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Rarely has a World Cup generated such controversy, or such uncertainty about how it will unfold, as Qatar’s edition of the tournament, set to begin on Sunday, has.
Rumors persist that the Qataris bribed FIFA officials to secure hosting rights. Migrant workers building stadiums and hotels have complained of pitiful living and working conditions; an unknown number of them died in work-related accidents. Speech is restricted. The country outlaws homosexuality, extramarital sexual relations, swearing, and “immodest attire,” prompting some fans to wonder how they will be allowed to behave.
This year’s World Cup comes under a shadow due to the human cost Qatar paid to prepare for the tournament and the country’s poor human rights record. And that has left soccer fans torn.
All this has left fans conflicted, if not cold, toward what should normally be one of the world’s pinnacle sporting events.
Yanous Benbousta, a soccer fan from France, acknowledges that if France makes it to the finals, his commitment to keep the TV off will be tested. “I really don’t want to watch,” he says. “With everything that has happened around this event, it is important to denounce it.”
“I don’t think FIFA will choose a country like Qatar again,” says Bruna Dealtry, a Brazilian sports reporter, noting that Qatar’s conservative mores make it an uncomfortable destination for female fans and commentators like herself. “In the future, the choice must be somewhere where everyone can be safe.” 
Matías Villarruel, a soccer fan from Argentina, has one dream: to cheer his idol Lionel Messi in the star’s final men’s World Cup competition, which starts Sunday in Qatar.
“When I first heard the World Cup was going to take place in Qatar, I thought that’s so far away,” that the journey would be prohibitively expensive, Mr. Villarruel says. So, with three friends, he rode there from South Africa on a bicycle, pedaling 6,200 miles in six months.
Yanous Benbousta, a soccer fan from France, takes a very different view. Not only will he not be traveling to Doha, he won’t even be watching the competition on TV, he says, in a personal protest against the way in which it has been organized.
This year’s World Cup comes under a shadow due to the human cost Qatar paid to prepare for the tournament and the country’s poor human rights record. And that has left soccer fans torn.
“It’s scandalous that so many workers died building the stadiums,” Mr. Benbousta says. And he finds the idea of air-conditioning the venues “completely absurd” on environmental grounds.
Rarely has a World Cup generated such controversy, or such uncertainty about how it will unfold, as the conservative Islamic emirate hosts hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors.
Qatar has no serious soccer history or culture, and rumors persist that the Qataris bribed FIFA officials to secure hosting rights. Migrant workers building stadiums and hotels have complained of pitiful living and working conditions; an unknown number of them died in work-related accidents. Speech is restricted. The country outlaws homosexuality, extramarital sexual relations, swearing, and “immodest attire,” prompting some fans to wonder how they will be allowed to behave. Though alcohol, which is tightly controlled in Qatar, is being served in assigned areas to visiting fans, authorities announced just two days before the first match that beer would not be allowed in stadiums, reversing a previous pledge to permit it.
“Qatar is a special case,” says Clemente Lisi, author of a book on the history of the World Cup. “What’s happening off the field is going to be of equal importance and curiosity as what’s happening on the field.”
The cocktail of concerns has posed many soccer fans around the world with a dilemma, pitting their love for the game against their conscience, and in some cases diluting their enthusiasm.
Mr. Benbousta acknowledges that if France makes it to the finals, his commitment to keep the TV off will be tested. But he trusts his like-minded wife to keep him in check. “I really don’t want to watch,” he says. “With everything that has happened around this event, it is important to denounce it.”
A similar mood prevails in Germany, where club allegiances run so deep that it’s a shock when rival fans agree on anything. Last weekend, fans of the Hertha Berlin club unfurled an enormous “Boycott Qatar” banner during their game against Cologne. So did Mainz fans, and Freiburg fans, at their respective home matches. About 65% of Germans support a ban on public screenings of World Cup matches.
Germany’s sporting history is stained by the exclusion of Jews from soccer clubs which adopted Nazi policies, and “there has always been a connection between society and sport,” says Michael Barsuhn, a professor at the University of Applied Sciences for Sport and Management in Potsdam. “You always have to reflect on the system in which it’s placed. Sport should take more responsibility on this subject.”
It remains to be seen whether fans will have the willpower to leave their screens dark come game time. “The boycott is a good idea but I don’t think [fans] will do it,” says Matthias Herzog, a trainer who works with German professional footballers. “Germans love football, and with the pandemic, we haven’t had many positive things in life. When we are playing well in the No. 1 sport in Germany, they will watch.”
