With Saturday's Gophers game against Iowa and Sunday's Vikings game against Dallas, Minnesota is nearing peak football fever.
Globally, however, it's futbol fever that's about to take hold, with the World Cup kicking off on Sunday.
In a week when it was announced that the planet now has 8 billion individuals, the fact that an estimated 5 billion will have the collective experience of watching the same event is testament to soccer's intercontinental appeal.
The World Cup "is as close to a genuinely global sporting form as we've got," said Douglas Hartmann, a University of Minnesota sociology professor whose scholarship includes sports and society. "Different sports have different levels of regional appeal, but soccer is everywhere."
Including, for the next month, somewhere once unexpected: Qatar, a Mideast monarchy with fewer than 3 million people which, at the time of its selection as host by FIFA, soccer's governing body, had no serious soccer tradition.
The choice was met with howls then — a "Qatarstrophe," headlined the German tabloid Bild — that have only grown noisier as controversies over alleged corruption and lax stances on human and labor rights, combined with hard lines on women's and LGBTQ rights, have sent some sponsors scurrying from the unparalleled platform.
Even the top soccer official in charge of FIFA at the time, the now-banned Sepp Blatter, has recently recanted, saying that "Qatar is a mistake," citing its size and, more profoundly, that the selection didn't take "social considerations and human rights" into account.
It did seem to take Qatar's bank account into account. The petrostate poured billions into infrastructure for the World Cup and has also become a major player in the global game with its sovereign wealth fund purchase of powerhouse team Paris Saint-Germain.
Turning sandy sites into grassy stadiums wasn't done by Qataris but by African, South Asian or Southeast Asian laborers working under harsh, abusive and often illegal conditions. Scores died during construction (the actual number has not been completely verified), leading to reforms that actually did little to curb abuses, according to a recent report from the human-rights and labor-rights organization Equidem.
In fact, major construction firms still "actively evaded labor inspections, subjecting migrant workers from Africa and Asia to serious human rights abuses," the organization stated in its 95-page report. These included "illegal recruitment charges, nationality-based discrimination, unpaid wages, working in extreme heat and other health and safety risks, overwork, and workplace violence." (Not surprisingly, World Cup organizers deny the charges.)
Qatar's hosting is "a play for relevance, to appear to be a player on the international stage, and to harness infrastructure investment — which isn't only a financial boon to Qatar, but it's also more (physical) nation building in a small place with not much to offer otherwise," Elizabeth Shackelford, a former State Department diplomat who is now a senior fellow on U.S. foreign policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, said in an email interview.
There's also a "bit of a national-security benefit" to it, said Shackelford, an assessment contextualized by Simon Henderson, director of the Bernstein Institute of Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy.
"If you are an incredibly wealthy country, surrounded in a dangerous neighborhood of which Iran is the clearest example, you either accept a sort of secondary role or you assert a primary role," Henderson said.
Asserting this role required an assist from FIFA. But in soccer slang, choosing Qatar has become an "own goal," as not just sponsors but some former soccer stars stay away. Some current stars are speaking out, too, including the Netherlands World Cup team, which will auction off its jerseys and donate the proceeds to migrant workers.
The symbolism is more significant than the sum received, no doubt. And the criticism of Qatar won't match the narrative of the matches themselves, resulting in what Hartmann and other observers call a case of "sportswashing," which Hartmann said is "on display with the last couple of mega global events."
Recent global sporting events have indeed taken place in compromised countries: The World Cup in Russia in 2018, following the Sochi Olympiad in the same nation in 2014. Beijing has hosted both a summer and winter Olympics over a 14-year span. And now Qatar, which doesn't present commensurate geopolitical menace as Russia and China but is domestically repressive.
What's "important here is not only the failure of these global events to live up to ideals, but it's the way it's kind of the opposite of that; how these mega events have been used by deeply problematic regimes to paper over their own problems, or even legitimate their power, their politics, and their social or human-rights stances," Hartmann said.
The stains sports were meant to wash out weren't hidden. Beijing's repression was well documented before 2008 and was even more globally glaring as it held this year's Winter Games. Similarly, Russia's revanchism was known before the Sochi Games, and just in case there was any doubt it sparked the Crimea crisis just after the Olympics, a prelude to its later destabilization of eastern Ukraine, a crime that was well known as it hosted the World Cup.
"A lot of times these organizations can kind of dismiss some of the broader social and political issues, as long as they host a great athletic event," Hartmann said, noting Beijing's success in 2008. But the International Olympic Committee (IOC) aspires to higher ideals — in fact, makes a virtue of them through its stated Olympic Principles, which includes autonomy and good governance, making its hosting hypocrisy even more glaring than FIFA's.
Perhaps in response the IOC has moved aggressively to award future games to nations sharing the notion of the Olympic Movement: Summer Games in Paris (2024), Los Angeles (2028), and Brisbane (2032), with the 2026 Winter Games in Milano-Cortina, Italy (although that country just elected a government led by a party with fascist roots). The 2030 Games are thought to be between Sapporo and Salt Lake City (watch for the IOC to award one to both, as it did with Paris and L.A.).
To be sure, one of the challenges the IOC has faced is the result of its good-governance principle: failed referendums in candidate cities, leaving it, in Hartmann's words, between a "rock and a hard place" (or more specifically, between Beijing and Almaty, Kazakhstan, the only two finalists left for this year's games as several cities dropped out after public pressure).
For its part, the 2026 World Cup will be a North American version, with matches in Canada, Mexico, and the United States.
The upcoming Olympic and World Cup countries constitute a welcome trend. But soon enough, pressure from China, Russia and others will return.
"It's always a struggle between the ideals and the realities of the world we live in," Hartmann rightly concluded.
Going forward, FIFA and the IOC should reaffirm — and live up to — their ideals.