Qatar: Football’s hypocrisy continues

IT WAS a long 12 years ago when Qatar were awarded the hosting rights for the 2022 World Cup. You have to wonder why two FIFA World Cups venues were announced at the same time and, in the case of Qatar, why so far ahead of the event. Perhaps FIFA, aware that there would be no small amount of controversy when handing it to a country with a poor deplorable rights record, were thinking ahead. If the heat got unbearable (no pun intended), they still had time to switch locations.

Secondly, by naming Russia for 2018 (how embarrassing is that now for FIFA?) and Qatar for 2022, they had a perfect distraction for naming Vladimir Putin’s empire as hosts. Most people initially focused on Qatar rather than Russia. Then came the tales of corruption, the confusing narrative and the conspiracy theories. FIFA made two huge errors by selling their soul to Russia and Qatar on December 2, 2010.

Nobody in football should ever feel comfortable about Qatar 2022. Most of all, those with any conscience and scruples should not be looking to sell their values for a few dollars more. Millions of dollars, actually. But they are.

Wearing a few armbands or statement t-shirts will not disguise the fact that football is conveniently discarding its values to allow teams to compete in Qatar. The hypocrisy is appalling – the game goes to great lengths to virtue signal, supporting very visible and kudos-winning causes, making friends with the military and taking sponsorship deals from the gambling industry. Clubs claim they are champions of diversity, community institutions that welcome all sectors of the public. And yet, very few players and club owners have spoken-out about Qatar. We wonder why gay footballers do not “come out” while they are playing, but why would they given so many fans cannot wait to get on a plane to a state that is among the most hostile to homosexuality?

Ian Hislop of the BBC TV satirical programme, Have I Got News for You, tore pundit Gary Neville apart for his decision to work for the Qatari state broadcaster, BeIn during the World Cup. Neville, who seems to have political aspirations and is a respected club owner, was questioned by the pugnacious Hislop and teased about his reputation “coming home”. Simon Jordan of TalkSport, meanwhile, called Neville “a disingenuous, blowhard hypocrite and a barrack room lawyer”.  Neville’s old Manchester United team-mate, David Beckham, is also heading to Qatar and, according to media reports, is being paid £ 15 million for his services. To do what, exactly?

Qatar have certainly put some money behind acquiring “ambassadors” to spread the word, including some fans, who have been given free passes to talk-up Qatar. Others have agreed to a code of conduct that prevents them from singing negative songs while delivering positive messaging.

Moreover, in the past year, the Qatari government has paid £ 250,000 in gifts for British politicians. Qatar also has a hefty property portfolio in Britain worth £ 10 billion, including the eye-catching Shard on the south bank of the River Thames.

Football’s response to a tainted World Cup is quite pathetic, but clearly FIFA feel a little uneasy. Their latest plea is for people to concentrate on football and that the game should not be dragged into idealogical or political battles and it should be handing out moral lessons. That comment in itself underlines the desperation of the governing body who have sat back and watched, even encouraged, football to become a standard bearer for all sorts of causes. Martin Samuel of the Daily Mail was clear in his disgust: “How dare FIFA order stars to leave their morals at home”.

The world has agonised about the poor treatment of migrant workers for years, but the gap between the announcement of Qatar as host in 2010 and 2022 is so long that it was difficult to stage and maintain a campaign of prolonged protest. It has also permitted Qatar (and indeed, FIFA) enough time to mount their defence.

It hasn’t exactly worked very well, although Qatar now has its arsenal of willing and paid-for supporters. And yet there’s still unease about how the influx of fans will fare in a very unfamiliar environment, so much so that Qatari police have been urged to show restraint when dealing with them. The suggestions of corruption won’t go away, either. Only recently, it was revealed by a Swiss intelligence agency that Qatar funded a US$ 387 million operation to gather information and destroy reputations of football executives, including Sepp Blatter. Conversely, there is a degree of naivety in comments from a leading manager that the migrant workers are united in wanting the World Cup in Qatar. More likely, they want to be paid and then the right to go home.

Blaming young footballers isn’t necessarily the right thing to do, although if they had the cojones, they would withdraw from their national squads. However, they are playing at the peak of their profession and World Cups come around every four years. Asking them to sacrifice that opportunity may seem unfair, but these are multi-millionaire sportsmen whose lives will surely not be compromised by missing a World Cup. The real culprits are the people who gave Qatar the World Cup in the first place, but the fans, the media, the clubs and the players certainly had the power to change things.

The calamity of 2018 and 2022 merely confirms football’s status in the modern world; an industry that is willing to take money from whoever wants to push it their way. Furthermore, if it is still the people’s game, the consequences of staging the sport should also be part of the agenda. Depending on who you speak to, too many lives have been lost and compromised in the country that is about to stage the biggest sporting event on the planet. It’s a shame that its reputation has long been tarnished and the longer-term impact will be open for debate for years.

FIFA and UEFA must learn from the Russia and Qatar experience

Football was warned about Russia and is being cautioned over Qatar. For a game that goes to great lengths to virtue signal whenever it can and attach itself to causes, from rainbow laces to food poverty, not to mention the black lives matter campaign, football can be pretty naïve sometimes. Or maybe it is simply seduced by money and bullied by professional politicians?