In the United Kingdom, six out of 10 people believe that Qatar’s stance on gay rights alone should have barred it from playing host, according to a recent poll. Respondents were evenly split on the question of whether the England and Wales teams should have stayed away from Qatar, with 39% supporting a boycott and 43% opposing it.
Stuart Neaverson is a London-based fan who initially planned to go to Qatar, just as he went to Russia four years ago, when the competition was held there. He booked his plane tickets months ago. “It’s one of those trade-offs where you love football and yet FIFA brings you to these places,” he says.
But Mr. Neaverson has just canceled his booking. Costs were adding up, and so were news reports on migrant deaths and Qatar’s lack of LGBTQ rights. “I think my excitement is draining the more I keep hearing about Qatar,” he says. “It’s still a World Cup, but it doesn’t quite feel like the celebration of football that it might have been in the past.”
Six Latin American countries have qualified for the World Cup. In soccer-crazy Brazil, a former World Cup host, many offices have announced early closures on game days and schools have sent out memos assuring parents their children will have a chance to watch the matches during school hours.
“If you have to go to the hospital during the World Cup, you don’t have to worry,” says Bruna Dealtry, a sports reporter for Brazil’s Record TV which expects Brazil to win this year’s tournament. “The game will be playing, even in the [emergency room].”
But she would rather have seen the matches played elsewhere. “I don’t think FIFA will choose a country like Qatar again,” Ms. Dealtry says, noting that Qatar’s conservative mores make it an uncomfortable destination for female fans and sports commentators like herself. “In the future, the choice must be somewhere where everyone can be safe,” she says.
Not that Latin American soccer has a great track record. Many teams are notorious for homophobic chants. Fans of “El Tri,” Mexico’s national team, have been chanting anti-gay slurs for decades; at one point Mexico’s participation in Qatar was at risk because fans refused to stop.
But in recent years, more teams in the region have started openly discussing homophobia, says Santiago Menna, a researcher in South America for Human Rights Watch. And he was impressed to hear Brazil’s national team coach speak out in September in support of a proposed fund to compensate workers in Qatar whose labor setting up the games went unpaid – or who died on the job.
“There’s space to talk about human rights in relation to the World Cup. It’s not all just soccer,” Mr. Menna says.
In Africa, where lovers of the game religiously follow local and European leagues, the mood surrounding the World Cup is mixed. “I know some people who have already booked their tickets, and they’re even flying by Saturday,” says an excited Oluwadamilola Ojetunde, a data analyst based in Abuja, Nigeria. “I would have loved to go, just to catch the fun.”
But Vitalis Inganga, a barber in Kiambu, Kenya, is worried that the conservative Muslim emirate may not relax its laws and cultural customs for World Cup tourists. Qatar’s tourism website says people should “show respect for local culture by avoiding excessively revealing clothes in public” and urges people to keep knees and shoulders covered.
“The World Cup can be entertaining as long as they allow people to show their cultures, because people want to be entertained,” Mr. Inganga says. “If they let people show their own cultures … the tournament would be better and attract more people.”
Qatar has also attracted African migrants looking for jobs. Many do domestic work, but huge numbers ended up at construction sites linked to the tournament. Both groups of workers have raised concern about poor working conditions and human rights and labor abuses. Some who protested violations have been detained and even expelled.
“It should be of concern how they treat us as a people,” says Robert Rajula, a customer relations officer based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. “Human rights should be a factor in terms of where the World Cup goes.”
The lead-up to some other World Cups, and to some Olympic Games, have also seen heavy media coverage of human rights, socioeconomic, and climate issues. But once the tournaments begin, most fans narrow their focus to what’s happening on the pitch. FIFA and host countries know that, which is why there was never any question of stripping Qatar of its status as host.
Despite the controversy, Qatar is expecting 1.5 million soccer fans in November and December. Hotels are so scarce the country has brought in two cruise ships and created container cities. Some fans have had to look for lodging in neighboring countries. And the world will watch. An Ipsos poll across 34 nations found that 55% of respondents plan to tune in.
“Once the games start, it’s almost like the Romans and the gladiators,” says Mr. Lisi, the World Cup historian. “Everyone forgets about what’s happening around them, and is focused on the field.”
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That will work in Qatar’s favor, he expects. “It’ll be a win no matter what, because this is their chance for the whole world to see them, when most people can’t even find Qatar on the map.”
Colette Davidson in Paris, Whitney Eulich in Mexico City, Lenora Chu in Berlin, Carlos Mureithi in Nairobi, Kenya, and Natasha Khullar Relph in Brighton and Hove, England, contributed reporting to this article.
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