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Morally bankrupt sport fans will forgive any abuse

The death of Zac Cox is more than a horrible industrial action but a metaphor for modern sport: the scale of its corruption and the readiness of  its fans to tolerate the intolerable as long as we are entertained.

Mr Cox was 40 and working on a World Cup stadium in Qatar when a catwalk collapsed underneath him. He fell 130 ft and didn’t stand a chance. To the authorities he was a nobody, and his death was an embarrassing inconvenience. A report into the accident was completed within 11 days, but the firms building the stadium did not pass it on to his family in Britain. One of the contractors, the German firm Pfeifer, had the brass neck to tell the Guardian it was an internal document and therefore a private matter.

That’s the way it rolls in the Gulf. Qatar, Bahrain and the rest of the monarchies operate a modern version of Apartheid. The dictatorial rulers have turned the native Arabs into a racial elite. In Qatar’s case, a mere 10 per cent of the 2.1 million population  are Qatari nationals. Underneath them are low-paid migrant workers, from Asia and Africa, and occasionally the West.

Qatar, like rich nations and men before it, is desperate to increase its status. This is why it spent lavishly to acquire the World Cup and buy Paris St Germain, and why Abu Dhabi joined in the competitive conspicuous consumption and bought Manchester City.  As part of its rebranding, Qatar announced it had ‘reformed’ its labour laws. Inevitably the changes were more cosmetic than real. Migrants remained under the control of their employers, as Human Rights Watch explained:

Workers typically pay exorbitant recruitment fees. Employers regularly take control of workers’ passports when they arrive in Qatar. Many migrant workers complain that employers failed to pay their wages on time, and sometimes not at all.

I once tried to say the migrants were Helots to the Gulf Arab Spartans, but wasn’t sure comparisons with a warrior aristocracy were quite the right analogy for Qatar’s flabby princelings. The Helot line holds up better though. Qatar’s migrants are in a modern version of serfdom: a race-based serfdom, like Apartheid, but a serfdom that allows the elite race to import and deport its menial class rather than lord it over the majority native population.

White expats from the rich world do better, as you expect, but not noticeably so when there is a scandal the authorities want to bury.

Zac Cox’s family are articulate, knowledgeable people. Gavin Kelly, chief executive of the Resolution Foundation, and deputy chief of staff in Gordon Brown’s Downing Street, was his brother-in-law. No good did their experience of dealing with bureaucracy do them. The Qatari authorities decided to blame an innocent man and arrested Cox’s friend and colleague on the site, Graham Vance. They accused him of negligence and threatened to imprison him for a maximum of three years. The Cox family not only had to cope with their grief but with the awareness that Zac’s death had led to the framing of an innocent man. (Vance was allowed to return home to South Africa after 10 months, only because his friends and family flew in a lawyer to represent him.)

The reason why the Qataris were so keen to blame a little guy became obvious in the inquest in Brighton last week. The coroner, Veronica Hamilton-Deeley, said World Cup stadiums in Qatar were being built with substandard equipment ordered by managers who should have known the risks of a ‘downright dangerous’ environment. Zac Cox is not the only casualty of this misbegotten World Cup. The heat and humidity in Qatar kills scores of construction workers

How will football fans react when the tournament begins? We don’t have to look as far ahead as 2022 to guess. We have this year’s World Cup in Putin’s, crony capitalist gangster state, which appears to be able to murder at will on British soil. Closer to home, we have the example of Manchester City.

The record shows there will be no reaction at all. Fans will not turn away and say that they cannot watch a tournament because it is built on rotten foundations.  My colleagues on the Guardian football desk have done solid work in exposing conditions in Qatar and dissecting the hypocrisy of Pep Guardiola, who denounces the arrest of Catalan nationalists while staying silent about his paymasters’ abuse of human rights. I suspect few want to  listen to them.

There are times, indeed, when I don’t want to listen to them. Manchester City is one of the most glorious ‘English’ teams I have seen. To bang on about the filthy source of its money or Guardiola’s double standards feels joyless: you sound like the type of nag who cannot enjoy a Georgian country house without declaiming that it was built on the exploitation of slaves or Manchester’s working class. Supporters of other clubs envy rather than criticise Manchester City. If Gulf billionaires, Putin’s oligarchs, or the devil himself were to buy their team, they would not care as long as they threw enough money at it.  If the Russian and Qatari World Cups are successes, the same will apply. The overwhelming majority of fans and sports journalists will be happy and say not one word about the regimes whose prestige FIFA is boosting. Boris Johnson says that if Russia assassins are operating in Britain, England could pull out of the 2018 cup. I doubt more than a handful of football fans would support a boycott, and in any case Mr Johnson says many things.

Attitudes to cheating in sport give us a useful comparison. Football fans don’t care if one of their players fouls an opponent. On the contrary, if the referee gives him a card for stopping the other side’s strikers we say with undisguised admiration that he’s ‘taken one for the team’ –  as if he were a soldier who had laid down his life for his comrades. Even athletics, cycling and weight-lifting, sports that are so riddled with doping scandals you only have to see a record broken to suspect that drugs have been ingested, still draw large audiences.

At the end of a study of cheating, the economists Ian Preston and Stefan Sztmanski concluded:

Cheating is unlikely to disappear from sport. Indeed, for committed fans, belief in one’s own team is more easily preserved if it is possible to think that the opponents are cheats. It is not clear how much cheating has to occur before interest in the sport starts to suffer, but there certainly does not seem to be any clear evidence that scandals related to cheating have reduced interest.

On this calculation, a sport will suffer only if corruption directly hurts fans themselves. If Russian police officers or football hooligans – the differences between the two are small – turn on visiting supporters or a Qatari stadium collapses in the middle of the tournament, there will be outrage. If not, the show will go on, and few will care about the dead stagehands lying in the wings.


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