Why charity 'Match For Hope' with ex-Arsenal and Chelsea stars is just another problematic Qatari spectacle

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The game will take place on Friday evening, featuring a number of YouTubers and former footballing superstars.

Do you think in 2002, when Roberto Carlos finally lifted the World Cup trophy for his beloved native Brazil, he ever could have imagined a butterfly effect of events that resulted in him, some two decades later, turning out in a charity match in which he lined up alongside a Mancunian streamer by the name of Angry Ginge? I suspect not. Then again, Roberto, if you're reading this and you did, I have a quick question for you about some upcoming lottery numbers.

They're calling it the Match For Hope, which is fairly ironic given that the announcement of the respective squad lists earlier in the week filled me with nothing but a sense of creeping despondency. On Friday night, two teams, made up predominantly by a glittering array of former superstars and a smattering of internet personalities who spell their names with far too many errant numbers for my liking, will contest a fundraising spectacle at Qatar's Ahmad bin Ali stadium.

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The cause, ostensibly, is a good one. Proceeds from the game will go towards the EAA, a 'global movement that contributes to human, social and economic development through the provision of quality education for all', in its own words. It is a noble and proper fight to champion. And yet, the whole thing just rings a little hollow.  

In part, I think this is due to me inevitably succumbing to the Abe Simpson complex; 'I used to be with 'it', but then they changed what 'it' was. Now what I'm with isn't 'it' anymore and what's 'it' seems weird and scary. It'll happen to you!' I am not necessarily the target demographic for a bunch of over-excitable YouTubers, and that's fine. Just because something isn't for me, doesn't mean it isn't for somebody.

But as dire as I think it is for kids these days to be idolising shouty lads who make their fortunes by unpacking FIFA Ultimate Team cards and occasionally risking each other's lives in the boxing ring, that isn't really my gripe here. The nature of celebrity constantly changes, and while every generation will eventually fall into the trap of believing that the ones that follow it are vacuous to some extent, it is a shallow cliche I think we should work harder to avoid.

Instead, once again, I find myself grappling with that big dirty buzz word: 'sportswashing'. Admittedly, Qatar as a nation has a good record when it comes to education equality. As of 2020, official data claims that 98.2% of girls and 93.9% of boys complete lower secondary school, and literacy rates are, as you would expect, near universal. But there are obvious complexities beyond those figures. According to Qatar's Family Law, for instance, women are still discriminated against in marriage, divorce, legal responsibility for children, and inheritance. As per Human Rights Watch, wives are required to obey their husbands and can lose financial support if they work or travel against their spouse's wishes.

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Education is supposed to bring with it freedom and self-determination, and yet so much of that basic entitlement is legally curtailed for large swathes of the Qatari population. It's not so much 'do as I say, not as I do', more 'look at what I'm doing, but not too closely'.

You see, there are always vested interests with events of this ilk. No doubt Qatar do support better education in the developing world, as anybody would, and the particular focus of this match on children in war-torn regions such as Mali, Rwanda, Tanzania, Pakistan, Palestine, and Sudan should be lauded and encouraged.

But by hosting Match For Hope, Qatar also reaps the benefits of having the eyes of the world fixated on it for a brief while, once again normalising the global presence of a nation state that is, despite the neatly manicured press releases, fundamentally unequal. Sportswashing, in all its guises, aims to generate numbness through exposure, and for the vast majority of those watching on Friday evening, the finer details will get lost beneath the glitz of the floodlights.

It is for this reason that the involvement of so many gargantuan names - Roberto Carlos, Kaka, Arsene Wenger, Antonio Conte, Eden Hazard, Didier Drogba, David Villa, Claude Makelele, and the like - smarts a little. Of course, these footballing giants bring attention, and with them donations; to that end, their inclusion is a positive thing.

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But it does not preclude from the fact that they are inadvertently acquiescing to the larger project of a country riddled with human rights issues, or that they are lacing up their boots to step out into a stadium which was built by a force of migrant workers who were subjected to squalid, underpaid, and on occasion, allegedly fatal conditions. Of all the places that Friday's spectacle could happen, Qatar is probably among the most problematic.

The Match For Hope, then, despite my prior facetiousness, is perhaps fittingly named. Because without meaningful change, 'hope' matters for very little.

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