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Sensemaker: Why Qatar gently weeps

Sensemaker: Why Qatar gently weeps

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Joe Biden described US gun violence as a public health epidemic after a shooting at a gay nightclub in Colorado Springs killed at least five people.  
  • The UN said “whoever” was behind continued shelling at Ukraine’s Zaporizhia nuclear power plant was playing with fire. 
  • Nine World Cup captains decided not to wear “one love” rainbow armbands in Qatar for fear of being booked.

Why Qatar gently weeps

Never in 92 years of World Cups had the host nation lost their opening match until Qatar went down 2-0 to Ecuador on Sunday. It took 90 minutes to acquaint the tiny gulf state’s rulers with sporting reality. A $200 billion infrastructure spend can’t win you games if your team is outclassed and trepidatious.

An eccentric performance by Qatar’s goalkeeper accentuated the problem with thinking World Cups can be transplanted into countries with no football heritage. When the construction, PR and future-proofing stops, you have to send 11 people across the white line to score and stop goals. Qatar’s chosen ones were so out of their depth that the BBC’s pundits resorted to banter to fill the post-match analysis slot. “You can tell it’s been a rubbish second-half by the way we’re trying to run down the clock,” admitted Alan Shearer.

At half-time, when Ecuador already led 2-0, reporters noticed an exodus of bored or disillusioned local spectators. A third left before the hour mark and the Al Bayt Stadium was half empty by the finish.

Money can’t buy you love. Or results (in theory). Qatar recorded no shots on target and three touches in the opposition’s penalty box. They now face Senegal and the Netherlands with little hope of progressing beyond the group stage: a warning to Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman, who sat beside the Fifa president Gianni Infantino, the self-proclaimed everyman of the oppressed (read on). The Saudis covet the 2030 World Cup, in league with Greece and Egypt.

Opening night was predictably wince-inducing. 

  • The authorities had relaxed alcohol restrictions but hit reverse gear 48 hours before the opening ceremony, banning booze at stadiums. Like Bud Zero? It’s all you’ll get at England v Iran today. Ecuador supporters chanted “we want beer.”
  • Reports say migrant workers have developed a remarkable affection for countries they don’t actually come from, flowing through the streets to proclaim new allegiances. Concession stall staff said they had waited outside the stadium without water, food or toilets for up to seven hours.
  • In the game itself, VAR controversially ruled out a third minute goal by Ecuador for offside. Analysts were baffled, conspiracy theories flowed and no explanation was given to the watching billions around the world. The foot of Ecuador’s Michael Estrada was eventually shown to be offside: not a “clear and obvious error,” which was meant to be VAR’s raison d’etre.

Enjoyment might have been felt most keenly by the 2010 Fifa Executive Committee, which awarded this World Cup to Qatar. Except that 14 of its members were indicted by US law enforcement, which alleged “rampant, systemic and deep rooted” corruption at world football’s governing body. Even Sepp Blatter, the overlord of that dark era, has called the choice of Qatar “a mistake”.

Infantino has inherited Blatter’s messiah complex. On Saturday his attempt to identify with victims of discrimination was derided. He said: “Today I feel Qatari. Today I feel Arabic. Today I feel African. Today I feel gay. Today I feel disabled. Today I feel [like] a migrant worker.” If half the world’s population felt left out, Infantino doubled back to add them: “I feel like a woman too.” Iran’s leaders, watching today’s game against England as they lock up women protesters back home, will be glad to know.

The football will improve. Over the next four days England, Argentina, France, Germany, Spain, Belgium, Brazil and Portugal will ride to Qatar’s partial rescue. But normalising a tournament in a country where same-sex relations are illegal and human rights are suppressed is harder than the ruling Al Thani family imagined. Their football team isn’t finding it any easier. This was Qatar’s first World Cup finals match (they qualified as hosts). It showed.


Don’t walk into the Brexit elephant trap, Mr Starmer

Matthew d’Ancona

Last week’s autumn statement was meant to hem in Labour on fiscal policy. Now, Rishi Sunak is trying to tempt the Opposition leader onto lethal ground of a different sort.


Swedish chill 

Want your house price to hold up reasonably well? Buy in northern Sweden, where abundant hydropower is keeping energy prices down and property values more or less stable. Further south they’re in their most severe decline since the early 1990s, and a bellwether for house prices in comparable economies including the UK. October data reported by Bloomberg shows Swedish prices down for the seventh straight month and down 14 per cent so far this year. Rising mortgage costs and retail price inflation are the other factors depressing property markets, in which peak-to-trough slumps of up to 20 per cent are forecast for the US, UK and New Zealand. Nowhere is immune. Canadian house prices are down 10 per cent this year. File it under: global headwinds. Behind it all: the war. 


