By MARK LORENZANA
The United States Men’s National Team (USMNT) on Monday, Nov. 21, figured in a disappointing 1-1 draw against Wales in its opening match in Qatar, after dominating the first half of the match and taking an early 1-0 lead. The U.S. team, however, blew its chance to take the win after Welsh forward Gareth Bale scored on a penalty kick in the 82nd minute.
Playing a physical style of soccer, the U.S. players picked up several fouls throughout the match, which ironically led to the penalty kick, and cost them the game. Walker Zimmerman, USMNT’s defender — who also plays as center-back for Major League Soccer (MLS) club Nashville SC — tackled Bale, which earned the Welshman his penalty kick.
“Walking into that locker room after the game, you could see the disappointment in the group,” Gregg Berhalter, coach of the USMNT, said afterward.
The Americans are back for this 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, after failing to qualify in 2018.
For the Welsh team, it’s been an even longer wait to get back to the World Cup — the last time it played in the tournament was in 1958. As a result, thousands of Wales fans have traveled to watch the games — not to Qatar, surprisingly, but to Tenerife, the largest and most populous island in the Canary Islands.
According to a Wall Street Journal report on Friday, Nov. 18., “Tenerife, Spain, the palm-fringed party capital of the Canary Islands, is a longtime British getaway and more welcoming of the singing, swearing and drinking of raucous soccer fans than Qatar.”
The draw against Wales puts the Americans in a tough spot right away, as they are considered the underdogs against England in Group B. England thrashed Iran, 6-2, in its first match on Monday.
Meanwhile, the home team of the 2022 World Cup, Qatar, opened its campaign with a 0-2 loss on Sunday, Nov. 20, to Ecuador. It was a dampener for Qatar in particular, as no host country had ever lost its first match since host nations began playing the tournament opener in 2006 — that is, until Sunday’s loss.
Qatar’s loss on Sunday actually shone the spotlight beyond the match itself, but more importantly on a decade of preparations by the host country for this World Cup, which spent upwards of $200 billion for the event. For 10 years, Qatar has constructed stadiums, hotels, roads — and a soccer team itself — to ensure that the emirate could successfully host a sporting event of such magnitude as the FIFA World Cup.
Qatar has been put on the microscope in the past several years, however, and its preparations — and hosting — were not without controversy.
For instance, despite the billions spent for the event, what was notable was that the infrastructure has reportedly been built on cheap labor, with the Guardian reporting that approximately 6,500 underpaid migrant workers have even died in Qatar since the World Cup hosting was awarded to the emirate more than a decade ago.
This was just one of the few allegedly “unprecedented measures” that Qatar has chosen to exercise control over every aspect of the preparation for the tournament.
Qatar — an authoritarian country ruled by a royal family — has reportedly shut its borders for a month in the build-up to the World Cup, and has even imposed a beer ban outside soccer stadiums.
And even though the emirate has said that “all are welcome” to the World Cup, some LGBTQIA+ soccer fans have decided to stay away, according to a CNN report.
Homosexuality in Qatar is illegal and punishable by up to three years in prison. A report from New York–based Human Rights Watch — an international non-government organization — which was published in October, documented cases as recent as two months ago of security forces in Qatar arbitrarily arresting members of the LGBTQIA+ community and subjecting them to “ill-treatment in detention.”
“Everyone is welcome in Qatar,” read a statement from a Qatar government official, and that “our track record has shown that we have warmly welcomed all people regardless of background.”
The statement added that even though everyone is welcome to the emirate, Qatar is “a conservative country and any public display of affection, regardless of orientation, is frowned upon. We simply ask for people to respect our culture.”
Qatar’s staunchest defender, however, has been Gianni Infantino, the Swiss-Italian president of FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, as well as a member of the International Olympic Committee. In a press conference on Saturday, Nov. 19, he insisted that the emirate has improved its treatment of workers, reiterated that all fans were welcome and that this version would be “the greatest World Cup yet.”
“If you want to criticize someone, criticize me. You can crucify me,” Infantino said. “I’m here for that. Don’t criticize Qatar.”