Sports

The Stars Who Laundered This World Cup’s Abuses

Among many others, Xavi didn’t have to be so good at what he was paid to do.

Xavi raises his arms and claps on the field with a big Qatar Airways logo behind him, a net scrim illustrated behind him.
Xavi, then–head coach of Al-Sadd Sports Club, during the FIFA Club World Cup 2019 fifth place match between Al-Saad and Esperance Sportive de Tunis, at Khalifa International Stadium on Dec. 17, 2019, in Doha, Qatar. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by David Ramos - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images.

My favorite athlete in history has spent much of the past seven years as the public face of a propaganda machine designed to distract, diminish, and deflect public attention from a humanitarian crisis. It’s not great. I don’t recommend it.

Xavi, the legendary Spanish midfielder and current Barcelona manager, is the reason I love soccer. I grew up in a small town in Alabama, learning how to play from volunteer dads and press-ganged football coaches. There were fundamental principles of the game that I simply did not understand before I watched Xavi. He won two European Championships and a World Cup with Spain and countless club trophies with Barcelona as the eye of calm in the middle of the whirlwind, maneuvering defenders around the field with a single touch or playing the perfect pass to open the gaps his team needed. Seeing him at his apex was like discovering gravity; ohhh, this is how things work—why some teams do this and others try to do that. He was the apple that fell on my head.

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For a brief, glorious period in the twilight of his career, an aging Xavi seemed destined to join New York City FC, which may have led to me following them around the country in a van. Instead, he moved in 2015 not to MLS but to Al Sadd of the Qatar Stars League in a deal that included his services as an ambassador for the controversy-sodden 2022 World Cup, which finally kicks off on Sunday.

Qatar’s World Cup has been plagued by accusations of exploitation and endangerment of the foreign workers brought into the country to build and staff its new infrastructure. The withholding of wages and confiscation of passports was common, and while reforms have been undertaken, recent reporting suggests abuses are still rife. Lax safety standards and harsh desert working conditions on stadium and infrastructure projects are blamed for a high number of worker deaths. The exact number of deaths is disputed, and many of the most-cited numbers are probably best treated as approximations rather than exact totals, but we know enough to be sure that the workforce’s well-being was not prioritized.

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In addition, Qatari laws forbid same-sex relations under threat of jail time. One Qatari World Cup official described homosexuality as “damage in the mind” in an interview with German media. Other tournament representatives have said that all fans are welcome, but messages have been mixed at best with regards to how public LGBTQ displays will be treated, with conflicting reports about whether even rainbow flags will be allowed or confiscated, and FIFA and some foreign government officials asking fans to “respect the laws of their host country.” (The U.S. men’s national team is using its Pride logo at its training facility.)

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Besides, pre-tournament promises are already falling by the wayside in other areas: Initial agreements to loosen the country’s prohibitions on the public consumption of alcohol met late resistance from the Qatari authorities, with FIFA announcing just two days before the tournament started that beer would not be sold at tournament stadiums. The Qatari bid for the tournament, which it won in 2010, has been the subject of numerous corruption allegations and alleged bribery complaints. An independent ethics investigation commissioned by FIFA—which you can decide how much trust you want to put in that—found only that the bidders tested the rules of the process to their limit. The U.S. Department of Justice believes otherwise. Press freedom is limited, and there have already been incidents between journalists and security personnel. The U.S. State Department says the Qatari legal system is unfair to women.

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These are the issues Xavi was hired to pull the curtain across, first as a player and then as the coach of Al Sadd. They are unideal and immoral conditions for the hosting of a major global event, and many people across the globe, even the participants, are unafraid to say so. Fans across Germany unfurled banners urging a boycott during the Bundesliga’s final week of games before the tournament. Cities in France and elsewhere have done away with large-scale public watch parties and the celebratory mood that accompanies. The Danish national team is wearing muted jerseys in protest of the host nation’s human rights record.

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On the eve of the tournament, David Beckham is coming under fire for his lucrative deal to be a Qatar brand ambassador, but Xavi was that mission’s vanguard. I can’t think about this World Cup without thinking about him. I wrote very nice things about him when his playing career ended, and I stand by the vast majority of those. But that veneration has been poisoned, the memories of his glory days now layered by guilt. The gratitude I still feel for him is not relinquished so easily, despite this particular abhorrent choice. Should he still be my favorite player? What’s the appropriate amount of adoration to feel toward this person? I’d like to be honest about how he made me feel in the past and my disgust at his choices in the present.

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I once attempted to merely rationalize it. There is a part of me that still has those arguments at the ready. Day-to-day, his life in Qatar probably wasn’t too different from, say, Derek Jeter’s final years in New York, a lot of smiling and gladhanding with what I presume are obscenely wealthy people interspersed with occasional stints of being largely immobile on a field of play. He posted lots of pictures on Instagram of his wife and his young kids and his famous former teammates during those years. He supported Adidas and the Cruyff Foundation and soccer in general. He played pre-retirement soccer in a pre-retirement league and was compensated handsomely for it (approximately $11 million per year, supposedly).

