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.

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? 

Soccer City: Doha – controversial World Cup base

QATAR’s World Cup is rapidly approaching and there will doubtless be renewed protests about FIFA’s choice of host before the competition kicks off in November. Football is supposedly the most popular sport in Qatar and the national team was crowned Asian champions back in 2019, beating Japan in the United Arab Emirates. Doha, the capital, dominates local football, hardly surprising given around 80% of the country’s population resides there.

The western perception of Qatar has not been positive, hence the strength of feeling about their hosting the World Cup. While some might claim there is an element of Islamophobia about this, it is predominantly down to Qatar’s human rights record. Other critics of 2022 merely believe that a country with an average temperature of 28 degrees and a summer peak approaching 50 is far from being an ideal place to hold a major competition. The only way it could really happen was by moving away from the traditional summer calendar for the World Cup and staging it in the European winter, which will bring major disruption to domestic league programmes. The stadiums will have technology to ensure players and spectators are comfortable – we’ve come a long way since Mexico was viewed as a dangerous place for the Olympics and World Cup due to the altitude and climate.

Qatar is determined to give the World Cup its best shot, however, and their own team will go into the competition as Asian champions. But World Cup officials feel very aggrieved that sentiment has been so negative and point to the countless investigations that have taken place looking into the hosting process and any signs of corruption. There are issues that just won’t go away no matter how much they complain, such as the treatment of migrant workers and zero tolerance towards homosexuality, but unless something dramatic happens, Qatar 2022 is going ahead.

Doha, understandably, is the centre of the Qatar economy and is the headquarters of Qatar Petroleum, Qatargas and RasGas. Oil and natural gas are the major industries of Qatar and the country is a top four producer of the latter. Unsurprisingly, Qatar is one of the worst places in the world for air pollution and one of the highest emitters of carbon dioxide per person.

Doha clubs have won 40 of the 57 seasons of the Qatar Stars League. The most successful team, Al-Sadd, has been the club of the upper classes in Qatar. Founded in 1969, they have been champions 16 times and have won the AFC Champions League twice, in 1989 and 2011. Little wonder their nickname is Al Zaeem, which means “the boss”. The Qatar squad that won the Asian Cup included nine players from Al-Sadd.

Al-Sadd have just won the league for the second successive season and finished unbeaten, as they did in 2021. They won 20 of their 22 games and scored 80 goals, conceding just 24. They started the campaign managed by Barcelona legend Xavi, who left Al-Sadd to rejoin his old club in November 2021. His replacement was Javi Gracia and the Spanish connection also includes Santi Cazorla, the former Arsenal and Villareal midfielder. The prize for winning the Qatar Stars League is the Falcon Shield, which may sound like a superhero tool, but underlines the popularity and importance of falconry in the region – it is the national bird of Qatar.

Al-Arabi, founded in 1952, is the second oldest club in Qatar and their crest features a ceremonial falcon. They’ve been champions seven times, although you have to go back to 1997 for the last time they won the title. Their fans are very passionate, especially when they come up against their closest rivals, Al-Rayyan.

Al-Sadd’s big rivals are Al-Duhail, known as the “Red Knights” and only founded in 2009 as Lekhwiya. The club, apparently, has the biggest playing budget in Qatar. Included in their squad is former Tottenham defender and Belgian international Toby Alderweireld. Al-Duhail finished runners-up to Al-Saad in the league but held their Doha rivals to two draws. They also knocked Al-Saad out of the Emir Cup at the semi-final stage. Al-Duhail have long been considered the club of the working class people and have won the Qatar Stars League seven times, the most recent being in 2019-20. Another Doha club who haven’t won the league for a long time are Al-Ahli, a relatively well supported outfit who claim to be the oldest club in Qatar. Founded in 1950, their trophy cabinet has never been full, the only major prize they’ve won is the Emir Cup, which they have lifted four times. Qatar SC, based at Doha’s Suheim bin Hamad Stadium, dates back to 1961 from a merger of two clubs and have won the league three times, the most recent success in 2003.

There will be three stadiums in Doha that will be used for the World Cup: the innovative Stadium 974, constructed from recycled shipping containers with a capacity of 40,000; the Al-Thumama, another 40,000 arena inspired by the taqiyah hat; and the recently converted Khalifa International Stadium. All are very eye-catching designs and in the case of the 974, after the World Cup it will be dismantled and sent to Africa. The construction process has not been without its problems, though, as there have been a number of deaths among the workforce, the exact details of which vary from witness to witness. This has been one of the main arguments against Qatar hosting the tournament.

We are told Qatar is a football-mad country, but the crowds for the Qatar Stars League are poor and issues such as climate have been cited as a deterrent.  In 2019-20, for example, Al-Sadd averaged around 1,500 and Al-Gharafi just 266. Qatar, the nation, clearly has an interest, as seen with the takeover of Paris Saint-Germain and other club sponsorship deals. They’ve made progress in encouraging women’s football and have installed academies to develop young talent, but no matter how many well-known names they engage to tell everyone the World Cup is going to be great, not everyone is buying it.