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.

World Cup draw fails to excite

THE GOLDEN goose is dead, laying on a lakeside in Switzerland or maybe in a desert somewhere. The ghost of World Cups past, with a number 16 on its heavily-sponsored back, tries to warn the stricken bird, but it is too late, FIFA’s premier competition is on the point of exploding, fattened by gavage, choked by excess.

We’ve long known that the World Cup was getting out of hand, but the draw for Qatar 2022 demonstrated just how uninteresting a 32-team format really is. The recipe is simple: 1 seeded nation, carefully shaken and garnished; add a team of nearly men; throw in a hopeful but be careful of the mix; and then to top it off, a makeweight for some artificial colour. That’s what makes a group for the World Cup finals. 

The media desperately tries to find a group of death every time there’s a draw, but it is getting harder and harder. Football has become a game with few shocks these days, be it club football or the international game. England came out with a weak group although nobody wanted to use that word, preferring to call it, “intriguing” or “satisfactory”.

Like the Champions League, the interest only starts to bubble in the World Cup when the group stage is out of the way. For two weeks, the ritual 1-0 or 2-0 slaughtering of weaker sides takes place while the TV pundits, still stuck in a 1970 paradigm, try to persuade us that “watching Brazil is all samba and soccer”. They talk up the preliminaries when by the time the third round of matches is upon us, we have had enough of David v Goliath narratives.

The draw, a prolonged and unnecessary ceremony which really isn’t a case of shaking-up the balls as they just spin around in plastic dishes, was tedious beyond belief. The Avatar-type presenters (including the incredibly rising Jermaine Jenas), were perfectly groomed and scripted. 

While they (pundits, presenters and contracted ambassadors) kept telling us Qatar is a beautiful country (it may well be) and that fans will have a wonderful time if they attend, it was difficult to get out of your mind this is a far from ideal situation. Miguel Delaney of the Independent got it right when he said: “Tantalising World Cup draw adds first layer of gloss to Qatar’s morally bankrupt tournament”.

FIFA’s president Gianni Infantino tried to bring statesmanship into the occasion, calling for leaders to get together to resolve the war in Ukraine while claiming 2022 would see the greatest World Cup of them all as the world becomes united in Qatar. Such naivety really explains why FIFA are in such a mess, losing support and credibility by the tournament. Football has, due to its insatiable appetite for cash at all costs, sold its soul, courting regimes and leaders with very questionable human rights records. Instead of promoting a clean-up of the game, FIFA instead prefers to justify its decision-making process.

And so Qatar continues to divide opinion, but there can be no question some football people do feel uncomfortable about 2022. Will they do anything about it? Let’s not forget that British football has been making gestures for the past few years about issues it feels strongly about, such as taking the knee. The background to the BLM-prompted action came from the problems in the US. In Qatar, society is deeply divided and racism, sexism and homophobia are rife, but we don’t see it across our screens. And yet, this hasn’t moved football to show its displeasure on a grand scale apart from wearing t-shirts of protest. Real action demands brave and unselfish displays, and that would include refusing to support Qatar 2022. Anyone with a social conscience or knowledge of the politics and social climate should find it hard to align themselves to this particular World Cup. The financial benefits are obvious, but did FIFA ever ask itself if awarding hosting rights to Qatar was the right thing to do?