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World Cup

As tournament kicks off, Qatar remains controversial host for men’s World Cup

Qatar, which is smaller than Connecticut and has fewer than 3 million residents, has scrambled to accommodate a million foreigners for the World Cup.Stuart Franklin/Getty

From the moment when Qatar was named host of the men’s World Cup a dozen years ago, the unlikely choice has been criticized by everyone from players to clubs to fans to human rights advocates to medical specialists.

The Gulf petrostate is too small, too repressive, too inhospitable, too hot to stage the planet’s most important sporting event other than the Olympics.

“It was a mistake,” Sepp Blatter, who was president of FIFA, soccer’s ruling body, when Qatar was selected over the United States and four other bidders in 2010, said recently.

Yet the monthlong quadrennial festival of feet with its 32-team field will begin Sunday with virtually all of the 3 million tickets sold and the home country facing Ecuador in the customary opener. It will be a Cup unlike any other in the event’s 92-year history.

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It is the first to be held in the Middle East, the first not staged in the summer, and the first where players will be openly challenging the host country’s policies, specifically its harsh treatment of migrant workers and the LGBTQ+ community.

FIFA has urged competitors to “focus on football.”

“Please do not allow football to be dragged into every ideological or political battle that exists,” urged federation president Gianni Infantino.

But critics say that sports cannot be separated from major social issues.

“No World Cup takes place in a vacuum,” German interior minister Nancy Faeser said in a television interview. “Human rights always apply everywhere and now the whole world is paying special attention.”

The Qatari government bristled at what it called “unacceptable and provocative comments.” Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani last month told the legislature that Qatar was the target of “an unprecedented campaign that no host country has ever faced,” accusing critics of “fabrication and double standards.”

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Most of the external criticism has focused on the government’s dealings with the country’s 2 million migrant workers, most of them from South Asia.

More than 6,500 foreign laborers, many of whom were involved in Cup-related construction, reportedly have died since Qatar won the bid. And while the government promised five years ago to reform its labor system, observers say progress has been slow.

“Thousands of workers across all projects are still facing issues such as delayed or unpaid wages, denial of rest days, unsafe working conditions, barriers to changing jobs, and limited access to justice, while the deaths of thousands of workers remain uninvestigated,” Amnesty International charged last month.

While players have backed fair treatment for the workers, their support for LGBTQ+ rights has been particularly visible in a country where homosexuality carries a prison sentence of up to seven years and where gay people have been harassed and beaten.

Germany's Thilo Kehrer and Jonas Hofmann pose with the team's captain's armband for the 2022 World Cup.Alex Grimm/Getty

Captains of most of the European teams will be wearing OneLove armbands during matches and the US squad is displaying the rainbow logo on the wall of its training facility and media room.

“When we are on the world stage and we are in a venue like Qatar, it’s important to bring awareness to these issues,” said US coach Gregg Berhalter, a member of two Cup teams.

The American players, who two years ago created a “Be the Change” initiative to push for social justice in the wake of George Floyd’s death, have been vocal supporters of LGBTQ+ rights.

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“We’re a group that believes in inclusivity,” said goalkeeper Sean Johnson, “and we’ll continue to project that message going forward.”

Qatari officials have vowed to be friendly hosts, within limits.

“We’ve always said everybody is welcome here,” said Nasser Al Khater, the organizing committee’s chief executive officer. “All we ask is for people to be respectful of the culture.”

Yet the cultural differences between Qatar, a conservative Muslim nation, and most of the Cup countries are significant, notably in the use of alcohol, which is strictly monitored in the host nation.

While beer is available in fan zones, it won't be sold in World Cup stadiums after a last-minute decision.Petr David Josek/Associated Press

While organizers said that spectators would be allowed to drink beer in and around the stadia during matches, they changed their minds Friday, irking Budweiser, a longtime tournament sponsor.

Qatar, which is smaller than Connecticut and has fewer than 3 million residents, has scrambled to accommodate a million foreigners.

To make room for them the government recently evicted thousands of Asian and African workers from apartments in Doha on two hours’ notice, forcing many of them to sleep in the street, which Migrant-Rights.org has called “inhumane beyond comprehension.”

Some spectators will be housed in industrial cabins at more than $300 a night. Even FIFA’s bigwigs had to find other accommodations when their posh five-star hotel wasn’t ready.

“It is too small of a country,” Blatter said recently. “Football and the World Cup are too big for it.”

FIFA’s executive committee knew that when it chose Qatar over the United States by a 14-8 margin on the fourth round of balloting after eliminating Australia and former hosts Japan and South Korea.

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Skeptics charged that bribery was involved and the US Justice Department agreed, saying that cash was paid to five members to award the Cup to a country that had never played in it and which finished at the bottom of its qualifying group last cycle.

Even if Qatar were Switzerland, its climate alone should have been a disqualifying factor. Because the July daytime temperatures are around 106 degrees, the tournament starting dates had to be pushed to November when the mercury still reads 84.

The shift played havoc with the top European leagues in England, Germany, and Spain, which have had to suspend their seasons for up to two months. Some Cup players, who usually have a month to prepare and a month to recover, only will have a week before and after.

The US squad, which hasn’t played a match since late September, includes Major League Soccer performers who haven’t seen action since the end of last month and European players who competed last weekend.

The Qatari government, which spent an estimated $220 billion on air-conditioned stadia, highways, expanded airports, and a new metro system, is eager to counter the negative vibe.

So the organizers have recruited hundreds of “Fan Leaders” from around the globe, covering their airfare, lodging, and tickets, and giving them walking-around money (”a manner of thanking them for their collaboration”) in exchange for upbeat social media coverage and singing an approved song during the opening ceremonies.

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Although the fans are not expected to be “mouthpieces” during their stay, organizers said, “it would obviously not be appropriate for you to disparage” the host country, the organizers, or the tournament.


John Powers can be reached at john.powers@globe.com.