The clearest sign of authoritarianism may be when people of different classes are not afforded the same rights and privileges. Do you have to have a position of political or culture power, or have a connection to someone who does, to be free? Does the state dictate what you consume, who you love, or where you work—unless you’re special?
Qatar, which for the next month will host the World Cup, the world’s most-watched sporting event, has clearly failed those tests.
The examples of petty authoritarianism on display in Qatar in the immediate run-up to the tournament and over the first few days of the competition have been numerous—though they pale in comparison to the human rights abuses that piled up as the tiny Middle Eastern state built the stadiums and infrastructure necessary to host the event. By allowing Qatar to host the tournament, and by consenting to the country’s leaders’ illiberal policies for residents and guests alike, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) has further besmirched its already tainted reputation.
The most visible (though not the most egregious) sign of this World Cup’s illiberalism may be the rules surrounding alcoholic beverages. For years leading up to the World Cup, Qatar’s plans included vague promises about loosening the country’s strict prohibitionist rules to let football fans imbibe. There were plans for special “beer zones” in and around the eight World Cup stadiums, for example.
Then, just two days before Sunday’s opening match, the Qatari royal family issued a new edict: No beer at the stadiums. There is one location in Doha, Qatar’s capital city, where beer will be sold. Unless, of course, you bought special tickets for hospitality suites built into every stadium. There, the suds will flow for the well-connected and wealthy—who always have an easier time getting what they want in an authoritarian state.
Ecuadorian fans responded by chanting “we want beer” as their national team thrashed Qatar in the opening match on Sunday. British tabloids reported that some England fans were trying to smuggle beer into their team’s opening game against Iran on Monday morning, though it is unclear whether any of them actually succeeded.
Budweiser, whose parent company reportedly paid $75 million to be named the “official beer” of the World Cup, tweeted (and subsequently deleted) criticism of the last-minute Qatari decision. Later, the brand’s official Twitter account posted a photo of the surplus supplies of brew and promised (or perhaps threatened, depending on your view of Budweiser) to send the excess beer to the winning nation.
The most embarrassing response belongs to FIFA President Gianni Infantino, who on Sunday defended Qatar’s decision to spit in the face of a major sponsor and thousands of fans.
“I think personally, if for three hours a day you cannot drink a beer, you will survive,” Infantino told reporters, according to The New York Times. “I think for what we Europeans have been doing around the world for the last 3,000 years, we should be apologizing for the next 3,000 years, before starting to give moral lessons.”
Pu-leeze. Europe’s historic authoritarianism is no excuse for Qatar’s modern-day authoritarianism. If FIFA wants to help repair that history, it could do so by standing up for liberal values and refusing to kowtow to regimes that refuse to grant some of the most basic human rights to its own citizens. And not just in Qatar: This tournament comes on the heels of World Cups in Russia, where free speech does not meaningfully exist, and in Brazil, where residents were forcibly displaced to build stadiums.
“Don’t criticize Qatar,” Infantino added. “Criticize FIFA. Criticize me, if you want. Because I’m responsible for everything.”
Happily. It was clear from the moment in 2010 when Qatar was awarded this World Cup that FIFA made a mistake. It’s a mistake that cost thousands of people their lives.
The migrant workers that built Qatar’s World Cup stadiums and associated infrastructure face tight constraints on their freedoms and work in dangerous (and sometimes lethal) conditions. Calling attention to those conditions is made more difficult by the country’s illiberal free speech laws. Anyone caught broadcasting or publishing “inflammatory propaganda, domestically or abroad, with intent to harm [Qatar’s] national interests” can be subjected to five years in prison and fines of up to $25,000 under Qatari law, The Athletic reported in June.
Qatar is not only trying to suppress its own citizens’ free speech. It’s trying to extend that chilling effect to the rest of the world during an event that will be watched by an estimated 3 billion people.
So give credit to the BBC for opening their coverage of the tournament on Sunday, with English footballing legend Gary Lineker calling attention to “accusations of corruption in the bidding process,” “the treatment of migrant workers who built the stadiums,” and Qatar’s lack of equal rights for gay people and lack of free expression rights for everyone:
Gary Lineker’s opening monologue at the start of BBC’s coverage of the FIFA World Cup in Qatar ⚽pic.twitter.com/71xyfXpBWc
— Chamatkar Sandhu (@SandhuMMA) November 20, 2022
Infantino and FIFA may not like it. The Qatari government certainly won’t like it. But being accepted into the international community—and Qatar clearly sees the World Cup as its coming-out party (pun definitely intended)—should mean recognizing human rights, at a minimum.
And if you want to host a big party, be willing to let your guests have a drink.