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A Soccer Fan Tries to Enjoy a World Cup With Blood on Its Hands

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Published November 30, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated November 30, 2022 at 8:50 p.m.


Supporters reacting to the U.S. vs. England match at Rí Rá - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Supporters reacting to the U.S. vs. England match at Rí Rá
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As my girlfriend and I walked into Vivid Coffee in Burlington last Friday, a familiar sort of anxiety crept up on me. It's a mix of excitement and dread that only rears its head every four years — and it thoroughly confused my girlfriend.

"Do you want to watch the game here?" she asked, gesturing toward one of many empty tables in front of a large television.

On the screen, the United States Men's National Soccer Team went through its pregame warm-ups, preparing to face a powerhouse England team on the world's biggest stage, the 2022 FIFA World Cup. A few fellow fans milled about the sparsely populated café — an oddly sedate scene, considering it was one of the biggest games in recent USMNT history. Then again, who the hell watches the World Cup at a coffee shop?

"There's not enough people here yet," I all but whispered, afraid to disturb the library-like atmosphere. "Maybe we're too early. If I lose my shit here when we score, someone will throw a laptop at me. Let's go to Rí Rá?"

Five minutes later and just moments before kickoff, we walked into the downtown Burlington Irish pub. Or rather, we tried to walk in. A sea of fans clad in red, white and blue filled the bar to capacity, chanting "I believe that we will win!" and the tried-and-true, caveman-like rallying cry "USA! USA! USA!"

I've had amazing experiences watching games at Rí Rá in the past, but the place was too packed. Or, as I overheard a defiant gentleman clad in England's St. George Crusader cosplay gear put it, "I can't see the fooking screen!"

So we ducked out and speed-walked to Finnigan's Pub, where we found a table in front of the projection screen. I tugged on my replica U.S. jersey and felt the telltale tingle I always get watching a World Cup match. But as we settled in, that old electric feeling soon mixed with something else: guilt.

The television showed the young U.S. team, clad in royal blue, standing in a line, hands on hearts, as they sang the American national anthem. Then the camera panned out to show the state-of-the-art Al Bayt Stadium that host nation Qatar had built in the city of Al Khor.

Fans watching the World Cup at Finnigan's Pub - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Fans watching the World Cup at Finnigan's Pub

One of seven venues constructed specifically to host the World Cup, the Al Bayt is a gorgeous piece of architecture — as are the other brand-new stadiums spread around and just outside of Doha, Qatar's capital. But all the infrastructure built around the monthlong tournament — stadiums, hotels and a whole new city — is covered in blood and controversy.

According to an article in the Guardian last year, more than 6,500 migrant workers died in the 12-year buildup to the tiny nation hosting the massive sporting event. While Qatar and FIFA dispute those numbers, the death toll is believed to be even higher, as several of the nations supplying large numbers of migrant workers, such as the Philippines and Kenya, didn't factor into the report — nor did any deaths that occurred after 2020.

As the game started and latecomers streamed into the bar, several friends joined us at our table. Though nowhere near as boisterous or crowded as Rí Rá, Finnigan's nonetheless bustled with energy. We watched in rapt attention as the U.S. team opened the game on the defensive and England's stars attacked in waves. Then, unprompted, I turned to a friend sitting next to me.

"Did you know they built an entire city for this thing?" I said.

"Uhh, yeah? Crazy," he replied absently, watching the Baby Eagles, as the U.S. team has affectionately been dubbed by soccer pundit and "Men in Blazers" cohost Roger Bennett, press the English into a mistake.

"No, for real," I continued. "Lusail City. It didn't exist 10 years ago. Qatar constructed it just for the World Cup. That's just insane."

A roar erupted in the bar as the Americans countered, breaking with speed toward the English defense and eventually winning a corner kick.

"USA!" came a ragged cry from the other end of the bar, returned with passion by several other fans. The chant caught in my throat as I recalled that, earlier in the week, Qatari authorities arrested Iranian fans for wearing shirts with the image of Mahsa Amini. Amini is the 22-year-old Iranian woman who died in September while in police custody after she was apprehended for wearing her hijab improperly. Many Iranian fans had arrived in Doha ready to protest their government, but Qatar has cut down any such insurrections with the kind of brutal precision only lots of practice can bring.

