Every four years, the World Cup brings together national teams, fans, cultures, and members of the media from 32 different countries.
For the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, the media contingent includes Leander Schaerlaeckens, a dual-national between the Netherlands and the United States. Though writing for The Ringer, Schaerlaekens is representing Marist College in his excursion abroad on the sports world’s biggest stage.
Schaerlaeckens, known universally as Leander in the Lowell Thomas Communications Center, has been a lecturer at Marist since 2017 while continuing his non-academic career as a soccer writer. Schaerlaeckens has written for outlets such as Yahoo Sports, ESPN, and Fox Sports, and is covering this World Cup for The Ringer while also using the experience to conduct research for a book about the US Men’s National Team scheduled to be published ahead of the 2026 World Cup.
“It was a process that played out over a few months,” Schaerlaeckens said. “I got the book deal in April and then I started talking to (School of Communication and the Arts) Dean (Jacqueline) Reich, who has been super supportive, about the leave I’m on now and if she would support that, and then I applied for the credential in June.”
In his coverage for The Ringer, Schaerlaeckens has attended one game for every day of his trip, culminating in his ninth game in as many days when the US took on Iran on Tuesday night. He’s mostly written previews for the US games, but, as he stresses to his students, it wasn’t just saying that a game was about to happen.
“My England game preview was about Christian Pulisic and the expectations on him, the difficulty that he seems to have was his own swelling fame,” Schaerlaeckens said. “The first preview for the Wales game was really about expectations on the team… so it’s about finding a narrative.”
Schaerlaeckens is teaching a lighter schedule because of the time commitment needed for the book but still faced challenges having to plan around his 10-day trip.
“I was able to kind of work it into the syllabus,” Schaerlaeckens said. “I only missed two classes because it was over Thanksgiving [break] which was a little gift from FIFA… For one of the classes, I took the audio from the (US-Iran) press conference on Monday, put it on iLearn, and I said, ‘alright, write a preview on this game.’”
The US-Iran match, a 1-0 victory for the States, was fraught with tension after the USMNT social media accounts altered Iran’s flag in the buildup to the game to show support for those fighting for human rights in the Middle Eastern country.
The build-up was just the latest blip of controversy to envelop the 2022 World Cup currently taking place in Qatar. The microscopic Middle Eastern country shockingly (and corruptly) won the bid in 2010 despite lacking the infrastructure to host the tournament.
Qatar has since spent over $200 billion to try and create an authentic World Cup atmosphere, but there are some things money can’t just quite buy.
“In a lot of ways, it doesn’t really feel like a World Cup,” Schaerlaeckens, who also covered the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, said. “Around the stadiums, there’s usually this really festive fan vibe — dancing, drumming, all the rest — but what we see around here are all put on by the organizers…These little elements about the World Cup don’t quite feel right.”
Qatar has a track record of human rights violations ranging from the outlawing of homosexuality to the poor treatment of migrant workers brought in to build the stadiums from the tournament. A report from The Guardian estimated that at least 6,500 migrant workers died in the construction process. FIFA also threatened to punish any team captain that wore a rainbow-colored armband.
Despite the ethical concerns around the World Cup, Schaerlaeckens never hesitated about making the trip to Qatar.
“I think as a reporter, it’s important to put yourself in the places where controversial things are happening,” Schaerlaeckens said. “Because it’s your job to bring newsworthy things to light. And so I wanted to see it for myself. I wanted to tell the story for myself. And I think that helps shine a light on things.”
In his week-and-a-half in the Doha area, Schaerlaeckens hasn’t seen anything out of the ordinary. He mentioned stories of migrant workers (who outnumber the Qatari population nearly ten-to-one) being moved out of the country. He knows the country is trying to paint a pretty picture of itself in an effort to “sportswash” the World Cup.
“This entire World Cup, going back to 2010 when Qatar won the bid, has been an elaborate PR exercise,” Schaerlaeckens said. “It’s been a soft power flex to really manifest on the world stage and build its brand.”
The World Cup is arguably the biggest sporting event on Earth. It all serves as a reminder that sports and politics are impossible to separate from each other. Schaerlaeckens hopes to use his takeaways from the trip to enhance his perspective moving forward, with an overarching goal of sharing what he picks up along the way with his students.
“The more experience I have as a reporter, the more that will benefit my students,” he said. “And to have another kind of experience under my belt and in my toolkit, I think will help when I try to explain the world to my students is how many intersections force and how they feed off one another.”
Edited by Dan Aulbach and Luke Sassa