Qatar’s turbulent World Cup

Alaa Abdel-Ghani , Tuesday 15 Nov 2022

As the first Arab country to hold the World Cup, the Gulf state is also dealing with the most controversies that have ever befallen a host country, writes Alaa Abdel-Ghani

Qatar s turbulent World Cup


Twelve years ago, from the moment the white envelope was opened, and out came the card which showed to TV cameras around the world the word QATAR in bold caps, the Gulf state has not enjoyed one good night’s sleep.

From accusations that the votes to host the 2022 World Cup were bought, to the unprecedented changing of the tournament from summer to winter, from the migrant workers who died while building the stadiums, to the gay community who want to parade themselves and the rainbow colours on the streets of a Muslim state, the Qatar World Cup, the first to be played in an Arab country, has been buffeted by one controversy after the other. It has been an extraordinary, unparalleled confluence of protests not witnessed in any of the prior 21 editions in the World Cup’s 92-year history.

Things got so bad that last week FIFA, the governing body of the sport, felt compelled to intervene with a remarkable letter sent to all 32 competing countries asking them to “now focus on the football”.

That will happen when the first whistle is blown on Sunday 20 November but few believe that the waves of criticism flooding Qatar and its World Cup won’t soon overtake what is normally the most famous and most widely viewed single sport spectacle on earth.

From the very start, Qatar had to contend with how it won the bid to host the football extravaganza. In 2010, no sooner had then FIFA boss Sepp Blatter pronounced that Qatar would host the 2022 World Cup, than the charges flew left and right that the vote had been rigged. After all, Qatar was vying with Australia, the United States, South Korea and Japan, all of whom either had staged a World Cup or an Olympics or, in the case of the latter three, both. Tiny Qatar, on the other hand, even though awash in petro dollars, had little infrastructure in place, no footballing history of note, whose team had never even qualified for a World Cup, and has a summer heat that can melt steel.

But to the surprise of most people, if not outright shock, Qatar beat them all.

How did that happen? Qatar was accused of paying FIFA voting officials $3.7 million in bribes to secure their backing. However, it was cleared by two investigations launched by Swiss prosecutors and the US Department of Justice in 2015, as well as FIFA’s own investigation in 2017.

It is odd that an investigation looking into corruption in FIFA was from FIFA. It’s something like the Israeli army conducting an inquiry into the killings of unarmed Palestinians by the Israeli army. Not a very credible probe.

Anyway, Qatar was found not guilty. It has till today always denied any wrongdoing but has never been able to fully shake off the skeptics.

That’s probably because 21 of the 24 men on the FIFA executive committee who voted for Qatar to host the tournament were later variously convicted in criminal or ethics cases, indicted, acquitted at trial or implicated in wrongdoing.

So even if those besmirched officials were not directly implicated in the Qatar vote -- their sheer number, which is staggering, at a time FIFA was up to its eyeballs in sleaze -- an impartial observer could add two plus two and maybe get four.   

The president of FIFA at that time, Blatter was one of those voters. Still banned from the sport he led for 17 years for various misdeeds, Blatter just last week rose from the dead, once again citing that notorious meeting held one week before the 2 December vote which might have swung the vote in Qatar’s favour. The troika involved then French president Nicholas Sarkozy and French soccer great Michel Platini, then a vice president of FIFA who had a vote. Most strikingly, the crown prince of Qatar, now the emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, was also reportedly there.

Interviewed by a Swiss newspaper, Blatter, now 86, has long said he voted for the US. Blatter’s new news in the interview said the decision to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar was a “mistake”. “It was a bad choice.”

Blatter was not referring to possible voting irregularities; he was talking about Qatar’s geographical size. Qatar is “too small of a country to host the tournament,” he said in the interview. “Football and the World Cup are too big for it.”

Indeed, this year’s World Cup will be staged in a country so small that all 64 games will be held in the Doha area when in past editions the matches were held in several cities.

But Qatar’s other big problem which Blatter did not address its oppressive heat. It is over 50 degrees Celsius in summer which would have been a legitimate reason to strike it off the list of potential candidate countries. But even though those same 24 FIFA execs were well aware that Qatar is an oven, and that it would not miraculously cool down in time for the World Cup, still they voted for it.

Qatar initially proposed to host the finals during the summer in air-conditioned enclosed stadiums, but the plan was rejected because it would not have been able to AC the sidewalks where an anticipated 1.2 million visitors will walk on.

It took Qatar three years to decide to change the tournament to winter, changing the dates from the traditional June-July period to November-December. Thus the World Cup was moved to the northern hemisphere winter for the first time in its history.

The drastic season switch forced football leagues across the world to rearrange their schedules. Instead of the World Cup being played at the end of seasons, it would start in the middle of seasons which would temporarily pause.

It was a logistical nightmare but the changes were eventually made without creating a big mess that was feared. In fact, footballers might look a bit fresher in this Qatar World Cup. Previously, they looked spent at World Cups after completing an entire season in the run-up.

These days, Qatar’s temperature is in the low 30sC which might still force it to AC open-roof stadiums, a move which, as any participant of COP27, being held in Egypt, will tell you, is not exactly environment-friendly.

Speaking of heat, Qatar started feeling a lot of it after its choice as World Cup host sparked scrutiny over its treatment of low-paid migrant workers.