The latest threat to football’s sanity – and credibility – is crypto currency, snake-oil salesmen are pitching up with their beards, tattoos and baseball caps, calling everyone “guys” and promising to make fans beneficiaries of possibly the greatest example of smoke and mirrors since Danny Kaye sang about a Danish king being in the “altogether”.

But this is merely part of a trend of delusion that has engulfed football for some years. Football’s governing bodies have shown they are more than capable of being attracted to shiny things, such as buckets of money from sponsors or backers that will use the world’s most popular sport to launder their image (if not their money).

FIFA were lambasted for awarding the 2018 World Cup to Russia, UEFA were criticised for allowing Russia’s Gazprom for having such an influence on European football. The Gazprom logo became ubiquitous, their strange, partly-animated TV ads were somewhat ominous for as well as lighting up the Champions League, they also had the power to switch off Europe. The willingness to jump into bed with anyone willing to bring along their wheelbarrows full of cash, not only paints people as foolhardy, it also suggests procedures such as due diligence and reputational risk are severely lacking. Notwithstanding the stupidity of continually expanding competitions, increasing fixture lists and greasing-up to nations with dubious human rights records, most of the sensible world has told FIFA and UEFA, repeatedly, they are making very damaging misjudgements.

Football does have a track record of ridiculous errors. It also swims in a sea of hypocrisy and if footballers in England and other countries were really as savvy as they portray, they would walk away from a winter World Cup in Qatar. But equally, the governing bodies allow themselves to be manipulated and no matter how much they try to talk-up 2022, they have miscalculated the impact Qatar (and indeed, Russia), will have on the long-term reputation of FIFA and football.

Football has to think more about reputational and concentration risk. Two World Cups have damaged the governing bodies but also highlight the game’s habit of easily shelving its values.

Gianni Infantino’s message to Russia after 2018 now looks as pollyanna as Neville Chamberlain’s “peace in our time” demonstration. “You welcomed the world as friends and those bonds of friendship will never be broken. This is not the end, it is only the beginning.” Poor old Gianni, he must be very red-faced when he reads that today. Four years later, Russia is at war with Ukraine and millions of people are suffering.

Sadly, there are precedents to consider, such as the 1936 Olympics where Adolf Hitler’s Germany greeted the world. Three years on, Germany invaded Poland and life was never the same. In 1934, Italy was host nation for the World Cup and a year later, invaded Abyssinia. In 1978, a Junta-led Argentina won their own World Cup and in 1982, took over the Falkland Islands and then went to war with Britain. In the case of Russia, everyone was a little nervous about the 2018 World Cup but equally, came away believing the country had embarked on a charm offensive.

The subsequent events in Ukraine have shown that Vladimir Putin was as genuine as Hitler in his outward displays of affection. As a result, Gazprom has been removed from the FIFA partnership group and Schalke 04 are no longer sponsored by the Russian energy company. The impact of the war has extended to British football, most notably with the sanctions on Chelsea’s former owner Roman Abramovich. While the story has moved on and Chelsea are now in US hands, there should be few complaints about the removal of an owner whose links with the Russian regime are well documented. He helped Gazprom’s growth by selling his stake in Sibneft to the Saint Petersburg-based company.

Gazprom are 51%-owned by the Russian state, so their involvement in football around Europe represents a back-door route into expanding their footprint. Putin’s government has exercised systematic control over many aspects of Russian business, namely banks, petrochemicals and infrastructure. Gazprom does not sell gas to consumers directly, it sells its offering to governments and as the world’s biggest natural gas company, it is accountable for 17% of global production and around 8% of Russian GDP. Conversely, Gazprom is one of the biggest producers of Carbon Dioxide emissions, a fact that has made them unpopular with many people, as evidenced at a football match between Basel and Schalke 04 when a huge banner was unfurled sending a message to the Russians – “Don’t foul the Arctic”.

But Gazprom’s strategy in football has actually been quite transparent. Schalke 04, who Gazprom began sponsoring in 2007, are based in the Ruhrgebeit, an area in Germany that produces vast quantities of coal. Gazprom were involved in negotiations with Germany over the constructions of a Russian-German pipeline. Having dealt with that project, Gazprom looked further south and bought a controlling stake in Naftna Industrija Srbije, Serbia’s state-owned and gas company.  From 2010, they also sponsored Red Star Belgrade, saving the club from bankruptcy while strengthening links in Serbia.

UEFA and FIFA have both embraced Gazprom with such eagerness they must be questioning their practices, such was the scope of their sponsorship that you have to wonder about concentration risk. If Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City (and Newcastle United will come under more pressure with regards to their Saudi Arabian ownership) are highlighted for being state-run or controlled, then surely the governing bodies must face similar criticism. Notwithstanding the World Cup bidding process and how Russia and Qatar won their rights, the involvement of Gazprom must border on a form of state-controlled involvement? If nothing else, it also smacks of concentration risk to have such a presence from one company.

Going forward, both UEFA and FIFA will need to implement far greater intensity around their compliance operations and the basic principles behind placing trust in suspect regimes. This is, after all, not just a case of holding a football tournament, FIFA’s reputation is at stake, and no amount of money can buy a good name once you have lost your credibility. Football needs a strong regulator, robust and value-driven leadership and a clear understanding of what right and wrong look like. In an era of mistrust and scrutiny of business, social and political practices, football should be no different.