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He is not the only one. Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola played in Qatar for a few years at the end of his career. So did superstars Frank and Ronald de Boer, Gabriel Batistuta, Samuel Eto’o, Nigel de Jong, and Wesley Sneijder. Guardiola, Zinedine Zidane, and Cameroonian legend Roger Milla all served as ambassadors for the country’s World Cup bid in 2010. (By contrast, the U.S. bid for the 2022 tournament that year had the likes of Henry Kissinger and Arnold Schwarzenegger as ambassadors, so calculating the moral scorecards here would take a full season of The Good Place to get through.)

But did Xavi have to be so good at what he was being paid to do? For someone who made his living receiving the ball under pressure and escaping from it, Xavi is constitutionally incapable of dodging a journalist’s question. Which leads to situations where a man who treats his team’s possession of a soccer ball as a moral imperative tells a Spanish newspaper in 2017: “It’s true there is no democracy in Qatar, but the people are happy. They are delighted with the royal family, they take their photographs in the car. They give them a salary just for living in the country and they take care of their citizens.”

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Xavi surely is not oblivious to the concerns. He is hardly apolitical; he supported the referendum on Catalan independence in 2017. Even his slight tone of defensiveness in the preface above indicates that he knows this opinion is outside the normal bounds. But it’s part of what he’s being paid to do, to put a face to the growth of the sport where that growth is inextricably tied to money and its uneven distribution, to labor and its exploitation, to state-affirmed bigotry.

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This part, too, is not only true in Qatar. Money is unevenly distributed everywhere; labor, particularly by foreign workers, is exploited across the globe; bigotry is all-too-common a state policy. But the answer to it cannot be indifference, defeated by a puerile round of whataboutism. The fight for reforms in Qatar has been going on since Qatar was awarded the tournament, and that fight has improved the lives of many workers in Qatar and extracted promises on other fronts that may or may not be kept. The tournament goes forward anyway, and Qatar has only increased its involvement in global soccer since winning the bid, most notably by purchasing French club Paris Saint-Germain, which employs three of the world’s biggest stars: Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappé, and Neymar. PSG president Nasser Al-Khelaifi serves as president of the European Club Association, where he was a key opponent of the European Super League project.

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There probably is no ethical consumption of global soccer under capitalism. As Barney Ronay put it in 2018, “Everyone is compromised now, nobody is untouched by the hidden interests, the regime-cruelty at two removes, the nation-state geopolitics that have taken over much of the top end of football.” The previous World Cup, you’ll recall, was held in Russia, which was already seizing territory in Ukraine and fighting proxy wars there while the tournament was going on. In 2019, the Guardian broke down the financial, ownership, and major sponsor situations of the clubs in the final 16 of that year’s Champions League, and the complex network of established brand interests, hedge fund money, and petrodollars that support the entire enterprise at its highest levels. That was before the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia bought Newcastle United, which now wields enough potential financial might to turn the rest of the Premier League’s ownership into hedge fund paupers, underprivileged online gambling magnates, and penurious husbands of Wal-Mart heiresses. The final hurdle in the Kingdom’s purchase proved not to be Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, but rather a dispute over broadcasting rights.

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Soccer is incredibly popular. Rich people, rich nation-states, rich people in charge of nation states, like being popular. This is true even if it’s just basking in the lunar glow of that popularity. This is especially true when that popularity can be leveraged in the geopolitical sphere—though money is pretty good geopolitical leverage too.

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Most of the time, this financial shadow game barely affects soccer players outside of their bank accounts. Most people don’t blame Messi for who signs his checks. But Xavi—and the other luminaries who supported Qatar—performed this global-capitalism reputation-burnishing kabuki theater at a closer remove. He played less for Al Sadd than for Qatar as a whole. His job was to normalize the nation’s commitment to the World Cup, to hold the camera lens on the sporting field and the luxury accommodations.

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Now the tournament is here, and the potential audience has to decide where its focus lies. I can’t blame anyone who decides to turn away, depriving the tournament and its sponsors of the attention entirely. I suspect that I know how it will feel to watch: that familiar, nagging regret in the bottom of my skull, a small leak out of which joy slowly flows. The player Xavi was still makes me happy. I don’t think I can make that go away. This tournament will too, at times. That is its purpose for billions across the planet. That’s why so many people want to be associated with it. And because Xavi taught me to love soccer, I am not immune to that.

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But I can choose to remember the regret too, to let that happiness be punctured by what I know lies behind it, to keep the wound from healing and the mind from forgetting. It is a negligible gesture in the face of the suffering that has precipitated it. Xavi did his job. Our job, the best we can do if we are going to participate, is not to paper over that regret, but to refuse that normalization that Xavi was hired to provide and to remember that this, and so many of the other things we enjoy have consequences for people who we will never know. Xavi and I are on opposite sides now, but it’s not 2010 anymore. He is not unbeatable.

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