2022 World Cup Diary: Days 1-6


Henry Gee looks back on the first six days of the World Cup in Qatar and tries hard to take it all in

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Image by Marco Verch

By Henry Gee

Sunday 20 November (Day 1)
Only one match today – the opening match. Obviously. Apparently, there was a 30-minute opening ceremony beforehand that had Morgan Freeman talking about how important diversity is to Qatar. I didn’t watch it, but I am sure all the queer fans flocking to the country will be welcomed with open arms.

I always like watching the opening match of any World Cup because it sets the tone for the entire tournament. The host nation always plays, the match is in the best stadium, the home crowd is at their loudest, and the mental fatigue from watching four matches a day hasn’t yet set in.

This opening match was no different. Qatar, host nation, and a team that on the surface looked sleek and flashy (their national league having been cancelled, so the national side could focus exclusively on this tournament), were exposed as being nothing but a husk imitating what football is supposed to look like. A husk that has something very rotten at the core of it. Frankly they looked as if they had never even seen a football before; I wouldn’t be surprised if most of them had bribed their way into the starting 11.

The whole thing felt off. The manager looked really nervous; a lot more than international managers usually are. The crowd felt like the in-person version of those recordings of crowd noise they used during Covid. And Dion Dublin seemed on a one-man mission to say as many annoying things as he could in the shortest time possible.

In short, odd. The whole thing felt odd. Oh, Ecuador beat Qatar 2-0 by the way. Forgot to mention that.

Monday 21 November (Day 2)
As ever with this tournament, it seems like everything is happening everywhere at the same time, but none of it on the pitch. Several teams, including England and Wales, wanted to wear OneLove armbands (all captain armbands at the tournament contain some form of inclusive messaging), but were told in no uncertain terms by Fifa that doing so would result in ‘sporting sanctions’. OneLove was a campaign devised by Fifa to promote inclusivity of all sexualities in football. All teams have decided not to wear the armband.

Instead, Harry Kane’s armband read “No Discrimination”. I’m not an expert, but being told that you can’t wear an armband that promotes equality for a group of people which the country you’re in is oppressing, feels a teeny-weeny bit like discrimination to me.

At any other time, we’d be talking about how the OneLove campaign itself is kind of the literal bare minimum. The symbol looks like, but conveniently isn’t, the Pride flag, and it’s about promoting all sexualities, not specifically queer or non-binary ones. It has the appearance of queer acceptance, without actually doing the hard work of bringing it about in football. There are gay players currently in the Premier League that are afraid to come out. But sure, OneLove y’all.

The sad thing is that the actual football today was really great. England vs. Iran was the first match my girlfriend watched all the way through, and she was surprised at how much she liked it! Netherlands vs. Senegal was classic first group match nerves giving way to a tight finish. And Wales fighting back to draw with the USA in their first World Cup in 64 years is the kind of fairy tale stuff fans will be drunkenly crying about for the rest of their lives.

At its best, football is fantastic; one of the most genuine and indisputably great things that people have come up with. But at its worst it’s corrupt, catatonic, and complacent in the crimes done in the name of the beautiful game.

Tuesday 22 November (Day 3)
Of course. Of bloody course. The one day this week I wasn’t free to watch any of the matches because of stupid university and stupid wanting to get a decent degree. The one day I had assumed that nothing could surprise me. The one day a true World Cup upset takes place. Poland’s Lewandowski missed a penalty. And I didn’t get to see it!

All joking aside, it’s results like Saudi Arabia beating favourites Argentina 2-1 that make World Cups exciting and unpredictable. Any team can make anything happen against any other team. Nothing can be taken for granted.

Well, that’s not entirely true. Denmark vs. Tunisia was by all accounts the most boring match of the tournament so far. Denmark do have at least two more matches to play however, so who knows how boring they can get. Given that no-one thought these teams would do well, a lot of people were expecting a boring draw. I guess some things can be taken for granted.

But then there’s France, last tournament's winners, beating Australia, and looking like the best team in the tournament in doing so. Despite a long injury list, everyone expected them to do well, and this emphatic start suggests they will. Maybe everything can be taken for granted?

And now I've completely confused myself and forgotten what my original point was.

What I'm trying to say is that today was a frustrating day to have missed. It was the perfect distillation of everything that’s great about World Cup group stages. The upsets, the predictable score lines, the dull matches. The excitement that everything and anything could happen. And I missed it all, every glorious minute of it.

