No other sport comes close to soccer in its global reach. US football failed dismally in its attempt to cross the Atlantic. US baseball only extends to bits of Latin America and pockets of Asia. Cricket is confined to the old British Empire. Golf is global but niche. Soccer is watched everywhere you can get a TV signal and played wherever you can purchase a round ball. Even Osama bin Laden, an Arsenal fan, encouraged his troops to play soccer when they were holed up in Afghanistan.
The globalization of the beautiful game keeps gathering momentum. Xi Jinping has set China an ambitious goal of hosting and winning a World Cup by 2050. Having been pipped at the post by Qatar for 2022, the US will host the 2026 World Cup jointly with Canada and Mexico. With women’s soccer gaining momentum and the sport’s association with macho violence in decline, at least in Western Europe, soccer is also gaining more female fans: In the last World Cup 40% of spectators were female.
The Qatar World Cup, which starts on Nov. 20, will mark several firsts. It is the first time a World Cup has been held in an Arab and Muslim-majority Country. It is the first time the Cup has been held in winter (the original plan to hold the games during the 47-degree heat of the Qatar summer had to be abandoned). And, above all, it is the first time that the Cup has been used as such a centerpiece of a vast development project.
Qatar’s ruling Al Thani family is using the country’s untold wealth from liquefied natural gas both to ensure its security and guarantee its long-term prosperity. In the mid-1990s, it built a billion-dollar air base, which it offered to the United States, and launched Al Jazeera, which is now a global media network. Since then, it has increasingly focused on the reputation-enhancing (and hopefully revenue-generating) power of soccer. Qatar Sports Investments purchased Paris Saint-Germain in 2011 and turned a rickety French club into a European powerhouse. Various Qatari organizations have struck sponsorship deals with brand-name European clubs such as Barcelona (£30 million a year to sponsor its shirt), Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and A.S. Roma. The government also spends prodigiously on creating a Qatari league at home, reviewing the footballing prowess of every 12-year-old Qatari, with limitless support for high-flyers, and scouting Africa for future stars.
Since winning the competition to hold the World Cup in 2010, Qatar has spent more than $250 billion on soccer-related development, a figure that dwarfs the estimated $42 billion that China spent on the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the $55 billion that Russia spent on the Winter Olympics in 2014. Ten billion has gone on eight soccer stadiums. The rest was devoted to a wholesale transformation of the country: the complete remodeling of downtown Doha; the construction of nearly a hundred new hotels; the expansion of the port and the airport; a revamped road system; the creation of three metro lines; and a new city with homes for more than a quarter of a million people.
So far the West has been overwhelmingly hostile to Qatar’s extraordinary project, far more hostile than it was to Vladimir Putin’s games four years ago. The list of charges being made against the petro-state is a long one: that the ruling family is using the World Cup to shore up its power; that more than 6,000 people have died in delivering the “vision”; that Qatar is hostile to gay people and other minorities; that it is obscene to see a quarter of a trillion dollars in petrochemical wealth being used to pay for a sporting extravaganza that will encourage yet more flying; and that Qatar 2022 represents everything that’s gone wrong with the beautiful game in the age of globalization. The Qataris hardly advanced their cause when their World Cup ambassador (and former national player) Khalid Salman described homosexuality as “haram” (forbidden), and “damage in the mind.” Nor were many people persuaded when the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, the organizing committee of the cup, claimed that there have been no more than three “work-related” fatalities on projects that it is responsible for. The World Cup thus represents as good an opportunity as any to ask two questions: How is soccer being shaped by globalization? And what impact will the backlash against the Qataris have on World Cup 2022?
The globalization of soccer is being driven by the most basic of market forces: Teams that can attract the best talent make the most money, and teams that make the most money can afford the most talent. This has led to the creation of super-leagues of football teams that have pulled further away from the rest of the football world. It has also led to a surge in cross-border trade: In Britain’s Premier League, the most globalized of the world’s leagues, three-quarters of the players and more than half of the managers are foreign-born, and half the clubs have foreign owners.
