World Cup·Analysis

Canada prepares to enter moral quagmire that is the Men's World Cup

The Men's World Cup will soon begin in Qatar, laden with the same moral baggage that has accompanied so many previous editions.

26 players named to roster that will take field Nov. 23 against Belgium

A worker sweeps a staircase inside the Al-Bayt Stadium in al-Khor ahead of the Men's World Cup that begins Nov. 20. (AFP via Getty Images)

Soccer is a game of limited opportunities. In a regulation match, any given player will have the ball at his feet for about three minutes — a touch here, a touch there, with a lifetime of enormous, invisible effort in between.

For some people, such a low joy-to-work ratio makes soccer an exercise in tedium. For others, soccer is a reminder of why we do anything hard.

Next Sunday, the Men's World Cup kicks off in Qatar. The tournament should not be in Qatar. Even Sepp Blatter, the former FIFA president who oversaw a selection process beset by naked corruption, recently called the whole thing "a mistake."

Episode 4 of Soccer North lands Friday on CBC and the CBC Sports YouTube channel

That's a small-seeming word for him to use, given the deaths of thousands of migrant workers in their frenzied preparation; the environmental costs of building seven new outdoor, air-conditioned stadiums; the endless rows of shipping containers that fans will pay $200 a night to sleep in; the interruptions of the European and South American club seasons to avoid the worst of the desert heat; and the Qatari government's refusal to meet global standards of human equality and dignity.

Qatar's hosting of the World Cup isn't a mistake. It is obscene.

It is also, like every tragedy, irreversible. So beginning Nov. 20, 32 teams will meet in Doha to play soccer against each other. First, Qatar will face Ecuador. The next day, three more games will be played. The next day, four more. Until, finally, on Dec. 18, after nearly a full month of attrition, the last two teams will play one final game, and a champion will be crowned.

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On that night, at least, Qatar will have more than one king. For one team and the country that it represents, there will be the ecstasy that comes with being the best at something the entire world does. Money won't matter. Morality won't either. Against a cynical and lamentable backdrop, the impossible dreams of children will come true.

For long-time soccer fans, that dichotomy is both awful and easy to reconcile. All of us who love the game have had a lot of practice in compromise. In 1978, the Men's World Cup was held in Argentina, then in the grips of a military dictatorship that was engaged in a "Dirty War" against its own citizens. The last edition, in Russia in 2018, unfolded under Vladimir Putin's gaze while he made his plans for a different kind of global domination.

That is the nature of the game. It is a terrible business. If you give your heart to soccer, you are committing to filling it with concessions and regrets.

In return, you will experience the briefest flashes of the warmest light.

Four years ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin played host to the tournament. (AFP via Getty Images)

Almost every game, and certainly every World Cup, has moments of throat-closing grace. They are the reward for your fealty, the transcendent partner of those three blessed minutes when you have the ball at your feet. In exchange for all of your pain and humiliation and self-deceit, soccer will grant you weightlessness. It always does, and you will always be able to relive when it did. You will close your eyes and start to float.

The Canadian men have played in one World Cup, in 1986. They lost three straight games and went home. They didn't even score a goal. But they were there, and for the last 36 years, they were the only ones among us who could claim shared tenancy, however temporary, with the world's best.

Now, improbably, a different generation will be able to say the same. Thirty-nine men played 20 games — in Mexico, Honduras, and Haiti; in stadiums emptied by the pandemic and in front of thousands of screaming fans; in choking heat and paralyzing cold — just to qualify for Qatar.

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On Sunday, 26 of them saw their names on the final roster. Atiba Hutchinson, 39 years old and nearly absent with injury, is, miraculously, one. Milan Borjan, the son of Croatian refugees who escaped war and found sanctuary in Hamilton, is another. Alistair Johnston, who was playing in League 1 Ontario only three years ago, will join them. Alphonso Davies, whose own family fled war in Liberia to pursue a better life in Edmonton, will, too.

Their only guaranteed prize is three games against favoured opponents. The first, on Nov. 23, will be against Belgium, ranked second in the world. Canada's prospects for advancement are slim. Scoring a goal would represent a historic success. 

So why bother? Why choose to ignore soccer's unforgivable sins and wicked odds? Why love something that so rarely loves you back?

Because life is another game of limited opportunities. Sometimes it's a trial. Most of the time, it's pretty ordinary.

But every now and then, just often enough to keep you believing in the efficacy of one-sided contracts, everything will fall perfectly into place for you, and you will see your team put a ball into the back of the net, and you will hear the crowd rise up and make the sound that hurricanes make, and you will fall into the arms of the strangers around you, as though nothing else is keeping you tethered to the Earth, and your tears will remind you what a gift it is to care about someone and something outside of yourself, and your gooseflesh will certify how lucky you are to have been given the chance.


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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