Anger commodified

There is no calm after the FTX storm. The crypto exchange that went bankrupt on 11 November owes more than $3 billion to its creditors and has confirmed cash holdings of only $565 million, according to a filing in the Delaware bankruptcy court. That ($565 million) may seem a lot for an outfit reported to have popped like a balloon, especially given a) the administrators still have at least 70 bank accounts to check and b) a claim by the new FTX CEO that it has many subsidiaries with “solvent balance sheets [and] responsible management”. But that same CEO, John Ray III, the insolvency specialist who picked up the Enron pieces in 2001, said last week he had “never seen such a complete failure of corporate controls” as at FTX. The more-in-sorrow-than anger brigade is naturally having a moment, led today in the FT’s Henry Mance interview with Stephen Diehl, author of Popping the Crypto Bubble. He says the entire sector, for all its 14-year life, has been a solution in search of a problem. “The commoditisation of populist anger, gambling and crime.” A scam. 

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

2-tier NHS?

A third of adults found it difficult to access NHS services during the pandemic, pushing about two million people to turn to private healthcare services, according to a report earlier this year from the left-leaning Institute for Public Policy Research. Post-pandemic, the waitlist for treatment is only getting longer, while the NHS is breaking records for ambulance and A&E waiting times due to lack of staff and a shortage of social care. Against this backdrop, the BBC reports that NHS leaders in Scotland discussed a “two-tier” health service, in which people who can afford it would pay for private treatment, in draft minutes from a meeting in September. The discussion also included pausing development of new drugs unless they can save the NHS money and cutting some free prescriptions. Jeremy Hunt said in last week’s Autumn Statement that people must ask “challenging questions” about how to improve public services. This report shows how fundamental some of these questions will be. 

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Loss and damage

As Cop27 wound down the UN Secretary-General said the planet was still in the emergency room. The question after the conference’s failure to set new fossil fuel abatement targets, let alone agree on how to enforce existing ones, is whether Earth is now in fact in palliative care. That is an inference to be drawn from the Sharm conference’s only “success” – an agreement in principle on compensation for poor and low-lying countries suffering the worst impacts of a climate crisis visited on them by rich ones. There was nothing new on cutting emissions even though this was supposed to be the “implementation” conference, agreeing on how to put Paris (net zero) and Glasgow (no more than 1.5 degrees of warming) into practice. Instead the hosts slipped support for more gas into the final communique, along with support for more renewables. The Cop process isn’t fit for purpose, one veteran told the Sunday Times, but it’s the only one we’ve got. Really? Remember Gfanz, the $130 trillion Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero? Time to step up.


Swiss-style trial balloon

UK government sources floated the idea of a new deal with the EU at the weekend. 80 per cent of checks between Northern Ireland and the UK mainland would be eliminated. Access for the whole country to the EU single market would be eased. There would need to be payments to the EU and alignment with many of its sanitary and phytosanitary rules, but there would be no need to sign up to freedom of movement. The new relationship with Brussels would be a bit like Switzerland’s. The story ran in the Sunday Times. Brexiters instantly shot it down. Steve Barclay, the last Brexit Secretary, said he didn’t recognise it. Lord Frost, who negotiated the current deal that isn’t working, said the government had better revise its revisions fast. Nigel Farage said he might reenter politics if Brexit was about to be betrayed. There are signs the Brexit fever is breaking; signs of common sense creeping up on the inside as ideology flags. But all that means politically is that the old fight within the Conservative party over Europe is still being fought. The rest of the country will have to go on waiting till one side wins, or seize the moment and talk frankly about the emperor’s clothes.

Week ahead 


21/11 – Rishi Sunak to speak at Confederation of British Industry (CBI) conference in Birmingham; England face Iran and Wales play the US in football World Cup in Qatar; Shamima Begum appeals removal of British citizenship, 22/11 – Keir Starmer to address CBI conference; South African president Cyril Ramaphosa in London for state visit, 23/11 – Supreme Court to rule on whether Scottish parliament can call second referendum on independence; Chancellor Jeremy Hunt gives evidence on Autumn Statement to Treasury committee, 24/11 – Royal Mail staff take two-day strike action; Ofgem announces quarterly price cap change; Scottish teachers go on strike, staff at 150 universities go on strike, 26/11 – train drivers across 12 companies go on strike.


21/11 – Joe Biden pardons a turkey ahead of Thanksgiving; UN Security Council meets to discuss North Korea; Twitter offices due to reopen, 22/11 – OECD to publish its Economic Outlook report with projections for world economy; FTX bankruptcy hearing, 23/11 – Vladimir Putin to take part in CSTO summit in Armenia, 24/11 – Thanksgiving Day public holiday in US; UN Human Rights Council holds special session on Iran protests, 25/11 – Black Friday. 

Thanks for reading. Please share this round, send us ideas and tell us what you think. Email sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com.

Paul Hayward

Additional reporting by Giles Whittell and Jessica Winch.

Photographs Getty Images

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