Sporting events becoming different kind of guilty pleasure

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While this World Cup is unlike any other due to the start time and Middle East location, there is a recent world competition that comes to mind. Think about it. Climate unfit to host the event, haphazard accommodations, stories of government overreach, and sportswashing. That sounds like the Beijing Winter Olympics.

Those games were overwhelmed by storylines that didn’t involve the competitors. From isolated athletes crying on Instagram in their glorified dorm rooms, to surreal ski conditions, and everything Russia did, it just wasn’t really fun to watch. Athletes in niche sports that only get attention every four years smiled through the ceremonies and missteps, and the audience genuinely wondered if all this was necessary.

The toll events like the World Cup and Olympics take on the host countries has outweighed the benefits for a while now. Los Angelinos are actively protesting the 2028 Summer Games with the slogan “NOlympics.” There was the farce that was the Sochi Winter Olympics, and the story about Russia rounding up and executing stray dogs ahead of the event. The aftermath of Rio de Janeiro hosting the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Games is well documented.

From the moment Qatar won the bid, scandals have followed. There was the allegedly corrupt process, deaths of migrant workers, and restructuring of the club calendar to play the games during the non-heatwave months. The players haven’t even hit the pitch, and the list of missing big names seems as long as the roster of healthy superstars, country officials are telling LGBTQ fans to be careful about displaying pride flags, David Beckham got his gay card revoked for being a paid propagandist of Qatar, media members are being told they can’t do their job, there are late bans on beer sales around the stadiums, and even rumors of a match-fixing scandal involving the host country. (According to Front Office Sports, FIFA is working with Sportsradar to identify anything suspicious.)

Yet, it’s hard not to get excited after reading a few group previews and anticipating the sounds of soccer in the morning for the next few weeks.

The World Cup is different from the Olympics in that way. Soccer is the most popular sport on the planet. Familiar faces can cement legacies, and young players can burst onto the scene with the subtlety of the Kool-Aid Man. It’s impossible to look at Diego Forlan, Benjamin Pavard, and James Rodriguez and not think of World Cup wonder goals after they put on exquisite, unforgettable shows.

The impact of international soccer on a country’s sense of self and pride also is magnificent. A blast hitting the back of the net sets off watch parties as if the New Year’s ball reached the end of its drop. Scenes. Everything is absolute scenes.

Soccer’s ability to inject happiness into its supporters is uncanny. And that’s why putting it on was so valuable to a place like Qatar. We’ve all known those people in high school or college who would host parties with the lone goal of getting people to like them because they sucked as people.

It’s not a very subtle or genius tactic. I believe the accurate descriptor would be pathetic. Qatar let FIFA use them to throw a party, and guess what, nobody is sticking around to help with the cleanup. Most likely all the guests are going to forget the generosity the second they leave, if they were ever thankful for it in the first place.

That’s what I’d like to get across to our not-so-gracious hosts. No matter how much fun is had, people aren’t going to be like, “You know what was the highlight of my World Cup? The country. I mean how fun did Qatar look? I can’t wait to see it for myself.”

It’s not pleasant to stew about how complicit we are in this charade. We’d rather think about anything else, get upset at the teams not protesting with the amount of fervor that we’d prefer, or write self-righteous columns, espousing the gospel of the indignation police.

I’m going to be watching, though, cheering for the USMNT, for my favorite players, for the beautiful game played in its most passionate form — and for as much embarrassment as possible to befall Qatar without anyone else getting hurt.

The people most capable of making this bewildering display of hospitality even worse are the ones in charge, and they’re doing a pretty good job of it thus far. 

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