IN THE end, the empty seats inside a soulless stadium vindicated the Beautiful Game. Fans cannot be bought.
Fifa’s executives can be bought. Domestic club seasons can be moved. Beer sales can be stopped. Fan villages can resemble shipping containers. Homosexuality can be described as “damage in the mind” and Gianni Infantino can take part in the quiz show Whataboutery.
A tiny country with 200 years of natural gas can do all of this, spending more on Qatar 2022 than every other World Cup combined, as it deals with the tectonic shifts in regional wealth and influence. Fine. Mission accomplished.
Congratulations on opening a World Cup that few in the world want to drink from, or drink in, or savour in any way, for fear of imbibing something unpalatable and toxic. The tournament is already tarnished, and few fancy being condemned by association.
But in one glorious aspect, Qatar has already lost. Their fans settled the matter, when they left the building early.
The hosts had the upper hand initially, during the opening ceremony, bringing out the voice of God, Morgan Freeman, to underline the hubris, arrogance and self-belief. Unlimited wealth really has no limits.
The BBC, Gary Lineker, gay comedians and anyone else with a leftie axe to grind can get in line, the one marked ‘irrelevant’, as their voices dissipate like snowflakes in the sand.
Qatar’s organisers got everything they paid for. From a winter blunder land to a warm handshake between Qatari and Saudi Arabian leaders, it all went swimmingly. The bleating among the chattering classes, waffling on about human rights, is a mild irritant, a passing fly in the midday sun, nothing more.
So the supporters should not have been a problem either, right? In an Orwellian landscape, control is easy. If workers can be bought and exploited, why not fans? Ship them in. Spread them out. Fill the ranks and pay lip service to the lie. A country with just 300,000 citizens has enough to diehards to fill a stadium on opening night at least.
But it didn’t. The empty seats were a short-term hit for the hosts, but a long-term win for a game so beleaguered, it’ll take all the wins it can get at the moment.
For the opening game between Qatar and Ecuador, there was a full house. And then the Ecuadorians scored a couple of goals and there was a half a house. And then, the hosts turned their own party into a house of cards. The façade collapsed. More than 12 years of myth-making gave way in about 12 minutes.
There is no football culture in Qatar. There is barely enough interest to sustain 90 minutes of football in Qatar, at an historic World Cup opener, involving Qatar.
If anything, the swaggering indifference towards global perception was almost admirable. They either didn’t know or didn’t care about the optics. Either way, the curtain came back to reveal not a great, untapped territory of football love, but a barren desert.
Host nations rarely empty a stadium during a World Cup game – Brazil’s 7-1 humiliation against Germany in Belo Horizonte in 2014 being an obvious exception – and they never file out before the final whistle of the tournament’s opener. It just isn’t done.
Lie exposed when Qataris leave the stadium early
However, to make such an obvious point leads to accusations of a pro-European or pro-football establishment bias. Why can’t a Middle East nation host a World Cup? Why can’t their fans leave whenever they like? Why must traditional, westernised views and interpretations of the game be imposed upon Qatar? Such accusations are like listening to Infantino on a loop.
Of course, the World Cup should be rotated and adapted, from country to country, culture to culture, which is why the beer ban is not the issue. Qatar has every right to restrict alcohol sales. It was the timing, the sense of a host nation flexing, grandstanding even.
The issue with Qatar 2022 was – and remains - the lie.
Since winning the bid in 2010, Qatar clung to that lie, a lie that became their last line of defence against global criticisms. Above all else, Qataris loved football. Qataris wanted this World Cup. Strip away the vote rigging, the geopolitical manoeuvring, the human rights abuses and heaven knows what else, there was always the football culture. Qatar had one. Therefore, they had as much right to enjoy a tournament on home soil as anyone else.
But they didn’t, did they? They turned their back on their own game, their own players.
And those empty seats performed an invaluable service, for all of us bleeding heart liberals eager to incorporate local perspective. There isn’t one. There weren’t enough Qatari fans willing to hang around until the final whistle, let alone fill a stadium.
So, exhale and say the previously unsayable with a clear conscience. This World Cup is not about the Qatari football culture or Qatari fans. This World Cup is not about the fans, or for the fans. The tournament bows only to those sitting up in the gods, looking down on an emptying stadium from cooled executive seats, basking in their success. This is a power show for the powerful.
But we can still take heart from those empty seats. Apparently, US$220 billion can buy several stadiums, hotels and a brand-new airport. But it can’t buy a fanbase. Isn’t that wonderful?
Just a couple of days earlier, almost 3,000 ticket-buying, legitimate fans turned up to watch Hougang United win their first silverware, beating Tampines Rovers 3-2 in the Singapore Cup Final. That’s what a nascent, fluctuating football culture looks like.
Yes, it’s fickle and fluid and changes from game to game, season to season, but that’s a by-product of its authenticity. It’s organic, from the bottom up, one fan at a time, a piecemeal process that requires so much more than a US$220 billion investment.
Such a pleasing turn of events – for us – and an uncomfortable reality – for Fifa – must never be brushed aside or denied again. Supporters matter. A football culture matters. And a World Cup without one is not only a hollow experience, but a pointless one.
Never again can hosting rights be awarded to a nation with little interest in the game – and zero interest in the women’s game.
Qatar 2022 is a tournament for fake fans. Let’s insist on the real thing next time round.
Supporters matter. A football culture matters. And a World Cup without one is not only a hollow experience, but a pointless one.
Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.
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