The World Cup (and Worldcons)

NB: I wrote this before FIFA president Gianni Infantino’s outburst earlier today, and I think I got it right.

There has been a certain amount of discussion in the SF community about next year’s Worldcon, scheduled to take place in Chengdu, China, and about a previous bid to host Worldcon from Saudi Arabia and coming bids from Africa (Egypt and Uganda). Some people argued that the human rights record of these countries should exclude them as potential Worldcon locations. I feel a bit differently. It seems to me that an inclusive fandom should instinctively be embracing and encouraging of our fellow fans in different and challenging political environments, which they did not choose and cannot change; and that there is a limit to how far people should be held accountable for the actions of their governments – normally it is the other way round. (And that’s without getting into the undeniable fact that many fans in Western countries also suffer oppression and discrimination from the governments under which which they live.)

I am even fairly relaxed about state support for these bids. I don’t think it should be considered a crime to mobilise resources from the public sector on behalf of your bid to run a Worldcon; in fact I think it would be good to see more of it in Europe and America. I pushed for a local politician (the late Jyrki Kasvi MP, who had campaigned in Klingon) to award the Hugo for Best Novel in Helsinki in 2017, and helped to get President Higgins to send a welcome to participants in Dublin 2019. I had my problems with CoNZealand, but I had no problem with their obtaining a ringing endorsement from Prime Minister Jacinta Ardern. Some people looked at the sponsorship of Chengdu’s bid by the local government and saw the Chinese Communist Party attempting to annex Worldcon fandom; I don’t think anyone in CCP headquarters, whether in Sichuan or Beijing, was losing sleep over the results of the 2021 site selection count. (Personally, I did lose sleep over it, but that’s on me.)

I was at one point a formal advisor to the 2023 Chengdu Worldcon committee, but I have stepped back in order to concentrate my fannish energies on the Arthur C. Clarke Award and Glasgow 2024. Chengdu Worldcon is doing some things that I do not like. I was deeply dismayed that Sergei Lukanienko, who thinks that Ukrainians are not fully human, was named as a Guest of Honour (though his name is now mysteriously absent from their current English language website). Other Worldcons, including some that I was involved with, have done things I did not like in the past. But I also feel that Worldcons, and fans, will inevitably make mistakes. I won’t go to China next summer, but I wish them well.

So. I have watched every World Cup since 1978 enthusiastically. It’s one of the most fun things in the sports cycle for me. For us numbers geeks, there’s the fascination of the permutations of qualification from the group stage, along with the trivia and lore of 92 years of history. Back in the late 1980s, I knew by heart the result of every match in every one of the twelve World Cup tournaments that had been held up to then. I have special memories of many matches, including the 2018 final, which I watched in a cafe in a small French village as their team won.

Sometimes you make the most of what you’ve got.

I can’t do it this year. The 2022 World Cup is not a group of fans getting together to put on a show. It’s a determined push by the host government to present themselves as culturally significant actors on the world stage. That’s not a crime in itself, of course. But I am sickened by the reports of the human cost of building the infrastructure, and by FIFA’s unrepentant approach to the local human rights situation. A gay friend of mine – not even someone who I know all that well – posted on Facebook that they would unfriend anyone who expresses enthusiasm about this year’s World Cup. I can understand their feelings.

It you want to read some expert perspectives on sport and the Arab world, Reynoud Leenders has recommended the latest issue of Middle East Report, on “Football—Politics and Passions”. I should note that it closes with an essay by five sports fans and political science scholars, challenging the narrative that Qatar has been “sportswashing” its image and warning that some of the commentary is simply Orientalist, based on hostility to non-white people doing something for themselves. It’s a valid perspective, and I think it does apply to some of the critique of the Worldcon bids that I mentioned above.

But in the end I feel that a state-run tournament organised on the deaths of workers, where journalists are already facing harassment for trying to find their own narrative, doesn’t deserve my attention, let alone my enthusiasm. You may feel differently; that’s up to you. But this will probably be my only commentary on the tournament.