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Numbers Are Staggering Everywhere You Look

The United States’ Tim Weah celebrates after scoring the opening goal during the World Cup group B soccer match between the United States and Wales at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium in Doha, Qatar, on Monday. AP photo

At least the penalty awarded to Wales in the 82nd minute was clearly a penalty and not one of those questionable whistles that even replay fails to resolve. In this case, American defender, Walker Zimmerman, a 29-year-old Georgia native currently contracted to Nashville SC in MLS, took down the Welsh star, Gareth Bale, with uncompromising force, legs and all.

The left-footed Bale struck his penalty shot into the corner of the net with such power, our goalkeeper, Matt Turner, a former MLS Goalkeeper of the Year, now with mighty Arsenal in the English Premier League, never had a chance.

Until then, we were up 1-0 thanks to a sensational goal in the 36th minute by Timothy Weah, the 22-year-old striker currently with Lille in the top French league. Weah, from Brooklyn, broke free and, despite a Welsh defender and goalkeeper bearing down on him, he coolly flipped the ball with his right foot into the back of the net.

Great touch under a truck load of pressure.

Team USA came away with a heart-stopping draw, but that’s not bad for the first game given their lackluster history at the World Cup, this time around a tournament to be viewed by an anticipated 5 billion people worldwide. As a measure of media expansion since 2018 (the World Cup is played every four years), that’s about 2 billion more viewers than when the tournament was last held, in Russia.

Indeed, the numbers for “Qatar 2022” are staggering everywhere you look. This tiny Middle Eastern island-nation in the Persian Gulf, squeezed between the UAE and Saudi Arabia, has a Qatari population of 300,000 and foreign population of 2.3 million – a ratio of citizens to expatriates typical of countries in the region.

Qatar wanted to host the Cup so bad, it was willing to spend $220 billion to totally re-invent itself into a football-loving place. In contrast, Russia spent $14.2 billion in 2018. For Qatar, stadiums and roads and a myriad of other infrastructure had to be built from scratch, effectively out of the desert, and they had just 12 years to do it.

And along the way there was, and continues to be, an endless stream of controversy. Foremost, that of the conditions that migrant labor, mainly from the Asian subcontinent and Africa, were working under, often in temperatures well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit and, most loathsome of all, under poor health and safety services, and for little pay if they got paid. The death toll is a sordid coverup.

However, after five years living in the Middle East myself, namely Abu Dhabi and Dubai, I can report that the exploitation of migrant workers is not unique to this World Cup or to Qatar. It’s the basis of the construction industry throughout the region.

In Dubai, for example, thousands of workers were bussed into the city at sunrise and at sunset bussed back out to vile dormitories in the desert (read: out of sight). That’s the way it works throughout the region, World Cup or not.

FIFA, the governing body of international football, claims it’s not their problem. But how can anyone trust whatever comes out of its Zurich office after decades of corruption involving bribery (which is how many believe Qatar won the rights to begin with), racketeering, and money laundering among other crimes.

One informed journalist featuring in the current Netflix documentary, “FIFA Uncovered,” goes so far as to compare the organization with the mafia. To be sure, more than a dozen former FIFA executives have gone to jail for taking bribes and when added to the rightful disgust over migrant workers, the recent lecture from current FIFA president, Gianni Infantino, did not help.

Infantino, Swiss-born but now a permanent resident of Qatar (can you smell it?), attacked the West as “hypocrites” for our historical human rights abuses (think: slavery), telling gathered media that we have no right to tell others what is and is not morally wrong. He may have a point, but his tirade did little to improve FIFA’s relationship with just about everybody. The 2026 World Cup will be played in the US, Mexico, and Canada and given the depth of controversy surrounding this one, my guess is FIFA cannot move on fast enough to North America.

For now, however, I thank the Lord for the game itself. If it were not for the game, my brain would be turning to mush from all the other that’s gone down leading up to this World Cup. Now that play is underway, for 90 minutes I can focus on nothing but the game and while the morally self-righteous may wish to call that escapism, frankly speaking, I don’t care. With each kick-off, a new reality sets in and I love it.

With that in mind. I look forward to Team USA taking revenge on Iran on Nov. 30. In 1998, I was in Paris for the US-Iran World Cup game, watching on TV at a private home. We lost 2-1 and I was given friendly ha-ha’s by a house full of Iranians. I was the lone American there only on that day. What bothered me more was not our loss and the ribbing I took, it was the (cigarette) smoke-filled room. I had to sit with my head out a window to breath.

This time versus Iran, Team USA may be the second-youngest team in the tournament (after Ghana), but it is the most competitive, talented, and exciting American World Cup soccer team ever. They may have a tough time against England, but I believe they’ll take care of Iran.

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