Qatar 2022: A desert World Cup blighted by a dust-storm of controversy
‘Now is All’ is the official Qatar World Cup slogan. A message, perhaps, to focus on the present – and the on-field action that is about to begin. To move on from the past. If only it were that simple.
It says a great deal that Qatar 2022 is considered by many to be the most controversial sports mega-event in a very long time. After all, the competition for such a title is considerable.
Over the past 20 years, China has twice played host to the Olympics. In the past decade, meanwhile, Russia has staged both the Winter Games and the 2018 football World Cup.
Yet despite the scale of the human rights atrocities that both those countries stand accused of – and fears such events have been used to embolden their autocratic regimes – it is arguably Qatar that has provoked most dismay and anger during the 12 years since world governing body Fifa shocked the world by handing it the right to organise football’s showpiece event.
A key ally of the West – unlike China and Russia – and now reportedly the 10th biggest landowner in the UK, with Heathrow, Harrods and the Shard among its many British investments, as well as an increasingly important supplier of gas as the UK struggles with rising energy costs, Qatar insists the notoriety of its World Cup is unfair.
The promise is this first Middle Eastern World Cup will be a spectacular, ground-breaking tournament that should be celebrated. An event that will welcome all, grow the sport, inspire youth, boost tourism, diversify the country’s economy, and promote sustainability. And with regional tensions partly eased by the lifting of an economic blockade by Qatar’s neighbours last year, there are hopes it could also prove a unifying force.
But there is no denying the build-up to this tournament has been especially troubled.
The bid and the fallout
As soon as the since-disgraced former Fifa president Sepp Blatter announced Qatar’s victory back in 2010, there was deep suspicion over how precisely this tiny desert state – with no history in the World Cup, and scorching summer temperatures – had won.
Allegations of corruption, vote-swapping, and links to trade deals at the highest levels of government have always been denied by organisers and remain unproven.
But it cannot be overlooked that of the 22 Fifa executive committee members who voted on that fateful day 12 years ago, with two other officials already suspended at the time after a newspaper expose that alleged the pair had asked for cash in return for World Cup votes, most have since been accused, banned or indicted over allegations of corruption and wrongdoing.
As recently as 2020 – as part of the FBI’s vast corruption probe into the governing body – US prosecutors accused three former senior Fifa officials of receiving bribes for voting in favour of Qatar.
Qatar was cleared of corruption by Fifa several years ago, but many people have made their minds up, believing the country effectively bought the World Cup. Blatter himself has suggested the vote was partly the result of an arms deal between the country and France.
There was then concern over how players and fans would cope with the extreme summer temperatures they were originally told they would face, followed by exasperation over the unprecedented upheaval the subsequent rescheduling of the event has caused the football calendar. There have been worries over player welfare as a result of squeezing it into the middle of the European season, and the security operation in an Islamic country with strict rules over alcohol, and no experience of policing anything on this scale.
The environmental impact of the tournament is another issue. Fifa admits Qatar 2022 will leave a much bigger carbon footprint than any other World Cup, in one of the world’s least sustainable countries. But experts are now suggesting emissions could be three times the official estimate, undermining claims this will be the first ‘carbon neutral’ World Cup.
Organisers insist, however, that sustainability is at the heart of their tournament – pointing to the fact this World Cup is the most ‘compact’ ever, with it effectively taking place in one city, along with a fleet of electric buses, and an off-setting and carbon credits programme.
There is also the legacy of the tournament’s eight stadiums to consider. Seven new stadiums have been built. One, made from storage containers and named Stadium 974, will be dismantled at the end of the tournament and six others will be repurposed with some becoming hotels or community spaces.
There is also uncertainty about the fan experience in Qatar. Apartments, hotel rooms, desert camping, villas, fan villages and even cabins on moored cruise ships have been made available.
But some fans have complained of limited and expensive accommodation options. Organisers are making 30,000 extra rooms available, which they say is the equivalent of one million nights and will help provide 130,000 rooms in all.
However, it remains unclear whether that will be enough to meet demand.
Migrant worker deaths and LGBT fears
Most damaging to the reputation of the event have been persistent fears over the human toll of building the infrastructure required in such a short period of time and in such a climate, along with discriminatory laws which prohibit homosexuality, and curtail women’s freedoms through male guardianship rules.
The authorities say there have been three ‘work-related’ deaths on actual stadium construction sites since work began in 2014 – and 37 more off-site fatalities that are not ‘work related’. The Supreme Committee vows worker welfare is a priority.
Official figures show 15,000 non-Qataris died in the country between 2010 and 2019.
The authorities insist that figure is commensurate with the size of the migrant workforce. But how many of those deaths were linked to work – and whether that work was linked to the World Cup – is both disputed, and unclear.