Wednesday 23 November (Day 4)
Is the Croatian manager wearing a wig?  Sure looks a little like it. That, or he said to his hairdresser, “I want you to cut my hair in a way that makes it look as if I’m wearing a very noticeable wig”. I’m not sure which is worse.

Croatia vs. Morocco was one of those matches it’s hard to explain what about it I found so compelling. Nil-nil, not too many chances, scrappy. Maybe the fact it was on in the background whilst I worked on resubmitting by ethics forms helped. But the loose end-to-end play, the effort put into each mistimed tackle, each unseen run, each failed pass; there’s something about the top teams in the world kind of just futzing about for a draw, but taking it all super seriously, that I absolutely love.

What I also absolutely love is seeing Germany lose. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of these ‘10 German bombers’ types. It’s more that for my teenage years Germany was the side to beat. They were the best team in the world, and seemed kind of okay as people. Okay compared to other footballers, I hasten to add, which is an admittedly low bar. And they played the kind of football I’ve always liked; organised, well-drilled, and simple.

So to see the way they've played for the past six years or so, to see a team you so revered as a teenager fall so far from grace - like seeing a teacher in a supermarket, it's exciting because it feels forbidden. It’s something we’re not supposed to see.

Finally, Spain did the thing that every football fan absolutely loves to see, only so they can talk about how much they hate to see it, and utterly humiliated Costa Rica by putting seven past them. At least England had the decency to let Iran score twice.

Thursday 24 November (Day 5)
I don’t want to lie to you. I was really busy today. The last thing on my mind was football, especially given that Portugal (whom I hate) were playing. But they did nearly lose. I would have absolutely loved to have seen that. Instead, Ronaldo became the first male player to score at five consecutive World Cups. Coincidentally, he also became the first player to dive at five consecutive World Cups. See you next Tuesday indeed.

Given that I wasn’t able to watch any of the football today (which is a real shame given Richarlison’s unbelievable goals against Serbia, and the tight Uruguay vs. South Korea. Again, allegedly;, I didn’t watch them) my mind turned once again to the politics of this particular World Cup.

It has been reported that one of Iran’s more famous players, Voria Ghafouri (not part of their squad in Qatar) has been arrested for allegedly spreading propaganda against the state. It is a move seen by many as a potential warning to the Iranian players after their refusal to sing the national anthem before Monday’s match against England. This was in solidarity with the still ongoing protests in Iran after the death of Mahsa Amini.

I didn't mention it at the time, naively perhaps, but it emphasises just how embarrassing standing down over the OneLove armbands is. In the face of genuine protest, protest that is likely to result in genuine consequences once this World Cup is over, kowtowing because of vague ‘sporting sanctions’ becomes hard to justify as anything other than cowardly.

Sport is inherently political. Neutrality is inherently political. Anyone who says otherwise probably has something to gain from pretending they’re not.

Friday 25 November (Day 6)
Bear with me a second…

My girlfriend has introduced me to Grey’s Anatomy. It’s not something I would ever watch by myself, but we’ve been working through it together and I’ve been really enjoying it. And it was today, watching Sandra Oh’s Christina Yang well-up on screen, that I found myself (without really knowing why) tearing up with her and feeling those same emotions. I cared about these characters. I cared about the twists and turns of their lives. I was, without even being aware that it had happened, invested.

The reason – melodrama. Everything is heightened. The story-lines are ridiculous, the acting over the top, the emotions dialled up to 11, but this is precisely why you get drawn in. The bigger the emotions, the more you feel them. The stranger the twists, the more you buy them. And before you know it, you’re weeping along to something only days before you dismissed as silly entertainment.

All World Cups are melodrama. This one perhaps more so. Take today’s matches. Qatar’s loss to Senegal means they are one match away from being only the second host nation to lose all three group matches. How is that not the ultimate dramatic irony? All that pomp and circumstance shown as having no substance whatsoever.

Wales losing against Iran feels like it’s the perfect set up for an explosive season finale against England. And for Iran feels like a fan-favourite character finally getting the story-lines they deserve.

Netherlands vs. Ecuador felt like those filler episodes you know are important for character and plot developments later on, but are just painful to sit through.

And England vs. USA felt like a show you know used to be better that should probably have stopped two seasons ago. But you’ve invested so much time and energy into it, you can’t look away now for fear of something important happening, despite knowing nothing will.

I don’t know whether it’s the sheer number of matches every day, or that this World Cup is happening concurrently with a busy end of term – all I know is that I’ve never wanted to look away more, yet have never been this invested and drawn in.