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Saturday Sports: FIFA World Cup kicks off amid controversy in Qatar

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

And now it's time for sports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: It's hard to talk about sports. FIFA World Cup kicks off tomorrow with no beer. All the controversy surrounding the Cup - can we still enjoy the games? In Doha, there's an assuredly sober NPR's Tom Goldman. Tom, thanks so much for being with us.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Scott. How are you?

SIMON: So a lot has been made, a lot of buzz - pun intended - about the fact that no beer will be sold in the stands despite FIFA's $75 million sponsorship agreement with Budweiser. What happened? How are fans taking it?

GOLDMAN: Well, it was obvious recently the Qatari officials were uncomfortable with alcohol sales. They kept scaling back arrangements until FIFA, soccer's international governing body, announced the beer ban in stadiums yesterday. Now, fans' reactions range from anger to understanding. One fan told me it's part of the culture in this Muslim majority country and we respect it. Another said maybe it's better not to drink at matches. You'll pay more attention.

SIMON: I have to ask, does this mean that Qatar also will not honor its agreement to permit gay pride flags in the stadium?

GOLDMAN: Well, interesting question. There is concern that the beer ban indicates FIFA isn't really in charge of this event - Qatari officials are - and official promises about, for instance, all people being welcome, including LGBTQ people, won't be honored. Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar.

SIMON: We have heard reports for months, years, really, about conditions for migrant workers who got - really built the country's infrastructure to make it ready for this event. The head of FIFA very sharp today talking about what he called the hypocrisy of Western nations to criticize Qatar over its human rights policies. Tell us about that.

GOLDMAN: Yeah. That was a rather stunning press conference President Gianni Infantino held. And in that press conference, he said FIFA is very much calling the shots with Qatar. And yes, everyone is welcome. You know, this press conference really turned into a long, often angry monologue by Infantino. He blasted Western critics of this World Cup in Qatar. He pointed to what he calls Europe's restrictive immigration policies and said it was, as you said, hypocritical to go after Qatar's policies with migrant workers and human rights that have been the focus of so much attention. One of the things he said, and I'm quoting, "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."

SIMON: You know, I would like - it's the biggest sporting event in the world. And I'd like to ask you about, you know, actually applying the human foot to the football, the sport. But can we really enjoy the soccer when we're aware of all the terrible things, between bribery scandals and human rights violations, that led up to this World Cup?

GOLDMAN: Yeah, you know, you ask that question, it sounds a lot like the dilemma we faced earlier this year at the Winter Olympics in China, where alleged human rights abuses were an issue there as well. You know, Scott, it either turns you away from the event or forces you to divide your brain. One longtime critic and activist, Professor Jules Boykoff - I know you know him, you've had him on the show. He told me you can do both - cheer for the teams and players we like at the World Cup while also fiercely critiquing the injustices baked into the event. So those who want to cheer, they can start tomorrow as host Qatar plays Ecuador to open this very controversial tournament.

SIMON: NPR's sports correspondent Tom Goldman on the job in Doha. Tom, thanks so much for being with us.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.