win showed how other issues — abortion rights, preserving democracy — trumped the fear factor. But Democrats in the tabloid-crazed New York City media market were dragged down. Philly isn’t NYC, however. For one thing, we don’t really have a cop-mayor-in-waiting like an Eric Adams. Centrist Dem Allen Domb is really more of a business guy, and David Oh would face the handicap of running as a Republican. Also, GOP overreach on impeaching DA Larry Krasner may energize the city’s left wing. The only way the next Philadelphia mayor isn’t a progressive, in my opinion, is if too many leftist candidates divide that vote.
Backstory on an all-too predictable massacre at an LGBTQ nightclub
Mass shootings have become so common in America in 2022 that some which would have been front-page news back in the 1980s now barely get a mention. Not so with Saturday night’s tragic massacre at Club Q, a popular gathering spot for the LGBTQ community in Colorado Springs, Colo., where a 22-year-old with an AR-15-style weapon (stop me if any of this sounds familiar) walked in and killed five people. This incident seemed to touch a nerve, and not just because of the remarkable heroism of patrons like Army veteran Richard Fierro, who wrestled the gunman to the ground, yet again reminding us of the collective cowardice of the 376 cops at Uvalde who froze in a similar situation.
The attack on Club Q, which hosted a number of drag shows and had one on its schedule for Sunday morning, also seemed to epitomize the current political climate. Voices on the right, from Fox News personalities to members of the Proud Boys to some Republicans who may run for president in 2024, have made drag-queen events — especially those like library story times attended by children — into Ground Zero for their culture wars.
“People should definitely arm themselves,” Fox News’ top-rated Tucker Carlson said recently at the end of a report on drag shows, and many politicians picked up on such rhetoric. “This is not the way that you look out for our children,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a White House hopeful, said this summer as he filed a formal complaint against a drag brunch at a Miami restaurant — at the height of his reelection campaign. It’s too early in the investigation to know if the Colorado gunman had absorbed the right’s constant messaging around drag queens. But even this possibility demands that responsible Republicans cool down the party’s rhetoric. There’s no sign this will happen.
It’s also important to note what else the nightclub shooter shared with other mass killers in recent years: His youth and gender. The 22-year-old followed in the footsteps of his male contemporaries in Uvalde (18), Atlanta (21), Boulder (21), El Paso (21), and Buffalo (19). As I’ve written frequently in this space, America needs to get a handle on what is causing so many in the age bracket to go off the rails — the roots of a crisis. In most normal societies, the government would do the bare minimum of banning the sale of assault weapons to those under age 21, or even 23. It’s something we can do for beer (21) and car rentals (25), after all. In America, I’m not holding my breath.
Recommended Inquirer reading
For my most recent Sunday column, I finally tackled a topic that had been in my head since the summer. Now that Josh Shapiro has saved democracy in Pennsylvania by vanquishing the threat posed by Doug Mastriano’s Christian nationalism, we should talk about how some of his ideas for governing the state these next four years aren’t really that good. I urged citizens to lobby the governor-elect to do better on issues such as fighting climate change and educational and income inequalities in the Keystone State. Over the weekend, as my beloved Twitter was hanging by a thread, I pondered the messianic fantasies of Elon Musk, Sam Bankman-Fried, and other billionaires — and how we can fight for a society that works for us, not them.
“Immigrants should not be used as scapegoats in politics, nor should we be pitted against other communities of color and working-class individuals.” So writes Philadelphia’s Thoai Nguyen, on his odyssey here immediately after the fall of Saigon in 1975, en route to becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen. It’s part of a package called “Destination: Philadelphia” on the refugee experience here — from Afghanistan, Ukraine, Uganda, and Gaza, inspired by the busloads of Central American asylum-seekers that Texas authorities have been sending to the City of Brotherly Love. While some news organizations are ill-advisedly cutting back on their Opinion sections, the Inquirer has boosted ours, to make sure these diverse voices are amplified. This holiday season, do more than just uttering “thanks” for quality journalism. Ring in 2023 by subscribing to The Inquirer.