Human rights campaigners say thousands of deaths are effectively unexplained because of a lack of investigation. Last year, the Guardian found 6,500 migrant workers from five countries – India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal – had died between 2010 and 2020, with 69% of the deaths among Indian, Nepali and Bangladeshi workers attributed to natural causes.
Regardless of the official statistics, or recent labour reforms, campaigners insist this tournament will always be blood-stained.
Meanwhile, organisers have always maintained all visitors will be welcome regardless of race, religion, gender or sexuality, but they have also said they expect their laws and culture to be respected, and many LGBT fans say they have not received the assurances over safety that they needed. Foreign Secretary James Cleverly was criticised for urging gay fans to show some “flex and compromise”, and since then the Sports Minister, Stuart Andrew, has “sought assurances” from the Qatar authorities.
A recent report by Human Rights Watch saying members of Qatar’s LGBTQ+ community were detained and physically abused by the country’s security services has done little to ease the tension. Nor did a World Cup ambassador’s much-criticised comments that homosexuality is “damage in the mind”. How all this can be reconciled with the promise of a ‘World Cup for all’ remains unclear.
Can the World Cup bring social change?
Qatar 2022 has certainly forced sport to consider to what extent such tournaments can bring about social change, whether compromise is incumbent on the host country – or those who visit – and the tensions that arise when global events expand into new territories.
It is hard to argue that hosting major sports events in Russia and China, for instance, was a catalyst for change.
Most agree amendments to Qatar’s labour system in recent years – with more protection for workers, a minimum wage and the dismantling of the ‘kafala’ sponsorship system – have only happened because of the greater international scrutiny that has accompanied the World Cup.
However, human rights groups also say these are yet to be fully implemented. And they are dismayed by the failure to set up a Migrant Worker Centre, and a compensation fund for the families of those killed or injured.
Equally, while some politicians and fans have said they will not travel to Qatar on principle, and some European cities have said they will not show matches in public places in protest at human rights abuses, there are those who believe it is much better to take the World Cup to conservative Muslim countries like this and shine a light.
But many see it as hypocritical of Fifa to state a commitment to non-discrimination in its statutes, while at the same time awarding the World Cup to hosts where it is against the law for some people to simply be themselves.
Would it not be better, it is often asked, for equal rights to be a condition of staging such events – or at least considered? There was no mention of worker or human rights in Fifa’s evaluation of the Qatar bid back in 2010, for example. Should demands over protections not have been put in place then?
‘Focus on football’
It is a sign of the emotions that swirl around this event, and the divisions it has caused, that some of the game’s highest-profile names have found themselves drawn into these debates.
Former England defender Gary Neville, for instance, has been criticised for agreeing to commentate at the World Cup for a Qatar-owned TV network, while close friend David Beckham has drawn similar opprobrium – including Eric Cantona, another Manchester United great – for accepting a lucrative ambassadorial role for the event.
Fifa, meanwhile, sparked an outcry by urging competing teams to “focus on football”, rather than getting “dragged into every ideological or political battle”.
With Russia already banned, there are also calls for the exclusion of Iran, whose drones are believed to be being used by Moscow to terrorise Ukrainian civilians, and which has launched a crackdown on protesters following the death of a young woman in the custody of the state’s morality police.
Meanwhile, with a host of teams taking stands via videos, training tops and armbands, perhaps Fifa was worried about how and where to draw the line. No country is perfect, after all. And its stance received support from the football confederations of both Asia and South America.
But as 10 European football associations suggested as they responded in a joint statement, in an era when players are increasingly keen to express their views on social and political issues, and human rights are regarded as universal and non-negotiable, Fifa’s request that teams stay silent seems increasingly unrealistic.
The hosts will be banking on the narrative shifting – as it always seems to do – once the action gets under way. But if, as many have concluded, this is an example of ‘sportswashing’ – an attempt to use sport to project a positive image of the country – a testament to its wealth and power – is it backfiring?
Over the past two years, much of the world’s attention has been diverted – first by Covid, then the war in Ukraine. But in recent weeks, as the tournament has loomed into view, there has been a barrage of negative headlines, from reports of secret hacking operations to the revelation that fans were being paid to ‘spy’ on their friends – something that was denied by the tournament’s organisers.
The increasingly exasperated Qatari authorities have started to suggest their critics are not only hypocritical but perhaps even motivated by racism.
The motto their bid team used in 2010 was ‘Expect Amazing’. Maybe they did not expect the constant scrutiny a winning vote would bring.
And now, more than a decade on, as this World Cup in the desert finally gets under way, many will find it truly amazing if this event is ultimately remembered more for the football, than the ferocious dust-storm of controversy that has preceded it. (BBC Sport)