On the screen, American midfielder Tyler Adams snapped into a biting tackle, taking the ball from an English player. I felt my sports brain cry out in a primal bit of celebration: They had the ball, but we took it and now it's ours. So simple, so pure.

Still, I couldn't stop thinking about FIFA and Qatar and blood and money and human rights. I've waited my whole life for American soccer to be taken seriously, or at least since I watched a ragtag team of semipro players and recent college grads thrown together on the pitch when the U.S. hosted the cup in 1994. But it all suddenly felt childish in comparison to the forces at work in Qatar and FIFA headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland.

"You see what the Germans did?" I overheard another viewer nearby ask a friend. "Dudes covered their mouths after FIFA didn't let them wear the One Love armband," he said, referring to a few European teams who had planned on wearing armbands during matches to protest Qatar's stringent anti-gay policies. "Fucking homophobes, man."

"Yeah, but who cares about an armband, right?" the friend responded. "Like, what's that going to change, you know? Plus, they lost the fucking game to Japan."

"You're missing the point," the first guy said, his eyes glued to the TV above the bar. "Qatar has put, like, an iron curtain over the whole thing. They arrested a Dutch reporter."

It was actually a Danish reporter, and he wasn't arrested — though Qatari authorities did threaten to smash his camera if he didn't stop filming.

"OK, but where's the line?" the friend responded. "You don't see Germany wearing 'Free Palestine' shirts, do you?"

"Well, Germans aren't exactly going to throw opinions on Israel out there willy-nilly, are they?"

The two fell into silence after that, sipping afternoon beers as the game inched along.

"Jesus, when did soccer get so complicated?" I heard one of them say at last, and I laughed so hard that my eavesdropping was revealed.

As they turned to look at me, I could only shrug and smile in agreement. No explanation was needed; they could tell I was having the same problem checking out from politics and into the game.

Suddenly, American and Chelsea FC star Christian Pulisic ripped a vicious shot from his left foot. The ball struck the English goal's crossbar, rattling the woodwork and causing the entire Burlington bar to groan as the Americans almost snatched a lead over the English.

"C'mon boys!" I shouted. My hand reflexively slapped against the U.S. Soccer crest on my chest in a very rare showing of outright patriotism.

By the end of the next hour, after a thrilling, tight-as-nails encounter, the U.S. and England finished with that most soccer of score lines: 0-0 — or nil-nil, if you're nasty. The vibe at Finnigan's was mostly celebratory, as a tie against one of the top 10 teams in the world is nothing to sneeze at. And for large stretches of the match, the Baby Eagles took the game to their more established foes.

My girlfriend, relatively new to watching the sport, smiled at me and laughed almost nervously as we left the bar and headed home.

"This is a stressful game!" she exclaimed.

I thought about former FIFA president and James Bond villain look-alike Sepp Blatter being asked in 2010 about awarding the cup to Qatar, a country where homosexuality is punishable by imprisonment. A reporter wondered how gay fans would be able to travel to Qatar and feel safe at a sporting event that is supposed to foster togetherness. Blatter laughed dismissively at the question and suggested that gay fans who attend the cup in Qatar engage in celibacy for the month.

Now, having been given the boot by FIFA after being indicted for fraud, Blatter sings a different tune about Qatar.

"For me it is clear: Qatar is a mistake. The choice was bad," Blatter told Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger. In his interview, Blatter made no mention of human rights abuses. Instead, he threw his former FIFA compatriots under the bus, rather than take any responsibility himself.

I sighed as we moved through downtown, passing a cluster of celebrating American fans, happy with the scoreless draw. Many of those same fans would celebrate again — perhaps even guilt-free — two days later, when the University of Vermont men's soccer team improbably advanced to the quarterfinals of the NCAA national tournament.

"Honestly, sometimes, it's too stressful," I said.

The FIFA World Cup runs until December 18. fifa.com

The original print version of this article was headlined "Kicking the Habit | A soccer fan tries to enjoy a World Cup with blood on its hands"