What on earth is Morgan Freeman doing bigging up Qatar? Making a few dollars, probably (though no word on the exact size of the fee) and burnishing his own slightly challenged reputation (there were allegations of sexual harassment in 2018).
Perhaps he’s looking for some “redemption” of his own, though he hardly needs it, as a statutory global treasure – a kind of human world heritage site. His remains the most compelling voice in the planet today, a kind of rich, deep, lustrous veneer that can be applied even to the most poxy of hellholes for human rights, so you can see what Qatar gained from booking him for the opening of the World Cup. But Morgan, Qatar? Really? How could you?
Being one of the preeminent actors of this generation, Freeman can do irony, but there was no hint of it in the airy, feel-good spiel he knocked out at the opening ceremony – ignored, rightly, by the BBC in favour of some hard-hitting documentary truths about life in the Gulf state.
“We gather here as one big tribe and Earth is the tent we all live in” intoned the megastar, apparently oblivious to the reality that if some members of the one big tribe happen to fancy another member of one big tribe who happens to be of the same sex, then they’ll be forcibly taken from the tent we all live in and banged up in a Qatari police cell for the duration, afflicted as they are with “damage in the mind” according to a Qatari official.
Everyone is welcome in Qatar, they say, which is true, but only if you don’t get your bits out in the wrong context.
Freeman does have the kind of rhetorical power that can endow even the blandest of remarks with the power of biblical prophecy, which is presumably precisely why they chose this charismatic multi-award winning figure. But even so, they gave him some pretty rubbish lines: “Football spans the world, unites nations in their love of the beautiful game. What brings together nations also brings together communities. We all have a story on football and how it brought us together and this land has a story of its very own.”
As Joe Lycett quipped in his takedown of David Beckham, Morgan’s obviously never watched West Brom play. (Sorry, baggies.)
The sad truth is that Qatar is such a toxic regime, and the tournament turning into such a sporting omnishambles, that even such gilt-edged celebrities as Freeman and Beckham are suffering reputational damage as a result of their involvement.
Every day seems to bring fresh controversy, more stories of suffering by the migrant workers, another last minute alteration in plan that leaves the fans angry and confused. When you thought that Fifa couldn’t have a worse figurehead than Sepp Blatter, along comes the unfortunately-named Gianni Infantino with his mystifying “I feel gay” homily.
When the fans thought that at least they’d be able to get a nice glass of Budweiser as they suffered sunstroke, the authorities closed all the bars, for the duration.
Many of the Qatari fans couldn’t even be bothered to stay for the second half of their admittedly dull match against Ecuador. “The crimsons”, as the Qatari squad are apparently nicknamed, were only 2-0 down at half time, which is really not an insurmountable barrier to ultimate victory, even if your goalkeeper is unusually incompetent. But the team has much less chance of a fight-back without the home crowd behind them.
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You get the impression that, at the most basic level, Fifa has already failed to turn this corner of the world football-mad.
And so it will grind on for the next few weeks. Stars such as Harry Kane will not wear the “wrong sort” of armband after Fifa sanction threats, fans will be neglected, journalists bullied and the only things the world will get to know about Qatar and Qataris is that they hate gays, they regard the migrant workers who built their huge stadia and gaudy hotels as expendable sub-humans, the place is utterly corrupt, it’s totally unsuited to hosting international sporting events, it’s virtually uninhabitable without universal air-conditioning, and they’ve got zero taste.
So far, this World Cup has been a veritable feast of own goals – Fifa, Beckham, Freeman, Gary Neville, sponsors such as Budweiser, Coca-Cola and McDonalds and, of course, Qatar itself.
They’d have been much better off spending the $200bn the World Cup cost on some nice ads for the tourist board, and allowing the world to carry on in blissful ignorance of this relatively obscure mini-state. It’s beyond doubt the most costly PR disaster in human history. It’s united the world in awe at such a feat, which is something, I suppose.