Surprisingly, these market forces are at their most vigorous in Old Europe, a continent normally noted for its reluctance to embrace commercial values, particularly when those values are applied to sacred things like soccer, which was originally a working-class sport and is still saturated with collectivist values best captured by Liverpool’s anthem, “you’ll never walk alone”. America is a laggard where soccer is concerned, not least because it held out hopes that its own version of football might become the global game. By embracing open markets in talent and corporate control, Europe has turned itself into the global center of investment, pouring money into stadiums, training programs and support staff, as well as a global center of excellence. European teams have won five of the six World Cups between 1998 and 2018 and provided three-quarters of the finalists.
Politics also plays an important part. This starts with the role of the international and regional organizations that police the game: For all its faults FIFA has pursued a strategy of spreading soccer around the world — hence, as FIFA tells it, its decision to give the Cup to the Middle East this year and North America next time around. But it extends to politicians more generally.
Politicians of all stripes, from social democrats such as Tony Blair trying to prove that he’s a “lad,” to authoritarians like Vladimir Putin burnishing their macho credentials, love to be associated with soccer. In 1993, Silvio Berlusconi announced his decision to enter politics by saying that he’d decided to take to the pitch (“discesa in campo”). He also named his political party, Forza Italia, after a national football team chant. President Xi likes to get himself photographed at soccer-related events, including taking a selfie with David Cameron and Sergio Aguero when he visited Manchester City’s training ground in 2015. Viktor Orban has built a show-stadium in his hometown, where he still keeps a dacha, with seating for nearly 4,000 people despite a local population of just 1,700. In 2014 Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan christened the opening of a new stadium in Istanbul by playing himself and scoring a hat trick, all on live TV. The North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un has written a sports manifesto, “Let Us Usher in a New Golden Age of Building a Sports Power in the Revolutionary Spirit of Paektu, in which he called for North Korea to “first secure world supremacy in women’s football.”
These two different forces, commercial and political, can sometimes pull in opposite directions: Britain routinely underperforms in the World Cup because, as the most international market in the world, it loses so many of its best players to the countries of their birth and is stuck with a group of English-born players who are not used to playing together. But in general these two forces reinforce each other. The quadrennial World Cup is just one of a number of football festivals, from the European Cup to the weekly Premier League games, which thrill soccer fans the world over, from the chancelleries of Germany to the slums of Kenya.
How seriously should we take the backlash against the Qatari games? The treatment of building workers in the heat and dust of the desert has frequently been horrific, to be sure. And prejudice of any kind has no place in a global event that is broadcast around the world and sponsored by global companies. But we should beware of the tendency to think of soccer as an embodiment of the West’s enlightened values now being threatened by its contact with the Middle East: Many soccer fans, particularly in Russia and Eastern Europe, are hardly angels of toleration, and, as we have seen, many of the world’s autocrats are keen on bending soccer to their political ends. We should also recognize that the $250 billion will bring progress as well as problems in its wake. The Qataris have liberalized many of their policies — you will be able to get weak beer near the stadiums and a full range of alcohol in hotel bars — and are sensitive about their international reputation over gay rights. Salman’s “haram” interview was shut down by an accompanying official. The sunshine of publicity has done something to improve the country’s backward labor laws.
Then there is the game itself. I suspect that billions of people will quickly forget about their worries about human rights as they are caught up in World Cup fever. Soccer is not only a beautiful game but also an unpredictable one — small countries like Croatia can humble giants and obscure players can suddenly turn out to be superstars. I also suspect that some people will have a creeping admiration for what the Qataris have done in transforming their kingdom for the competition. We live in an age of diminishing expectations, shrinking visions and defensive nationalism. The Qataris have bucked the trend by thinking big, embracing globalization and building a pharaonic monument to the world’s most global game.
More from Bloomberg Opinion:
• World Cup Qatar Will Be Great Football But an Ugly Game: Martin Ivens
• Olympic Hype Can’t Hide China’s World Cup Debacle: Adam Minter
• How England’s Journey of Redemption Swallowed My Life: Matthew Brooker
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Adrian Wooldridge is the global business columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. A former writer at the Economist, he is author, most recently, of “The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World.”
More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion