World Cup·Analysis

Qataris are showing FIFA just who is in charge at men's World Cup

Qatar's alleged acquiescence to FIFA's demands lasted only until it became impossible for the tournament to take place anywhere else.

Federations fold under threat of suspension for 'One Love' armbands

England's Harry Kane sports the captain's armband pledging non-discrimination during his team's game against Iran. England and a number of teams decided not to wear armbands showing support for the "One Love" campaign because it was seen as a rebuke against host Qatar's record on human rights. (Pavel Golovkin/Associated Press)

Chris Jones is in Qatar covering the men's World Cup for CBC Sports.

After Robert Caro finished The Power Broker, his monumental biography of city planner Robert Moses, he remained fascinated by the subject of strength. He decided to write next about President Lyndon Johnson, because Caro couldn't imagine a greater demonstration of influence and authority.

Today, Caro might have chosen to document Qatar's World Cup. In the 12 years since the desert kingdom won the right to host it, the balance of power has constantly shifted within and without the most beloved game on Earth.

In the anxious hours before England played Iran in Doha on Monday, it became clear who, in the end, wields all of it: the Qataris.

Back in 2010, FIFA held the cards — more specifically the 22 members of its former executive committee, the men who decided where each World Cup would take place. Half of them have since been implicated in bribery and corruption plots, including Sepp Blatter, FIFA's then-president.

They picked Qatar, having received various guarantees in public and brown envelopes in private.

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For maybe the next decade or so, FIFA still held grip on a possible cudgel: The World Cup, like every circus, could always be picked up and moved. Gianni Infantino replaced Blatter in 2016, and he semi-pressed the Qataris to meet Western standards on human rights and the use of migrant workers. The Qataris pretended to fear sanctions and promised progress.

Their alleged acquiescence lasted only until it became impossible for the tournament to take place anywhere else. Then came the next phase of the operation. The Qataris had spent more than $200 billion on the World Cup. They weren't going to be told what to do with it.

Two days before the tournament began, FIFA announced that beer would no longer be sold around stadiums before or after games.

That was news to Budweiser, one of FIFA's oldest and biggest sponsors, but there is beer money, and then there is oil-and-gas money. Infantino acted as though the ban had been a mutual decision, a function of fan safety. It was not. It was a function of Qatari wishes. 

Everything here is.

England's Marcus Rashford celebrates with Phil Foden after scoring their team's fifth goal during their 6-2 win over Iran in a Group B match at the men's World Cup on Monday. (Getty Images)

Under more usual conditions, soccer's stars would rise to power now that the games have begun. Over the years, teams have held organizers and even national governments to account by refusing to play or staging on-field protests.

The Iranians, for instance, showed courage leading up to the England game, paying tribute to fallen activists at home.

"Before anything else, I would like to express my condolences to all of the bereaved families in Iran," team captain Ehsan Hajsafi said. "They should know that we are with them, we support them, and we sympathize with them."

Seven European football associations, including mighty England's, also made their own stand: To protest Qatar's laws against homosexuality, they announced their captains would wear "One Love" armbands with rainbow hearts.

As recently as Sunday, English captain Harry Kane confirmed that was the plan: "We've made it clear as a team, and the staff, as an organization, that we want to wear the armband," he said.

FIFA threatened fines, and the associations shrugged. They have a little money, too.

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The morning of Monday's match, word spread that FIFA had applied still more pressure, no doubt at the behest of the Qataris: Any player wearing the rainbow armband would receive a yellow card, presumably for wearing "unauthorized equipment."

That threat made things stickier. By long-standing tournament rule, a player who accumulates two yellow cards is banned from the following game. Kane, despite being England's No. 9 and one of the sport's most recognizable names, could conceivably wear the armband for two games and be automatically suspended for a third.

Three hours before kickoff, the European associations blinked: None of their seven captains would wear the armbands.

"We were prepared to pay fines," they said in a joint statement. "However, we cannot put our players in the situation where they might be booked or even forced to leave the field of play." 

As Khalifa International Stadium began to fill on a warm and sunny afternoon, rumours and speculation ran rampant: What else might the players do to register their displeasure? Would they mount some other kind of protest? Would Kane wear the armband anyway?

Both sides took the field. The anthems played. The Iranian team didn't sing.

The sober crowd cheered. 

Then Kane stripped off his warmup jacket to reveal a black, more generic "No Discrimination" armband. The English team took an extremely brief knee in the seconds before kickoff. The referee blew his whistle. The clock began ticking. The afternoon rolled on.

England won the soccer game, 6-2. By then, Qatar had already conquered the world.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chris Jones

Senior Contributor

Chris Jones is a journalist and screenwriter who began his career covering baseball and boxing for the National Post. He later joined Esquire magazine, where he won two National Magazine Awards for his feature writing. His work has also appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, ESPN The Magazine (RIP), and WIRED, and he is the author of the book, The Eye Test: A Case for Human Creativity in the Age of Analytics. Follow him on Twitter at @EnswellJones

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