In February 2021, The Guardian said 6,500 workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka had died in Qatar building its stadiums, airport, roads and hotels, many from heat exhaustion. The number is based on figures provided by the countries’ embassies in Qatar.

However, Qatar said the total was misleading, because not all the deaths recorded were of people working on World Cup-related projects. The government said its accident records showed that between 2014 and 2020, there were 37 deaths among labourers at World Cup stadium construction sites, only three of which were “work-related”.

However, in the face of fierce international criticism, Qatar enacted a raft of reforms, including dismantling much of its kafala system, which tied workers to their employers and made it virtually impossible for them to quit or change jobs without permission. It also adopted a minimum monthly wage of around $275 a month, changes praised by the UN as well as rights groups.

Qatar also established its own fund in 2018 to compensate workers who are injured on the job or who are not paid, dolling out some $320 million this year alone.

The LGBTQ issue, though much newer than that of the migrants, has taken a life of its own. Never a burning subject in any previous World Cup, gay rights have captured a big part of this tournament’s centre stage.

There is concern from LGBTQ supporters over how they will be treated in Qatar where same-sex relationships are criminalised.

Sheikh Tamim and others have gone to great lengths to allay fears. “We are opening our doors in Doha to them [visitors] without discrimination,”Tamim told the UN General Assembly in New York last month. Tamim repeated long-standing promises made by his country that all visitors will be welcome “regardless of origin, background, religion, gender, sexual orientation or nationality”.

The pledges have not been enough for LGBTQ groups, some of whom want to express their sexual preferences in full view.

Gay rights descended on Qatar’s World Cup gradually, quickly picking up steam. The movement started small but has jumped from big to huge to a colossus in a very short while. It has also gone way out of proportion.

It has become such a well-oiled, planned, apparently progressive liberal campaign as to suggest it is being orchestrated for the explicit purpose of forcing a Muslim Arab country and by extension, the Islamic world at large, to accept something that goes against Islamic tenets.

Sexual deviations of any kind are banned in Islam. They are a sin. It is haram. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it. The sooner all peoples acknowledge that, respect and accept it, the better things will be.

To shove gay rights down the throat of an Islamic country is not unacceptable. Visitors should respect the country’s conservative culture in which public displays of affection — even among heterosexuals — is taboo. Qatar 2022 chief executive Nasser Al Khater has said the government would not change its laws on homosexuality, requesting visitors to “respect our culture”.

If some don’t, if some refuse to accept the other, wouldn’t that smack of racism? That’s what many perceive is happening in this first World Cup in the Arab and Islamic world.

Despite assurances from the top, the gay community believe they are being unfairly targeted in Qatar. They are not. They are simply being politely asked to tone it down. That is not racism. Racism is when one group of people try their best to defy another, who they think are inferior, and resist accepting their beliefs and values.

Qatar has said all are welcome at the World Cup, including LGBTQ fans. In not so many words, Qatar’s official line on this issue is: do what you want in the privacy of your hotel room but in public, be sensitive to Qatar’s norms and practices which are rooted in Islam. Anybody, regardless of sexual orientation, can visit Qatar and, like the brochure says, enjoy the football and the country, without fear of any sort of repercussions. Just kindly keep the volume and temperature down. That’s not asking for too much.

Assurances from Qatar that this World Cup will embrace diversity and be inclusive has not deterred protests. Eight European teams will have their captains wearing heart-shaped armbands to support an anti-discrimination campaign. Note: The gesture is a clear breach of FIFA rules which prohibit teams from bringing their own armband designs to the World Cup and insist they must use equipment provided by the governing body. The rule violation just goes to show that FIFA, too, has had to twist to the political headwinds.

Denmark’s squad is taking a black team jersey as a sign of “mourning” for those who died in Qatar. Their kit provider said it “does not wish to be visible” in the tournament.

Paris and other French cities are refusing to screen matches in public areas despite France being the defending champions. Barcelona is doing the same.

Qatar and its allies, meanwhile, are getting more confrontational and hitting right back. Last month Sheikh Tamim lashed out at the criticism, describing it as an “unprecedented campaign”.

In a televised speech before the emirate’s legislative body, Tamim said Qatar “has been subjected to an unprecedented campaign that no host country has ever faced.”

Supporting his cause, Tamim got extra strength from FIFA earlier this month when its top officials urged the 32 teams to focus on the game in Qatar and avoid handing out lessons in morality.

Their letter urged teams to “let football take center stage” and not allow football “to be dragged into every ideological or political battle that exists”.

The letter says: “We know football does not live in a vacuum… but it should not be “handing out moral lessons to the rest of the world “.

Because this is the most political World Cup in the modern era, one must squint to see the actual football. On the field the betting is that either Brazil or Argentina will land the trophy. Brazil will enter the World Cup as the top-ranked team, undefeated in South American qualifying and with only five losses in 76 matches.

Argentina have gone 35 games unbeaten with more than just a slew of star attackers led by Lionel Messi.

Europe’s best, meanwhile, have been struggling. England is winless in six games, France and Germany have won only one of their last six games. Euro champions Italy didn’t even qualify. Belgium could be the dark horse.

It is not easy in this World Cup to see the forest for the trees. It is so chock a block full of problems that focusing solely on the one month of matches is near impossible.

And so, Qatar’s 12-year episodic journey to the World Cup -- with all its good and bad -- is about to end while Part II is about to begin.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 November, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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