The World Cup begins today in Qatar. The matches, which usually start in late spring or summer, have been driven to suit the desert nation’s climate – one of the many reasons this has been such an odd World Cup.
The best national football teams will compete for the title of world champion. About a billion people are expected to watch the final on December 18. Tariq Panja, a sports reporter for The Times, is at the tournament (where temperatures are still around 85 degrees). I talked to him about the scandals surrounding the event and what to expect from the games.
Lauren: I grew up in Arkansas, where we watched a different kind of football. Can you tell me how big the World Cup is globally?
Tariq: There’s nothing bigger than this, not even the Olympics. The World Cup is the most watched event in the world. It happens every four years, and it’s the highlight of many people’s lives.
These 32 teams attract the attention of supporters even outside their borders, especially in Asia, where most countries have historically failed to qualify for the World Cup. Everyone can adopt a team and support them with a fervent passion.
This is the fourth World Cup you have participated in. What is different about this one?
This was the first time the games were played in November and December. Because of the heat of the desert in Qatar, the schedule had to be changed, upsetting the entire global football schedule. European football pauses mid-season for the first time. Players now have less time to practice with their national teams.
These games are usually held in different cities across major countries, like Russia, Brazil or South Africa. This is the smallest venue ever to host this tournament.
In 2009, Qatar made the most lavish offer in history to host the World Cup. Why does it want to store so badly?
Qatar is a tiny dot in the Gulf desert that wants the world to know it’s here. It is the first Arab country and the first Muslim country to host a sporting event of this scale. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are enviously looking at, giving Qatar influence.
In 2009, Qatar spent tens of millions of dollars trying to host the World Cup. They pay famous athletes like Zinedine Zidane, one of the greatest players in history, to back their bids. However, Qatar’s bid appears to be a joke. It’s weird as a concept. They get questions about the heat, about how they can hold games in a country smaller than Connecticut, and whether or not they allow alcohol.
When the FIFA president at the time opened the envelope and Qatar’s name appeared, people immediately rushed into corruption. Subsequent investigations forced FIFA to change the way it was appointed and revealed how a country can make the world obey its will through the power of cash.
You went to Qatar last week. What are you looking at?
Everything here is shiny and newly built. It’s like a country with a new car smell. What’s most obvious is that it’s scorching hot – and it’s almost winter at this point. There is very strong sunlight shining on the poured concrete for all new buildings. They have also banned the sale of beer to fans at stadiums.
How prepared is Qatar? Talk to us about the controversy surrounding this tournament.
They basically had to rebuild an entire country in 12 years to host this month-long event. They gathered hundreds of thousands of foreign workers, especially South Asian workers, to build this project. According to human rights groups, thousands of those workers have died in Qatar since 2010, the year the country won the right to host. Many more were injured while constructing or renovating these eight air-conditioned stadiums, which Qatar will see little use after the World Cup. It is the collision of some of the world’s poorest with the ambitions of some of the world’s richest.
The country’s human rights record has come under scrutiny beyond worker deaths. An important aspect of that is Qatar’s criminalization of homosexuality. The World Cup is supposed to be this festival open to everyone. How is that square with a country that will jail you for being gay?
FIFA president Gianni Infantino pushed back on the outrage yesterday, calling it “hypocrisy” from European countries. He urged fans to criticize him instead of Qatar.
Some European football fans are calling for people to boycott the matches. What would you say to someone weighing that decision?
It’s a conversation people are having around the world and it speaks to the troubling nature of this tournament. It is for each individual to figure it out for themselves. But from the player’s point of view, this is not their fault. That’s the position FIFA has put them in.
However, in the end, this tournament can be held on the moon and it will attract the same number of viewers. Soon, most of the world will just talk about what matches look like.
What are you watching in the matches?
Everything is politicized. Iran is under close scrutiny because of its national protests; a player from France, Eduardo Camavinga, received racist messages on social media; some Argentina fans created an offensive, racist song about another French player, Kylian Mbappé.
In terms of football, pay attention to Brazil. They have a very deep squad. Then there’s Argentina. This could be the last World Cup for one of the sport’s greatest players, Lionel Messi. And a non-European team hasn’t won the tournament since 2002. So maybe it’s time to end that 20-year wait.
The first match of the tournament, Qatar vs. Ecuador, starting at 11 a.m. Eastern time. The US will play its first game at 2pm tomorrow, against Wales. Registration for our World Cup update.
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FROM WOMEN’S OPINION
Sunday Question: Can Trump lose the 2024 Republican primaries?
Several recent polls show Florida Governor Ron DeSantis leading Trump in a potential confrontation and GOP elites could ditch him, FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver wrote. But there are many possible challengers in the preliminary round split the vote against Trump and ultimately help him win, noted Alyssa Farah Griffin.
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moralist: Should I post pictures of breastfeeding?
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Read the full issue.
What to watch?
Alaska will tabulate the ranked selection ballots Wednesday, potentially settling the Senate and House races.
Thursday is Thanksgiving Day. At the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York, the new balloons included characters from the “Minions” series and the “Bluey” cartoon.
Friday marks Native American Heritage Day, as does Black Friday, the traditional start of the holiday shopping season.
What to cook this week
Emily Weinstein’s Guide to the Days Before Thanksgiving: Keep dinners simple, avoid sweet or mushy treats, and ditch the roast chicken (too close to the turkey). Instead, try the one-pan orzo with spinach and feta, the fettuccine Alfredo rolled with crispy peppers, or the cheese-toasted pasta that’s great for the crowd.
Four more days to go: Buying wine is one of the easiest parts of preparing for Thanksgiving. Eric Asimov has advice.