The Middle East Channel

Qatar’s moment of glory brings cheers and challenges

View a slide show of Qataris celebrating getting the World Cup For much of the last three years, Qatar has been an outsider in the contest to host the 2022 World Cup. In the closing stages of the race, British bookmakers slashed their odds and made it the favorite. Someone somewhere knew something, and they ...

AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images

View a slide show of Qataris celebrating getting the World Cup

For much of the last three years, Qatar has been an outsider in the contest to host the 2022 World Cup. In the closing stages of the race, British bookmakers slashed their odds and made it the favorite. Someone somewhere knew something, and they were right. Qatar, a small Persian Gulf country of just 1.7 million people, will be hosting football’s top tournament 12 years hence. This is an intriguing and important moment, for 2022 will be the first global sporting mega-event to be held in an Arabic-speaking or predominately Muslim country. In an era of globalization, this is no sideshow, but the most watched event on the planet. Cumulative viewing figures for each of the last few World Cups exceeded 25 billion. Moreover, football — or soccer, for you Yanks — is incredibly popular in the region, played and watched more than any other sport.

How did they do it? Qatar has barely any indigenous tradition of playing football, relying as it does in almost every sphere of life on imported skills and labor. It faced fearsome opposition from the United States and Australia.  Of all the technical bids for the 2022 World Cup, Qatar’s had the most problems and concerns according to FIFA’s own technical committees. But then this decision was never about practicalities, it was about politics. The Qataris won in part because they threw a gigantic amount of their oil money at the problem and are promising to spend much more. They also won because their bid team knew how to play the personal politics of the FIFA executive committee to perfection. Most important of all, their victory sprang from the confluence of two political agendas already put into motion.

FIFA, whose member associations are predominantly from the global south and whose executive committee has a truly global mix, appears to have switched from profit maximization — which would have led them to choose England for 2018 and the United States for 2022 — to global reach and patronage as its main concerns. Beginning with the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, FIFA is taking its circus to the new zones of power and wealth in the world: Brazil in 2014, Russia in 2018, and then Qatar in 2022.

Qatar, like many other gulf states, has been pursuing an economic and political agenda through building sports infrastructure and hosting global sports tournaments. Most conspicuously, neighboring Dubai has been building a $4 billion multi-stadium sports city complex, is home to the international federations that run cricket and hockey, and has hosted global golf and tennis tournaments. Abu Dhabi and Bahrain have their Formula 1 grand prixs and the United Arab Emirates now hosts the World Football Club Championship, too.

Slide show: Qataris celebrate getting the World Cup

Qatar will now upstage all of that.

The country has already built sufficient infrastructure in hosting the multi-sport Asian games in 2006 and has attracted tournaments on the global tennis, power boat, football and handball circuits. As well as drawing in tourists, anchoring urban development projects and providing immense global exposure, sports offer a rare space in which the conservative and particularistic cultures of the gulf can engage with the modernizing and universalist forces of global commercial athletics.

So what kind of World Cup can we expect in Qatar? How will Qatar engage with the world and what might the world make of it? The central issue for the Qatari bid, far more significant than its size or location, is the weather. The daytime temperature exceeds 110 degrees Fahrenheit for much of June and July when the tournament is played; it drops only to the 80s at night, if at all. FIFA’s own report went as far as to suggest that this presented a real health and safety hazard for players and fans.

The Qataris responded with an audaciously hi-tech proposal claiming that they will play most games at night and build 10 zero-carbon, air-conditioned stadiums. After the tournament, part or all of these facilities will be dismantled and reassembled in the developing world. The same kind of largesse is promised for all the other infrastructural elements of the tournament. It will entail air-conditioned walkways, a mammoth program of light-rail and roads, and a vast international media center.  

Nonetheless, there are concerns that have been flagged on the horizon from the get-go, including Israel and gay rights. On the former, Israeli sports people have already competed in Qatar and despite Qatar’s diplomatic non-recognition of Israel, there is no official problem with them competing should they qualify. How the rest of the Middle East might feel remains to be seen. As for the latter, while homosexuality is illegal in Qatar (which will undoubtedly cause consternation to many Westerners), football itself remains one of the main bastions of homophobia outside the Middle East. As there isn’t a single out gay professional player globally, the football world is hardly in a position to protest.

Another potential roadblock concerns alcohol. Although the relationship between football and alcohol is stronger in some cultures than others, the World Cup has always had a brewer amongst its sponsors and an official World Cup beer. There will be no change in Qatar, but the country’s strict alcohol laws mean that drinks will only be served indoors in expensive licensed premises and public drunkenness will remain a crime. Of course, this may not be a deal-breaker — Dubai has demonstrated that it’s possible to reconcile conservatism on alcohol and successful tourism by the large numbers of British tourists it attracts, most of whom like a drink. But one wonders how many potential visitors will nonetheless be put off by this atmosphere.

That may be a blessing in disguise, for it is far from clear that Qatar has the hotel capacity to deal with them. Of course, at the five-star end of the scale, where squads and FIFA officials will be relaxing, there is no shortage at all; but at the cheap end of the market — served in South Africa last summer by individuals, guest houses, and camp sites — there is virtually nothing.

One of the pleasures of any World Cup is the way in which locals and visitors mingle in and transform public space; the essence of a sense of carnival and festivity. In Qatar, however, public space is pretty thin on the ground. Given Qatar’s climate and the ways in which anyone with money lies in an air-conditioned bubble of home, transport, shopping and offices, there isn’t much demand for it. The bid promises alcohol-free fun zones with some kind of open air air-conditioning, but it’s hardly the mile long fan zone in Berlin in 2006 that pulsated with a million people.

Such concerns notwithstanding, my guess is that Qatar 2022 will, if the air conditioning holds, just about work. It is also likely to be the most highly policed, security conscious, controlled, sanitized and regulated World Cup to date. Yet it may also enchant and surprise us — football’s endless capacity to disrupt the most carefully laid plans, to open up fractures in the corporate mask, to expose societies to themselves and each other, persists. We are lucky to have a game that can both illuminate our wider social order and even on occasion offer resistance to it. It is a combustible and precious inheritance that FIFA holds in trust for humanity, a role that requires that the institution be held accountable to the highest standards of openness, transparency, and probity in international governance. 

Sadly, on all of these counts, FIFA’s current record is a disgrace, its leadership is tarnished and its processes are indefensible. As we know, the 24-member body of the FIFA executive committee, which gave the world cup to Qatar, were reduced to 22 after the Sunday Times investigation into corruption at FIFA forced two members to be suspended. On the eve of Thursday’s vote, BBC Panorama screened a program offering strong evidence that three more members of the committee had received kickbacks from ISL, FIFA’s old and now bankrupt marketing partner. The accusations were serious enough for the International Olympic Committee to order an investigation of Issa Hayatou, FIFA’s vice president and a member of the IOC. But not serious enough for FIFA to do anything.

Qatar may turn out to have been a good, even an inspired decision, but we simply cannot go on allowing these decisions to be made by these kinds of people in this kind of way. Among the political and football elites of the losers, there is finally some open sense that the game has been rigged and that FIFA has acquired an unhealthy degree of unregulated autonomy. The decision to go to Qatar in 2022 is a milestone in the inclusion of the Middle East in the global community, but let us hope it is also a milestone in the reform of FIFA and all of our institutions of global governance.

David Goldblatt is a writer and broadcaster, and author of ‘The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer‘ (Riverhead Press 2008).

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola