Staff writers Ben Evans and Ed Ducker on the controversial manner in which Qatar secured the right to host the 2022 World Cup and the issues this has highlighted in the Gulf state.
A remote desert peninsula, with very little football heritage and an appalling record on human rights are currently hosting the world’s premier footballing competition. Let that sink in. After years of controversy and doubt that FIFA will successfully host the event, the Qatar World Cup is happening. Here’s the story of how over a 20-year period the Middle Eastern nation managed to beat the USA to host the tournament.
A foreign policy of “sports washing”, incredible levels of fossil-fuel fuelled investment, modern slavery, and a hint of corruption got Qatar over the line. After the former FIFA President Sepp Blatter’s futile apology for making “the wrong decision”, this article aims to expose the atrocities to ensure they are never repeated, but also reassure fans that there is no shame in supporting one’s team on the pitch. Despite the toxic environment FIFA has created we should still aim to find enjoyment in the beautiful game.
Follow the money and see where it goes…
In the run-up to Qatar’s World Cup bid in 2010, Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani outlined a foreign policy strategy of worldwide sports investment in order to expand the nation’s standing on the global stage and make the country more attractive to tourists. This is a necessary move for the Kingdom due to the reducing supply of fossil fuels available to Qatar. This began with the opening of the Aspire Academy in Doha circa 2004. The state-of-the-art training facility continues to be branded as a “humanitarian” project designed to equalise footballing opportunities across the globe. With the outreach programme operating in over 60 nations (many of which are in the so called “Global South”), there are grounds to call it this.
However, one does not need to look too much further to see the other geo-political uses of the academy for Qatar. Firstly, Qatar’s small population has led to the nation having a naturally reduced talent pool so having young players grow up in the nation has been a good strategy for assimilating talent. This has dramatically boosted the prospects of the Qatari national football team, with the entirety of their 2014 U-19 Asian Cup winning side coming from Aspire, and 18 out of their 26 World Cup players coming through the programme.
Many of these are not domestic Qataris but are eligible through a loophole in FIFA’s rules. Secondly, many of the countries benefited by the academies happen to be places where members of FIFA’s executive committee originated from in 2010. These included Guatemala, Thailand, and Paraguay (the home nation of Nicolas Lopez, the then President of COMMEBOL, the South American footballing body). Evidently, this allowed Qatar to curry favour with the highly influential FIFA elite.
“Was all of this legal… absolutely f*cking not”
The opening of the Aspire Academy marked only the beginning for Qatari “sports-washing”. In more recent times, the nation managed to attract ageing talent to its growing Q-League, it now has a regular F1 Grand Prix; Doha was the host city for the 2019 Athletic Championships.
All of these have been statements of intent as the Gulf nation aims to shape itself as a world leading sports venue. Back in 2010 however, such events were yet to take place and Qatar needed further reassurances to secure the bid. A report by The Times in 2019 amounted the value of the Qatari bribes to be $880m. Nearly half of these came just 21 days before the announcement. At a time when the United States seemed almost certain to win, Qatari-based broadcaster Al Jazeera paid $400m to FIFA for a “TV rights deal” in a dubious attempt to mask modern-day corruption.
Pure proof is impossible to attain, however one should examine such payments further. In early 2010, the Qatari Sovereign Investment Fund (QTI), placed a €500m bid for a debt-ridden and struggling Paris Saint Germain. Which happened to be the favourite team of the then-French President, Nicholas Sarkozy. Subsequently, just 9 days before the infamous vote, President Sarkozy hosted the Emir’s son, Thamim al-Thani and Michel Platini (a member of FIFA’s executive committee) for lunch. The meeting saw the creation Al-Jazeera’s sports channel, “beIN Sports”, and it re-assured Platini’s support for Qatar. It should be stated that Platini maintains, to this day, that his mind was in favour of Qatar prior to the meeting, despite him originally supporting the USA as hosts for the 2022 World Cup.
In addition to this, a 2015 Swiss corruption case uncovered that the FIFA President at the time, Sepp Blatter paid Platini €2m in a “dishonest payment”, which later saw his removal from his position. These stories demonstrate that corruption in FIFA was rife, with 17 out of the 22 executive committee members from 2010 “accused, banned, or indicted over wrongdoings” to do with either the Russia 2018 or Qatar 2022 bids. Overall, it was huge levels of spending from the Qatari state that secured the World Cup with an institutionally corrupt FIFA implicit in the act. The financial developments have left people to question why it was so necessary for Qatar to spend so highly to improve its image.
The controversies of the Qatari State
At this moment in time, and particularly upon the recent commencement of the tournament, the majority are aware of the atrocities that have occurred in Qatar – particularly the abhorrent human rights abuses carried out in the state. Such controversial occurrences range from the regime’s oppressive social policies, to the vast amounts of reports covering the mistreatment and deaths of the nation’s migrant workers.
A 2021 Amnesty International report provided a damning evaluation of the country’s democratic institutions, the treatment of workers, women’s rights, and LGBTQ+ rights. Elections for the Qatari Shura Council in 2017 were restricted to a very small percentage of voters as civilians needed a Qatari grandfather in order to vote. Of the 30 elected to the “advisory body”, all were male. The “Kafala” (Arabic for “Guardianship”) system of labour has resulted in hugely suppressed pay for workers and of course horribly dangerous conditions in the construction of stadiums. Many workers were promised higher wages and job prospects if they made the trip from South-Asia to the Gulf State. Workers were paid less than a dollar a day, until the minimum wage rise in 2019, and could only change jobs with permission from their employers. Approximately, 6,500 workers have died constructing the 8 stadiums, new metro system, and airport expansion for the World Cup, over 100 deaths for each game that is to be played.
