5 rules for watching a complicated World Cup


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The men’s 2022 FIFA World Cup has started, but controversies abound. There are reasons to skip this year’s tournament.

For example, stadiums erected for the occasion in host nation Qatar were built on the backs of workers from Asia and Africa.

The conditions endured by those migrant workers have stirred controversy – from the intense heat they had to endure while building Qatar’s World Cup infrastructure to how many of them may have died. World Cup organizers vehemently dispute expert estimates that thousands died.

RELATED: ‘Our dreams never came true.’ These men helped build Qatar’s World Cup, now they are struggling to survive

The former Obama administration official Tommy Vietor and the soccer pundit Roger Bennett count the ways this World Cup is problematic in a piece for CNN Opinion. Read their take.

There’s also the issue of LGBTQ rights. FIFA threatened sanctions against the captains of teams who planned to wear armbands to promote inclusion and oppose discrimination, one of a number of last-minute changes the international soccer governing body and Qatar made to the tournament. Homosexuality is against the law in Qatar, although the country’s Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy told CNN the tournament would be inclusive. Read more.

If you’re taking Qatar at their word for inclusivity, imagine having shelled out the coin for game tickets, travel and accommodation for a World Cup in the desert only to learn days before it started that stadiums would not sell beer after all. That’s clearly offside.

There’s a new documentary, “FIFA Uncovered” – which doesn’t paint world soccer’s governing body in an altogether flattering light given the organization’s recent history of wrongdoing – streaming just in time for the World Cup. The allegations against FIFA are not new – the US government made them years ago – but they are worth considering again.

Watch closely for signs of protest. Iranian players appeared to show solidarity with those protesting against the regime back home. The players stood silent as the Iranian national anthem played out around the Khalifa International Stadium before kickoff on Monday in their game against England.

With journalists’ access in Qatar limited, some teams may take up the role of protest against the tournament, such as with Denmark’s jerseys, designed to respect the stadium workers.

Qatar has a close soccer relationship with France, notably investing in the Paris Saint-Germain football club.

French President Emmanuel Macron told journalists during a recent international summit that questions about Qatar should have been raised years ago, during the bid process. He said the event itself provides a path to openness and has worth.

“The vocation of these big events is to allow athletes of all countries, including sometimes of countries at war, to allow sport to exist and sometimes find, through sport, ways of discussing when people no longer manage to talk,” he said.

Qatar’s ambassador to the US, Sheikh Meshal bin Hamad Al Thani, argues the tournament will help change misconceptions about his country, which he says worked with a United Nations organization to improve working conditions.

“Qatar is not opposed to scrutiny,” he wrote in a CNN Opinion piece responding to the Bennett and Vietor commentary. “In fact we have embraced it – but too often platforms have been used to present one-sided, factually inaccurate arguments that go beyond what some other countries awarded major events have faced, despite each having their own unique set of challenges to overcome.” Read the whole piece.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino also defended the tournament in an hourlong explosive tirade in front of journalists Saturday. He hit back at Western criticisms of human rights issues.

“What we Europeans have been doing for the last 3,000 years, we should be apologizing for the next 3,000 years before starting to give moral lessons,” he said.

Assuming you do watch, here are the informal rules I’ve developed, with help from fellow fans on text chains, for my own enjoyment of the World Cup.

And by the way, these rules often contradict each other, so you have to weigh the importance of one over the other. That’s up to you. Or make up your own rules.

That means root for the US over England when the two countries play in the group stage. Root for conquered Wales over England, even though Wales isn’t exactly a colony and England will be the heavy favorite.

Root for Brazil over Portugal, or Argentina over Spain. There’s something satisfying, at least to this American, about the idea of New World conquering Old World, or an African team defeating France or Belgium.

Asterisks to the colony rule. When I mentioned this rule to one friend, he pointed out the US, while it sprang from former British colonies, has occupied territories in the Atlantic and Pacific, so it’s not always an easy rule to apply.

Another complication to the colony rule is the large number of immigrants on many teams. Much of the French team that won in 2018, for example, was born outside France, and most of the players had some roots in Africa – including the young star Kylian Mbappe. Here’s an interesting report from the Migration Policy Institute about the rise of immigrant players on World Cup teams.

There’s a sliding scale of freedom in the world, according to Freedom House, the independent watchdog that gets funding from the US government.

Qatar, for instance, scores a paltry 25 on Freedom House’s 0-100 scale that combines access to political rights and civil liberties. But it’s not the lowest-scoring country taking part in the World Cup: Saudi Arabia scores a 7 and Iran scores a 14.

Nor is the US, at 83, the freest. Canada gets a 98, and Uruguay and Denmark both get a 97.

Here’s a list of the World Cup countries batched alphabetically into their World Cup group stage assignments, alongside their Freedom House scores.

Group A:

Ecuador (71), Netherlands (97), Qatar (25), Senegal (68)

Group B:

England (93 for the UK as a whole), Iran (14), United States (83), Wales (93 for the UK)

Group C:

Argentina (84), Mexico (60), Poland (81), Saudi Arabia (7)

Group D:

Australia (95), Denmark (97), France (89), Tunisia (64)

Group E:

Costa Rica (91), Germany (94), Japan (96), Spain (90)

Group F:

Belgium (96), Canada (98), Croatia (85), Morocco (37)

Group G:

Brazil (73), Cameroon (15), Serbia (62), Switzerland (96)

Group H:

Ghana (80), South Korea (83), Portugal (95), Uruguay (97)

It’s fun to root for the underdog, and the difference in access to facilities and paychecks varies a lot by country. What a European or North American country can offer its squad is a lot different than what an African or Central American team can offer.

The US gross domestic product amounts to more than $69,000 per capita, according to World Bank data, and Qatar’s oil-rich figure is more than $61,000. Senegal’s per capita GDP, the tournament’s lowest, is less than $1,700. Ecuador, Iran, Tunisia, Ghana and Morocco all have per capita GDPs under $6,000.

Note on combining rules No. 1 and No. 2. Teams that rate relatively high on the freedom score despite relatively low capita GDPs are Ecuador, Ghana and, to a lesser extent on the GDP front, Croatia, a World Cup finalist in 2018.

Thirty-two countries participate in the World Cup. Only eight countries have ever won the World Cup trophy. It’s getting repetitive, and all but one are in the tournament this year.

You can tell by the number of stars players wear on their jerseys. Brazil has won five and Germany has triumphed four times. Italy has also won four but didn’t make the tournament this year. Argentina, France and Uruguay have won two, and Spain and England have each won one.

That still leaves a wide-open field of 25 teams looking for their country’s first World Cup title.

If you do watch, expect exciting upsets, sublime goal-scoring and human drama, all replayed and rehashed with the help of a video assistant referee, or VAR.

Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. This World Cup probably offers the final opportunity to see two masters who have both failed to win the tournament. Now in the extreme twilight of their careers, neither is an odds-on favorite this year to win the trophy for their country (Argentina and Portugal, respectively).

RELATED: Messi and Ronaldo’s last dance

Curses. Every World Cup provides England with yet another, probably doomed, opportunity to excise the curse of failure that has followed it since winning the 1966 tournament. Their agony makes for compelling television.

Brazil can exert its otherworldly dominance upon European teams. Or not, depending on which Brazil shows up. Anything but victory will be a crushing loss for them.

And finally, the United States can come to grips with why it is so mediocre at the international men’s level in a sport so many American children adore and in which its national women’s team has dominated for so long.

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