The Qatar World Cup has provoked strong and
sometimes conflicting, reactions in many people. Shock.
Resignation. Since the tiny Persian Gulf state won the
right to host the tournament in 2010 it has been constantly embroiled in controversy;
over corruption allegations surrounding the bid itself, over the poor treatment of migrant
workers that have built the World Cup's infrastructure and over the lack of human rights and democracy
in the country.
But there is a wider story, which isn't just
a story about those things, although they are all important. Qatar's World Cup isn't
merely a sports tournament and neither should it be seen as an outlier, a black swan event
which could neither be predicted or likely replicated.
No, Qatar's World Cup should rather be seen as a product of global political, military,
economic and technological currents that have their roots as far back as the mid-19th century
but centred on the tumultuous end of the 20th century. It is an avatar for a new world with
new rules. The Qatar World Cup has its roots in war,
corruption, revolution and the rise of the super-rich and its geopolitical implications
have helped reshape not just the Middle East but also the rest of the world
Consider these three seemingly unconnected events. They take place thirty two years ago,
within months of each other, in three very different parts of the world.
In the United Kingdom, on January 19th 1990, the final Taylor Report is released.
is led by Lord Justice Taylor into the deaths of 96 Liverpool fans crushed to death at Hillsborough
stadium in Sheffield, during an FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest. It was the worst
stadium disaster in Europe and in the immediate aftermath Liverpool fans are blamed for the
tragedy. The Taylor Report put the blame squarely on poor policing and decrepit infrastructure.
It took another two decades, and constant campaigning by Liverpool fans to force the
government to admit there had been a cover up by the police to smear the dead and deflect
blame from the state's failures.
But the most immediate effect in 1990 was a revolution
in stadium building and design. The Taylor Report highlighted how a crumbling
Victorian stadium – the kind of stadium replicated across the country – played a
role in the disaster and was unfit for purpose. The report recommended that standing terraces
be banned, which they were. All seater stadia were introduced, a revolution that would change
English football forever. Without this reform, and others, it would not have been possible
to form the Premier League two years later. Within a decade the English Premier League
was on its way to becoming the most lucrative and watched football league in the world.
The league was built in the image of Margrat Thatcher, the British prime minister whose
painful economic reforms alongside US president Ronald Reagan in the 1980s created a deregulated
and deeply unequal economy.
A trickle down economy where greed was good and the crumbs
would eventually fall off the table to those less below. That theory didn’t work out.
The wealthy merely saved the extra money or squirrelled it away into tax havens. Inequality
rocketed. The Premier League was neoliberalism’s perfect mirror and the commodification of
English football led to a new class of owner, enticed by the UK and English football's laissez
faire attitude to investment: the newly ennobled and empowered global super rich who saw in
this new fanatically popular global league an opportunity to further their own goals,
whether they were political, financial or more personal. Such was its draw, reach and
power that even nation states began to look at football, in England and beyond, as a viable
investment option. Everything was for sale, and everyone was welcome to buy.
In Moscow, on February 7th 1990, the general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet
Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, recommends that the CPSU gives up its monopoly on political
power. Within weeks the Baltic states and Moldova hold their first ever competitive
elections. On March 11th Lithuania passes the “Act of the Re-Establishment of the
State of Lithuania”, becoming the first Soviet republic to declare independence creating
a domino effect.
In August 1991 hardliners desperately trying
to cling to the Soviet Union, and hoping that the people would rally to the Soviet cause,
launch a coup against Gorbachev. Instead, the coup plotters were faced with thousands
of Muscovites who took to the streets in protest. Among them was a young Boris Yeltsin – well,
relatively young given the state of Soviet gerontocracy. He was famously filmed in a
flak jacket, riding a tank. The coup failed. By the end of the year the Soviet Union had
ceased to exist. The hammer and sickle was lowered from the Kremlin, and replaced by
the Russian tricolour. Yeltsin was now president of a newly independent Russia in a new world,
with a new democracy and a new market economy. Those who were smart, lucky or well connected
– usually all three – spotted the gaps in the system where money was to be made,
especially in oil. The fall of the Berlin Wall brought freedom
to millions but also heralded a period of plunder unseen in modern times. It handed
the opportunity to a group of businessmen to take advantage of the chaos to make fortunes
in an opaque fashion.
It gave rise to the oligarchs – a Greek word that means ‘rule
by the few’. Under Yeltsin allies became millionaires and then billionaires, after
he concocted a scheme that handed state owned companies – especially in oil, gas and metals
– to trusted figures who could ensure he stayed in power. One of those beneficiaries
was a young man who quietly worked his way into the grace and favour of the new Russian
elite. A rubber duck salesman by the name of Roman Arkardyovich Abramovich. And football
was in the right place at the right time to benefit from the largesse of this new class
of super-rich. On August 2nd 1990, an Iraqi army, 100,000
soldiers strong, invaded Kuwait. Saddam Hussein, Iraq's absolute ruler, had been embroiled
in a decade-long war of expansion and attrition against neighbouring Iran. For a while the
US and its allies backed Saddam against their common enemy the Ayatollah Khomeini. The war
was ruinous. It took a million lives and almost bankrupted the country. Neighbouring Kuwait
had bankrolled Iraq's folly and wanted its billions of dollars in loans repaid. To make
matters worse the price of a barrel of oil had collapsed from just over $40 a barrel
in 1981 to under $12 in 1988.
Almost 100 per cent of Iraq's foreign reserves came from
oil sales. And so, on the flimsy pretext that Kuwait was “slant drilling” under the
Iraqi border and stealing Iraqi oil, Iraq invaded and occupied, declaring Kuwait an
Iraqi province and so escaping its debt obligation. Oil prices surged to $41 dollars a barrel.
The occupation was brutal. Although Kuwait emir managed to flee to Saudi Arabia, the
elite that remained were rounded up jailed and tortured. Many were murdered. Sheikh Fahad
al Ahmed al Jaber al Sabah, a brother of the king, was shot and killed whilst trying to
defend the Dasman Palace.
His body was laid on the steps and crushed by an Iraqi tank
as a warning to others. Sheikh Fahd had become famous during the 1982 World Cup finals for
entering the field during France v Kuwait, politely remus starting with the ref and persuading
him to disallow a goal he deemed the French had scored unfairly.
Saddam believed western nations were in decline and the US wouldn't have the stomach to commit
ground troops, and troops lives, to what he hoped to turn into a new Vietnam. But the
1990 oil shock the invasion sparked roused Western nations, especially US president George