Regarding the suppression of women in Qatar, Amnesty International described the situation as women being “tied to their guardian”. This means that they require permission from their father, brother, or husband to seek employment, travel abroad, or marry. Shockingly of all, some forms of reproductive healthcare can be dictated by their male “guardian” and, in the absence of a male guardian, any children are cared for by the state and not their own mother. Finally, the report stated that Article 296 of Qatar’s 2003 Penal Code stated that “sodomy” (same-sex intercourse) remains illegal. The impact of the hard-line interpretation of Sharia law has made many gay football fans fear attending the tournament. Fears were only heightened by the recent statements of Qatari officials claiming homosexually to be “morally wrong”, and “damaging to the mind”.
The controversies of the Qatari state have continued into the World Cup with a strict alcohol ban in stadiums and reports of Qatar paying South-Asian expats to replace the absent fans of other participating nations. A report by the New York Times discloses that Qatar are paying fans to attend the World Cup on the condition that they promote matches and report negative comments. This suggests that the demand for tickets in the Middle East is below expectations. Excerpts of the instructions provided by Qatar state say:
“We are not asking you to [be] a mouthpiece for Qatar, but it would obviously not be appropriate for you to disparage Qatar or other relevant entities related to the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022…You agree to report any offensive, degrading or abusive comments and if possible, to take a screenshot of those comments and then promptly delete them.”
The New York Times’ report was published days before Qatari authorities evicted thousands of foreign workers from apartment blocks in Doha. In order to create space for travelling fans and officials, over a dozen buildings were evacuated and shut down, forcing the mainly Asian and African migrant workers to seek shelter elsewhere. In one building, which housed an estimated 1,200 people in Doha’s Al Mansoura district, authorities told the workers at 8pm that they had just two hours to leave. The officials returned at 10.30pm, forcing everyone out and locking the doors to the building regardless of some of the workers being unable to collect their belongings.
Nonetheless, a Qatari government official has since stated that the evictions weren’t related to the World Cup but rather carried out to be, “in line with ongoing comprehensive and long-term plans to re-organise areas of Doha”.
Western Media Hypocrisy?
Qatar’s foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani, publicly condemned the range of criticism directed towards his country, denouncing them as “double standards”; these comments were echoed by FIFA’s President Gianni Infantino. He argued that the attacks on Qatar are “peddled by a small group of people” and do not accurately reflect the opinion of many fans. Al-Thani also questioned further why the events in Qatar are systematically blamed on the government as opposed to in Europe, where primarily private businesses are scrutinised the most.
In July, The Guardian published an article titled, “Outrage in Qatar over shooting of 29 dogs as it prepares for World Cup”. The article however, associated two exclusive occurrences in an act of deceiving editorial bait as the killing of said dogs was not in relation to the World Cup. Contrastingly, when due to host the Commonwealth Games in 2002, the UK culled over 6 million cattle due to foot and mouth disease. The two events were never homogenised in the same headline across western papers, as opposed to the coverage regarding Qatar.
Scholars have started to acknowledge a skewed media representation of the Qatar World Cup, labelling it an ‘exceptional’ phenomenon. Natalie Koch PhD alludes to the idea that there is a prevailing sense of “moral superiority” among western viewers in relation to the Qatar World Cup. Since FIFA’s declaration of Qatar’s winning World Cup bid in 2010, UK papers have named Qatar approximately 1,735 times in their headlines; 40% (685) of which explicitly concern the World Cup.
The coverage has been overwhelmingly negative. Of the 685 articles about the World Cup published by the British media, 66% (454) were critical, 29% (201) were neutral and 5% (33) were positive. Nonetheless, it’s necessary for UK news outlets to criticise certain aspects of the Qatar regime especially in light of Amnesty International’s report.
Controversies aside, the Qatar 2022 World Cup is projected to bring in $6.4bn in revenue for FIFA in its 2019-2022 cycle, the highest of any World Cup prior. The increasing revenue has transpired despite concerns that fans and sponsors would boycott the event, with Qatar 2022 generating nearly $1bn more than Russia 2018. Nonetheless, it’s important to note that Qatar 2022 will be the costliest World Cup on record at a reported $220bn, over 10x the cost of any other.
Oases of hope in the face of adversity
With a fear that the tournament looks like an endorsement of or distraction Qatar’s human rights abuses, the debate sparked by the tournament has provoked some positive action. The collective effort from other nations with subtle acts of retaliation have been encouraging to see. Such as the pledge from the Danish football association that for every goal scored during their leagues in November they’ll donate to the bereaved families of the migrant workers. At around 10 Kroner per goal (£1.56) estimates have placed the potential at 550,000 Kroner (£85,800) with 55,000 goals scored in the same period last year.
This demonstrates that despite the actions of oppressive autocratic regimes and corrupt organisations, this beautiful game can prevail and come together. It is in this spirit that one should try to enjoy a World Cup that is happening whether we like it or not. Educate yourself about the failings of the Qatari state and the corruptions of the once proud organisation, FIFA. From this, we can make positive change. Qatar 2022 is a symptom of a broken system with the interests of elites at its heart. Through action and exposing these truths we can make the change needed to retake the game we love and bring football back to fans of all creeds, colours, sexualities, and genders. To bring football home…to everyone.
Please check out Tifo’s detailed series on the build up to Qatar 2022 using this link on YouTube for more information.