Never mind the invisible hand. Over the coming weeks the world will be united by the visible boot. Billions of people are expected to watch the World Cup in Qatar (in 2018, about 3.5 billion people, more than half the world’s adults, watched a portion of the tournament, and more than 1 billion watched some part of the final) — and rivers of money is to be spent to persuade those fans to consume various brands of fizzy drinks and glutinous burgers in the name of athletic prowess.
No other sport comes close to soccer in its global reach. US football failed dismally in its attempt to cross the Atlantic. 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. Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) has set China an ambitious goal of hosting and winning a World Cup by 2050. Having been pipped at the post by Qatar for this year’s competition, the US are to host the 2026 World Cup jointly with Canada and Mexico.
Illustration: Louise Ting
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 previous World Cup 40 percent of spectators were female.
The Qatar World Cup, which starts today, is to 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°C heat of the Qatar summer had to be abandoned). 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 to ensure its security and guarantee its long-term prosperity. In the mid-1990s, it built US$1 billion air base, which it offered to the US, 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. Qatari organizations have struck sponsorship deals with brand-name European clubs such as Barcelona — ￡30 million (US$35.68 million) a year to sponsor their shirt — Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and AS Roma.
The government also spends prodigiously on creating a Qatari league at home, reviewing the soccer 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 US$250 billion on soccer-related development, a figure that dwarfs the estimated US$42 billion that China spent on the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the US$55 billion that Russia spent on the Winter Olympics in 2014.
About US$10 billion has gone to building eight soccer stadiums. The rest was devoted to a wholesale transformation of the country: the complete remodeling of downtown Doha; the construction of nearly 100 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 250,000 people.
So far the West has been overwhelmingly hostile to Qatar’s extraordinary project, far more hostile than it was to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Games four years ago. The list of charges being made against the oil-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 one-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 has 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 represents as good an opportunity as any to ask two questions: How is soccer being shaped by globalization? 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 teams that have pulled further away from the rest of the soccer world. It has also led to a surge in cross-border trade: In England’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 such as 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.
The US 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.
However, it extends to politicians more generally.
Politicians of all stripes, from social democrats such as former British prime minister Tony Blair trying to prove that he is a “lad,” to authoritarians like Putin burnishing their macho credentials, love to be associated with soccer.
In 1993, former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi announced his decision to enter politics by saying that he would take to the pitch (discesa in campo). He also named his political party, Forza Italia, after a national soccer team chant.
Xi likes to be photographed at soccer-related events, including taking a selfie with former British prime minister David Cameron and Argentine soccer star Sergio Aguero when he visited Manchester City’s training ground in 2015.
Hungarian Prime Minister 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, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan christened the opening of a new stadium in Istanbul by playing himself and scoring a hat-trick, all on live TV.
In 2015, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un wrote 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 soccer.”
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.
In general, these forces reinforce each other. The quadrennial World Cup is just one of a number of soccer festivals, from the European Cup to the weekly Premier League games, which thrill 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. Prejudice of any kind has no place in a global event that is broadcast around the world and sponsored by global companies.
However, we should beware of the tendency to think of soccer as an embodiment of the West’s enlightened values 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 US$250 billion would bring progress as well as problems in its wake. The Qataris have liberalized many of their policies — you would 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. Billions of people are like to 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 such as Croatia can humble giants and obscure players can suddenly turn out to be superstars.
Some people might 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.
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. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its People’s Liberation Army (PLA) use their bi-annual Zhuhai Airshow to attack Taiwan on two levels. The first level became apparent to this observer after attending the first two airshows in 1996 and 1998: Why would the CCP allow Zhuhai leaders to build a second large international airport a mere 26 kilometers from the far busier Macau International Airport, with Zhuhai only cycling about ten flights a day? Zhuhai city fathers were not guilty of some corrupt “boondoggle,” they had clearly convinced the PLA to bless their city with a massive reserve airport to support future
The White House went into damage control mode after US Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley suggested that there is no military solution to the Russia-Ukraine conflict and diplomacy is needed to end it: The official US position is that Ukraine itself should set the terms of the peace and decide when, if ever, it is ready to talk. Yet after Tuesday’s incident with two missiles landing in Polish territory after a massive Russian strike on Ukrainian power stations, it should be clear why Milley appeared to swim against the US policy tide. The danger of accidental escalation, or world
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Thursday last week met with Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) at an APEC summit in Thailand. The meeting made front-page news in Japan the following day. Three years ago, when then-Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe visited Beijing to meet with Xi, no one questioned Abe’s attitude toward China, as the conservative parties in Japan had been spearheaded by Abe. However, Kishida could easily be labeled as pro-China, as he hails from Hiroshima — a place known for its anti-war, anti-nuclear movements — and was once the director of the Japan-China Friendship Association of Hiroshima.
Superman’s latest flight took him halfway across the world. After an uncertain free agency, superstar former NBA center Dwight Howard finally and surprisingly settled on Taiwan’s T1 League, where the Taoyuan Leopards have welcomed him with open arms and plenty of photographs. In the two weeks since the team announced their latest addition, Taiwanese media and fans have barely been able to contain their excitement. A livestreamed video of Howard visiting a Taoyuan night market and trying chicken butt on a stick (“This is some good-ass chicken!”) not only got thousands of views and extensive media coverage in Taiwan, but