The channel ignored the opening ceremony and instead spent 30 minutes talking about FIFA corruption and the host nation’s criminalising of LGBTQ+ people
FIFA has a long and ignoble history of awarding the World Cup to some of the most corrupt and repressive nations on earth, stretching right back to 1934, when it was played in the Italy of Benito Mussolini, who saw it as a golden opportunity to promote fascism.
Were it not for the small matter of World War II breaking out, there was a 50-50 chance that the 1942 World Cup would have taken place in Nazi Germany. But FIFA has more than made up for that missed opportunity over the years.
Argentina, then a military dictatorship, in 1978. South Africa, which was later proved to have bribed FIFA officials, in 2000. Russia in 2018, the year Putin annexed Crimea.
But Qatar is something special. Qatar is in a whole different league of abhorrent. Even the repellent Sepp Blatter thinks the decision was a mistake — although not out of a sense of moral outrage, but simply because he thinks Qatar is too small to host such a big event.
You can’t turn back the clock. You can’t undo the decision made 12 years ago to award the tournament to a country with an appalling human rights record and no culture of football.
It’s too late. We’re stuck with it. Whether you choose to watch the matches or not is a personal choice. Television broadcasters are stuck with it too; the difference is they don’t have a choice. They paid for the rights a long time ago. They can’t just not show it.
The question, up until Sunday, was how they’d choose to present it. RTÉ2’s coverage started in routine fashion: a montage of great World Cup moments from decades past, soundtracked by David Bowie’s Heroes.
Presenter Peter Collins noted with understatement that the tournament had been “blighted by controversy”. Then it was over to veteran commentator George Hamilton in Doha for a report.
Bruised (by a stumble in the airport baggage area) but unbowed, George wistfully recalled the first World Cup he’d covered for RTÉ: Argentina in 1978. That one had also been drenched in controversy.
Forty-four years on, though, the thing people still talk about is the football, he said, and in particular the glorious football of an Argentina side blessed with the skills of Diego Maradona, Ossie Ardiles, Ricky Villa and the rest.
George hoped that, 44 years from now, people will be talking about the quality of the football in Qatar. “All the talking about the politics has been done, it would appear.”
Not quite, George, not quite. Back in the studio, Peter Collins asked the panel — Liam Brady, Karen Duggan and Richie Sadlier — if the media were being fobbed off with “a sanitised version of Qatar”. They all agreed they were.
Richie summed up everyone’s feelings most forcefully. As a kid, the sight of the FIFA logo made him think of football. Now it makes him think of “power, greed, politics, corruption, criminality”.
RTÉ2 showed the opening ceremony, a grotesque spectacle featuring BTS member Jung Kook singing a saccharine song and Morgan Freeman — the man Hollywood hires when it wants an actor who embodies dignity, wisdom and gravitas — spouting scripted guff about “tolerance and respect”. Excuse me while I vomit over my keyboard.
RTÉ2 did well, but BBC1 played a blinder. It ignored the opening ceremony entirely (viewers in the UK could watch it on iPlayer if they wished). “Stick to football, say FIFA” said Gary Lineker. “Well, we will — for a couple of minutes at least.”
What followed was a 30-minute evisceration of FIFA’s greed and corruption, and Qatar’s criminalising of LGBTQ+ people, its misogyny and its brutal treatment of migrant labours, thousands of who are believed to have died working on the new stadiums.
Former England women’s international Alex Scott ripped into FIFA boss Gianni Infantino’s suggestion that he felt solidarity with migrant workers and LGBTQ+ people: “You will never know what it is like.”
Alan Shearer asked why, if Infantino feels that strongly, he’s been ignoring Amnesty International’s request for a compensation fund for migrant workers’ families.
It was powerful stuff, unprecedented and justified. If broadcasters continue to cover this World Cup with one eye on the hard truth, it might just be palatable.