Arabs spring surprise – the shocking history of FIFA World Cups

The FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 has been a shock from the start, and the road Qatar paved with so many shocking stories that we are immune to whatever surprises the next day springs.

Nothing was shocking about FIFA President Gianni Infantino’s meltdown. He’s never given the impression of being anything but an insane Bond villain who should be managing a hedge fund. But no one can deny that managing FIFA is a lot more fun (and more lucrative) than any hedge fund.

But when a quite good Saudi Arabian team beat a flakey bunch of uninterested Argentinians, we were shocked! This was the No.3 team in the world being well beaten by the world’s No.51, numbers that would raise few eyebrows in games like tennis or golf. It’s no shock to see an Argentina team kicking a ball around disinterestedly, especially when captained by an insipid old serial loser with no leadership credentials.

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The same could not really be said about Diego Maradonna in 1990 when he led Argentina to a 1-0 thrashing by Cameroon at the same stage in the tournament. On paper and under the armband, the 1990 team were much better than today’s outfit, and Cameroon was a ragtag collection of unknowns, 10 of whom played in Cameroon, with 11 in the French umpteenth division (teams including Créteil, Stade Lavallois, La Roche Vendée)

Saudi Arabia has a massive budget, the best coach in the world outside Europe, and have been playing together like a club squad for months if not years, and are – let’s face it – playing at home. Anyone who is “shocked” by the result is someone whose entire understanding of the game could be summed up in 51-3=48.

Saudi Arabia might not be legends of the game, but they are not nobodies. They are not, for example, Qatar. Having suffered the misery of Poland v Mexico later in the day, it won’t be a shock if the Saudis top the group, and of that group, they are the only team who will be missed if they go home “early”.

But nothing was shocking about the Qataris lying from the start about beer, and, for their own good reasons, Budweiser pretended to believe them. The king of beers was always going to be in trouble in a sultanate. There never was any intention to sell beer at stadiums. And at US$15 a bottle, beer was never being sold – drinkers were being mugged, albeit mugged with plastic glasses. Presumably that US$15 ends up in some pocket, and you’d guess it’s a Qatari one, so there is clearly nothing haram about money, wherever it comes from.

Perhaps the greatest shock of the World Cup came in 1966 when North Korea beat Italy in Middlesborough. Nothing is easier than having a right good laugh at everything North Korean these days, from their funny little missiles to their funny big sculptures, but back in 1966 there was nothing funny about North Korea, in fact, there was nothing known about North Korea at all. The only explanation is that like the Saudis yesterday, the toxic wasteland of Middlesbrough at that time, made the NKs feel right at home.

And there is nothing particularly shocking about the number of people who died building the monstrous stadia that will be archaeological sites by Christmas. The death numbers are generally a bit better than the Qatari-construction-site standard, so progress has been made. There may even have been fewer deaths than predicted on the FIFA spreadsheet way back in 2010.

We tend to think of sporting shocks as a funny little David, one we never hear from again, knocking out an iron-clad Goliath, but perhaps the greatest shock of all came in Brazil, the true home of football, eight years ago. In the semi-final, a Germanic Pretorian Guard put some terrified Brazilian virgins to the sword or worse.

In a move of unprecedented irony, the Germans were unrecognisable, playing in what appeared to be Flamenco shirts. David Luis’ PTSD in the months after the game was so painful to witness that one wonders how doctors allowed him to ever play again. It was the biggest loss by a host country in World Cup history, double the previous record margin, and a record which the Qataris will set their sights on next Tuesday. Aim high, little Maroons.

And nothing was shocking about the fact that the only approved sexual orientations in Qatar today are outright misogyny and homophobia. From the start, the Qatari’s were ready to lie about anything and everything, knowing that when they changed their minds, no one from Infantissimo to Harry Kane would do a damn thing about it.

Let’s leave the last shock to a tiny nation with no World Cup heritage whatsoever, that has done perhaps more than anyone to make the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™ the spectacle it is today, plucky little Nepal.


World Cup

Jon Whitman

Jon Whitman is a seasoned journalist and author who has been living and working in Asia for more than two decades. Born and raised in Glasgow, Scotland, Jon has been at the forefront of some of the most important stories coming out of China in the past decade. After a long and successful career in East sia, Jon is now semi-retired and living in the Outer Hebrides. He continues to write and is an avid traveller and photographer, documenting his experiences across the world.

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