Canada’s long-awaited return to the World Cup fails to distract from hosts Qatar’s woes

There is no more significant and important sporting event in the world that evokes more emotion and passion from more fans around the world than the FIFA World Cup.

Football is truly a global game. It is the most popular sport in the world and is played in all parts of the world. In terms of sport, football is the language of the world that breaks down all barriers and boundaries between people of different ethnic, racial and socio-economic backgrounds.

As such, the World Cup is the ultimate cultural display of expression in this universal language, making it the world’s largest sporting event, surpassing even the IOC’s Olympic Games. That’s why billions of viewers from all countries are expected to watch part of the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, which starts on Sunday.

The power of national representation is by no means unique to football. But the World Cup manages to evoke a more passionate, fervent and almost religious following from more fans around the world than any other event.

“Football is a universal language that we speak with different accents,” explained Tim Vickery, a Rio-based football journalist.

“The biggest patriotic act most people engage in is cheering for their team during the World Cup. It reaches people who are otherwise not interested in football. It reaches them on a profound level because it is their country and their people that are represented in the eyes of the rest of the world.”

Next month, the sport’s biggest icons – from veterans Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to young superstars Kylian Mbappé and Pedri – will take center stage and play for their respective countries during a historic tournament in the Middle East. Qatar represents the new frontier for FIFA, an opportunity to inflate and expand the game’s indelible footprint in a part of the world where not even the Olympics have been before.

But not everything is sweet and light, and this World Cup leaves a sour taste in the mouth. Twelve years have passed since Qatar won the right to host the tournament through a FIFA bid process marred by allegations of bribery and corruption. The controversy over picking the tiny golfing nation to host the event rages on for a variety of reasons.

While football will take center stage at the World Cup once the opening game has kicked off, there will continue to be an ongoing and important dialogue on Qatar’s moral suitability to host such an event. Thousands of migrant workers have lost their lives in the rush to build seven new stadiums for the World Cup, while the country’s laws making homosexuality illegal are obvious flashpoints of controversy. Questions about Qatar’s egregious human rights track record are sure to darken this World Cup.

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FIFA President Gianni Infantino told a news conference in Doha on Saturday in what can only be described as a ridiculous attempt to quell the controversy and change the conversation about hair and freckles as a child, while growing up as the son of poor Italians who were looking went to Switzerland for a better life.

“Today I feel like a Qatari. Today I feel Arabic. Today I feel African. Today I feel gay. Today I feel handicapped. Today I feel like a migrant worker,” Infantino said with a straight face.

No, Mr. Infantino. You may feel that way, but you are neither of those things, and your false equivalences, which equate childhood bullying over red hair with racial and sexual discrimination, were not only poorly received, they went well beyond the pale. Whatever you and your advisers thought you might have gained from such an ill-considered statement hasn’t had nearly the desired effect, if the ridicule you’re receiving from around the world is any indication.

Infantino’s deaf comments came less than 24 hours after the World Cup suffered another embarrassment when FIFA announced Qatar had banned the sale of beer and alcohol in all World Cup stadiums. This World Cup is the first to be held in a conservative Muslim country that bans the consumption of alcohol in public. Qatar won the hosting rights in 2010, so it’s had more than a decade to sort this out. Instead, it left the 24th hour high and dry, leaving millions of fans plummeted in the arid Gulf state.

It should be noted that the Qataris won the right to host this tournament partly because they promised beer would be served in their stadiums during the tournament. Now they’ve backed out, raising the question of who’s actually in charge here: Qatar or FIFA?

“I feel like I have 200 percent control over this World Cup,” Infantino said.

But he obviously isn’t, otherwise thirsty fans could grab a cold pint while watching the game.

Aside from the moral quagmire football fans will have to endure over the next four weeks, this World Cup is something special for fans in this country as it marks the return of Canada’s men’s team to the big dance for the second time in history.

In 1986, an unheralded Canadian side made up of players most people had never heard of made their World Cup debut in Mexico, taking on France – led by a “golden generation” of stars like Michel Platini and Alain Giresse and Jean Tigana – before finally losing 1-0. But Canada was wilting in the hot, scorching Mexican sun, suffering back-to-back shutout defeats to the Soviet Union and Hungary as they went home early without scoring a goal.

Thirty-six years later, a Canadian men’s team full of exciting young players and a coach in John Herdman, who is a champion motivator, are back at the World Cup and ready for action. Belgium, Croatia and Morocco present the Canadian newcomers with major challenges. But if Herdman has proven anything during his more than four-year tenure, it’s that he can inspire his team to excel. Buoyed by the formidable talents of Alphonso Davies, Jonathan David and Stephen Eustáquio, this Canadian side plays with a sense of fearlessness and attacking prowess the country’s fans have never experienced before.

Win, lose or draw, the rest of the world will soon learn at this World Cup what so many Canadian fans already know: Canada is a soccer nation.

And for the fans watching from home in Canada, they can at least raise a glass as they watch their team take the field.

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