The men’s World Cup, football’s greatest stage, begins in Qatar on Sunday. But this year the Games have clouded the host country’s long list of human rights abuses and failures. GBH News sports reporter Esteban Bustillos has spoken to fans about how they are struggling with anticipation for the World Cup, but also concerned about what we know about how Qatar has performed leading up to the tournament. He joined GBHs morning edition Co-hosts Paris Alston and Jeremy Siegel to discuss his coverage. This transcript has been edited lightly.
Paris Alston: What sparked your coverage of this, Esteban?
Esteban Bustillos: So, like many people, I love the World Cup. I think it’s the best global sporting event and that includes the Olympics. And for weeks I’ve been wrestling with whether I can really support this tournament or to what extent I can support this tournament at all. And like a lot of people, it was really sticky.
Jeremy Siegel: It’s also a little sticky. I think I would argue with you about the Olympics vs Worlds thing, I’m more of an Olympics guy. But especially at this World Cup, why is it so tricky for some fans this year?
Bust: I mean make your choice. There are conditions for migrant workers that have, in essence, bordered on modern slavery. Qatar’s government said there were 37 deaths among workers in World Cup stadiums between 2014 and 2020, and only three of those were actually work-related. But outside observers have found that figure to be much, much higher. Or the government’s terrible record when it comes to LGBTQ rights, or women’s rights, or freedom of the press, or even the fact that the country’s climate had to move the summer event to the winter months to avoid the searing heat that would have done so having to made playing impossible. And, you know, to top it off, the Justice Department has accused the leaders of global football’s governing body FIFA of taking bribes to steer the World Cup to Qatar. Even former FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who ran the organization when Qatar won the cup, said recently that hosting the tournament there was a mistake. It’s messy, you know.
Alston: Yes, that’s a lot. How do local fans deal with it?
Bust: As you can imagine, it’s complicated. Evan Cipriano is vice president of the Boston chapter of the American Outlaws, a support group that supports US soccer teams. He went to Brazil for the 2014 Cup and vowed not to miss a tournament after that. But he broke that vow this year amid problems surrounding Qatar.
Evan Cipriano: Which leaves you at home watching and saying, you know, I’m just watching a sporting event. But at the same time, in a way you support the decision of a big organization like FIFA to give a country like Qatar the opportunity to host a very welcoming and global event that everyone can attend I said, certainly from a fan perspective it doesn’t seem like it , as if everyone is welcome, and that’s really disappointing.
“From a fan perspective, not everyone seems welcome and that’s really disappointing.”
Seal: So this is interesting. He has vowed not to miss a tournament to watch one in person and has now put the brakes on this event in Qatar.
Bust: Yes, and part of that is actually his previous experience in Russia in 2018 when they hosted the trophy. Apparently, Russia had similar problems when it comes to human rights and was already invading Ukraine at the time. But that wasn’t highlighted as much as Qatar’s troubles are now being discussed. Cipriano still left, but his feelings about the event changed over time.
Cipriano: And then at the end I really thought, really, that was just propaganda for the Russian government to say we held a great event. People came from all over the world. It was fantastic. I look back and I’m like, Wow, like I can’t really believe I went there and then kind of came back and said, ‘Yeah, everything was fine. For example, you should go to Russia, it’s a great place. I felt welcome there.” I regret doing that and those feelings.
Bust: And you know, a decision like that when the US men’s team is back in the tournament after missing out on the 2018 trophy is a big loss for fans like Cipriano, but those are the decisions people have to make this year.
Alston: So that’s certainly a lot to try and think through. And another important component of that is how this will affect Qatar’s relationship with the rest of the world. What have you all heard about it?
Bust: Obviously, this is a big moment for the country and region as this is the first time a Middle Eastern nation has hosted a World Cup. Cemal Kafadar is director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University and a big football fan. He says he was surprised, like many others, when Qatar lifted the trophy. And he deals with his own feelings while watching.
Cemal Kafadar: Not a day goes by that I don’t get a message from a friend or two saying I have real conflicts about this mug.
Bust: He told me that talks are ongoing in the Middle East, spurred in part by criticism of Qatar that may have never been seen on everything from workers’ rights to LGBTQ rights.
Kafadar: Now, change might be a bit too ambitious, but we’ve definitely stimulated some dialogue, some conversation, and some awareness. And change certainly comes at the end of something like that, but not necessarily a short-term change. Nothing to be expected in the next month, immediately after the World Cup. Yes, I think it’s very important to change your mind. And that kind of conversation changes minds.
“I think” it’s very important to change your mind. And that kind of conversation changes minds.”
Bust: And another point he made was that while there is much to criticize, Qatar warns against using the World Cup to paint too broad a picture of the region.
Kafadar: It seems to me that the broader picture of Qatar and the Gulf and Arabia as oil rich, depraved places or countries or societies is unfair in this regard. We really need to strike a balance between the waiver for Qatar and legitimate concerns about existing issues.
Seal: It’s super complicated and it’s really difficult for the fans to navigate because on the one hand you have people who are really aware of the problems in Qatar. And at the other end they enjoy the game that goes far beyond the borders of one country. I have to ask you as a World Cup super fan, have you made up your mind if you are going to watch?
Bust: You know, it’s really, really hard to say either way. Again, I love the cup and the cheering for Mexico and USA and seeing all the other storylines that play out every year. I did not watch this year’s Winter Olympics because I am personally concerned about the Chinese government’s handling of the Uyghurs or Tibet. But that was easy. I mean, who really cares about luge when it counts? But this is different. When I spoke to Kafadar, he quoted Uruguayan author Eduardo Gagliano, who wrote that the history of football is a sad journey from beauty to dare, meaning that money takes people’s enjoyment of the game and turns it into a commodity Has. And that’s what this year feels like. When I watch, it’s not because I feel the excitement I usually feel. It will feel like an obligation.
Alston: The 2026 World Championship will of course take place four years from now, and part of it will take place here in Massachusetts at Gillette. So is that some sort of silver lining?
Bust: That’s correct. You know, the USA and England played each other in the group stage on the 25th this year. Here’s hoping we get a World Championship rematch on July 4, 2026 at Foxborough. It would be a home field advantage the likes of which this city has never seen.