After all we’ve talked about previously, this might seem a silly question. But I’ve noticed how, for me and people around me, the presence of the Netherlands in Qatar really makes a difference. Not watching a World Cup, that’s one thing. But, after an eight-year wait, missing out on the Dutch team playing, that’s something else entirely. For people who aren’t interested in football, that might be hard to understand. They’ll point out how some matches played by our national team are unimportant compared to all the suffering in Qatar. And of course, they’re right.
Still, I don’t think we should dismiss this last concern so easily. When I decided to not watch the Qatar World Cup back in 2018, the Dutch were doing so poorly that I subconsciously expected them not to make it to the tournament. But when the team started performing well and qualified easily, I started doubting my decision somewhat. There’s something special about watching your own country at a World Cup, together with family and friends. That feeling is undeniable, which is why I’ll take it seriously in this chapter.
Imagine, the Netherlands is just as successful in Qatar as we were in 2014, or even 2010. We make it to the final. Or let’s take it up a notch, we win the whole thing. For the first time in history, the Netherlands becomes world champion. It would be an incredible sporting achievement by a country which came from an all time low to once again be world class. A collective achievement by a squad full of heroes and a head coach who’s definitively immortalized himself (Louis van Gaal would never shut up about it). And it would lead to massive celebrations all over the country. The entire nation would shut down and become one big festival area, hosting a party ten times bigger than King’s Day.
And then imagine you not watching out of principal. Hearing your entire neighborhood cheer while you know your country is playing but you’re busy doing something else. All the way up to the final. And then, during the final, you are the one person not included in the record-breaking viewership numbers. The one person – after winning – who stays inside while all of the Netherlands, dressed in nothing but orange, takes to the streets and parties like never before. It’s a nightmare for any football fan. But it is a possibility if you choose to boycott the Qatar World Cup. Why would you risk that?
Let’s rewind to the 1978 World Cup, held in Jorge Videla’s Argentina. Back then, we just missed out on ultimate glory. We lost the final to the host nation. During the tournament, people knew about the human rights abuses, but the full extent only became clear afterwards. The entire World Cup had been one big PR-campaign for a murderous dictatorship. Some historians argue Argentina’s victory contributed to Videla’s military junta staying in power for as long as they did. To this day, there’s suspicion of bribery and Argentina’s then-striker Leopoldo Luque said the World Cup should have never been held.
What role did the Dutch team play in all this? We were an unwitting supporting character in this giant theater play. The final boss to be defeated by the Argentinians, so they could demonstrate their superiority. We were being played.
It won’t be much different in Qatar. Of course, the Qatari team will never win the World Cup – even equaling the success of the Russians in 2018 seems impossible. But that’s not the point. Qatar will look good on the international stage, business interests from all over the world will be drawn to the country, their geopolitical position will be strengthened, and the Al-Thani’s will consolidate their power. That’s how – no matter what happens – the Qataris will win this World Cup. The billion-dollar investments in infrastructure, the shady deals with FIFA, the empty promises about improving working conditions: all of it has been calculated with almost admirable long-term precision. Football is being used as a PR-tool for a medieval-style regime which doesn’t care about the rights of migrant workers, women or people with sexual preferences which they claim to be not allowed by their faith.
Like Rome’s delirious masses at gladiator fights in the Colosseum, the world is made to like Qatar with high level entertainment. It doesn’t matter which gladiator will be left standing in the end, the biggest victory will be the emperor’s, who has given his people a spectacle to distract them from reality.
The Dutch team will be, in the winter of 2022 as it was in the summer of 1978, nothing more than a marionette in Qatar’s puppet show. When Memphis Depay or – let’s have some fun here – Wout Weghorst claims center stage in this performance, it will only distract the masses from the real main characters: sheikh Tamim Al-Thani, his son Mohammed and their loyal servant, Gianni Infantino.
And it will distract us from the foot soldiers, the extra’s, rarely caught on camera. Kenneth from Ghana, lured to Qatar to be a football player but forced to build stadiums. Adi Gurung from Nepal, huddled together with ten others in a filthy room, wondering if it would be better to die. Vishnu Bahadur, also from Nepal, who returned to his home country to be buried by his family. Or the father of Ganesh Bishwakharma, who never wants to hear the word ‘Qatar’ again after his sixteen-year-old son died in the Gulf State.
When even Neymar the human being is less important than Neymar the brand, then how could the human beings Kenneth, Adi, Vishnu or Ganesh matter at all? They don’t capture our imagination; they’re not performing in the show called football to provide our entertainment. They only do so indirectly, building the stage on which Neymar, and ‘our boys from Holland’, will perform.
No matter what Depay or Weghorst will do, no matter what goals they’ll score or statements they’ll make, they’re taking the headlines instead of Kenneth, Adi, Vishnu or Ganesh. By playing there, in those stadiums and in that tournament, they’re doing exactly what the Al-Thani’s want them to do. When you’re playing, you’re playing their game. Competing is not more important than winning, or vice versa. Competing makes sure they are winning. Even if – in the end – the Dutch team will be paraded through the Amsterdam canals holding the World Cup trophy, the only real champions are seated in the Qatari royal palace. In stadiums built by slaves, you might win the tournament, but a moral victory is impossible.
Purely from a sports perspective, I’d of course love a Dutch victory in a World Cup. But knowing what I know about Qatar 2022, I don’t think I could enjoy such a success. It’s a bit like watching a magic trick when you know how it’s done. You can’t watch it in ignorance, you can’t recapture the wonder and enthusiasm you might have had before.
But this magic trick, this illusion, is far less innocent, as it’s made possible by the exploitation of tens of thousands, and countless deaths. All for your entertainment. Personally, I don’t think I could enjoy it, even if the Netherlands would beat all opposition 10-0. Football itself will be losing 10-0 during the Qatar World Cup.
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