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FIFA World Cup, Qatar 2022: Reflections of an invested fan

16th December 2022

Note: These are my personal opinions, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my employer, Major Events International (MEI)

Qatar could be sprinting towards a bright future as part of the world community- if only they stopped shooting themselves in the foot!

As a fan with more than a passing interest in the delivery of major events, I thought it would be valuable for some (it is ambitious to hope that FIFA will take note, but you never know!) for me to reflect on my experience here in Doha having been fortunate enough to travel here to attend the FIFA World Cup between the 27th November and 10th December (the end of the group matches to the Quarter Finals). Thank you, Rodrigo and Alex, for your hospitality, and for Dennis Mill my CEO for giving me the freedom to make this happen.

Prologue: I have pondered long and hard about why the Western press became so vehement in their anti-Qatari rhetoric prior to (really, from the moment of the announcement in 2010- although at this time the vitriol was directed at FIFA and the accusations of a rigged bid) and even during the event. I have spoken to members of the Supreme Committee about this, to members of FIFA, to Qataris, to fans, to migrant workers and to members of the press. As ever, the answer is nuanced, but my hope is that the reality of fans’ experience and the power of social media will wash away some of the hater-rhetoric and provide at least a little balance to those entrenched in their anti-Qatar views. I declare a significant swing from a ‘fence-sitter’ to aggressive Qatar-advocate. Blatter should have stuck to his guns. His ‘about turn’ suggesting that Qatar was the “wrong place” to hold the World Cup because it was ‘too small’ simply highlights his hypocrisy and his ability to totally miss the point. The reality is that FIFA made an inspired decision to award Qatar the 2022 World Cup (whatever the truth behind their motives!) More than a decade in advance of the tournament, when Qatar was nowhere near ready (indeed, it was not ready 6 months ago!) FIFA bought into the Qatar2030 Vision and decided that their World Cup would be a great catalyst to help the State on its way to taking its place on the world stage. That is the ‘generous’ interpretation. The rumours are that there were many promises of Qatari investment into French infrastructure (PSG) and French fighter jets which, it is rumoured, helped secure all of Michel Platini’s influence and therefore a chunk of FIFA votes; and, of course, the well-documented ‘incentives’ to other National Federations (and their representatives) which, it seems, unfortunately was simply a necessary part of the lobbying game. Let’s not be naïve and think that Russia didn’t ‘buy’ votes for the 2018 World Cup, and that this was just endemic within the system- is this the fault of the bidder, or of the corrupt process which allows bungs to play a role? Thanks to the rigorous attentions of the CIA, this era of corruption is coming to an end. Inshallah!

Blatter’s concern that Qatar was geographically unsuitable to host a World Cup, voiced at the start of the tournament is, ironically, its major selling point. When again will the fans of 32 nations celebrate this festival of football in such a small area? The pleasure of seeing every other person on the street wearing a football shirt; the good-humoured tit for tat chanting of groups of fans; the fact that on every street corner the conversation is spiced with football banter, is what has made this event so unique and wonderfully immersive. This has been a city ‘take-over’ like no other. Everyone has loved it: fans, Qataris and yes, whisper it, migrant workers (I know I have spoken to loads of them, unlike, it would seem, anyone from the Western press!). There have been no major crowd incidents; the security and crowd management has been exemplary (due, in large part, to the expertise of a number of MEI members). It’s been a brilliant, colourful, melting pot of fan exuberance and my redeeming memory of the last couple of weeks will be of three sets of fans exchanging good-humoured chants up and down the length of two metro carriages, with everyone else capturing the spontaneous joy on social media. Everyone talks about the power of social media. Let’s hope it has the power to blow away the national media bias that clouded the build-up. This was the very best of an international major sporting event: uniting different creeds and colours, and yes, sexual persuasions, under the banner of a love for the beautiful game and the commonality of tribal passions. It will not have changed the Qatari view of LGBTplus community, which they tolerate, but are not prepared to ‘recognise’ and encourage due mainly to their deep-seated Islamic beliefs, but it has changed Qatari rules for migrant workers and also helped pan Arabic relations. And, most importantly, the football has been great!

But I digress: back to the question at hand and why the Western press have been so anti-Qatar22. There is stuff I have learned. According to my sources, who understand the geo-political dynamics far better than I do, the Emiratis (Abu Dhabi, Dubai etc) have no love for Qatar. They hate the fact that this up-start State chose to snub their ‘gang’, that Doha is beginning to challenge the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as the destination of choice for summer sun and Western euros/ pounds, and the power and reach of Qatar’s media channel, Al Jazeera. And let’s not forget the old grudges that go back generations. This region is tribal; it was not so very long ago that the various Bedouin families battled with guns for land and influence. Now, it seems, they battle with media manipulation- some more effectively than others. This feeds the flames of the ‘headline-chasing’, woke-leaning Western press. Sensationalism sells, good intentions and a story of ‘year on year improvement’ does not. That’s a potent combination. Qatari naivete and their undoubted weakness in some areas of human rights have made them vulnerable in the face of it. They have done little to help themselves and so often they have got their press relations badly wrong.

I do wonder whether FIFA could have been a bit more supportive here (and I do believe this is a good lesson for any International Sports Federation), but Qatari arrogance has not helped. FIFA should have seen this coming and invested in the best press relations team to address the issues and the crisis PR from the day that Blatter opened that envelope in Zurich in 2010. Maybe they did, and the Qataris just ignored the advice. This has cost them dearly and, in my opinion, it’s also cost them an Olympics in the foreseeable future (not in my lifetime for sure).

Qatar many has points of weakness, it is far from perfect. There is plenty wrong with the system here. Let’s deal with the elephants in the room one at a time: Yes, it is illegal for unmarried couples to have sex in a hotel room; yes, it is illegal to be gay (just as it was in England when we held our World Cup), but are those laws applied? No, they are not. The reality is so very different from the literal interpretation of the law. How many people are fined in the UK for parking facing traffic without their lights on? None. Yet it is illegal to do so (I know, who knew?). Every Qatari and migrant worker I spoke to explained that there was a tolerance and acceptance of the LGBT plus community, “providing they keep themselves to themselves”. Are explicit shows of affection culturally acceptable? No, they are not. Might you get arrested for having sex (hetro or homo) on the beach? Probably, yes! But would you go into someone’s house that you knew had strong conservative views and start having sex on their living floor? I think not.

It should be understood that Qatari law, like so much of the Middle East, is deeply enmeshed with its Islamic laws. The West has been working to demarcate the laws of the Bible from our State laws for hundreds of years. Henry VIII accelerated this considerably with his desire for a legitimate heir and his lust for the Church’s wealth. In the Middle East this process is only just starting, and the law may never become as become as secular as things are in the West. This is a country where, on their holy day (Friday), you see hundreds of men praying in the streets outside of the mosque as there is simply no room left inside. This is not a problem our churches have had to deal with for quite some while! Qatar has to move slowly changing its laws as there remains a strong conservative faction here that does not want them to change at all. Move too fast and the whole momentum towards greater social enlightenment will be reversed. The whole house of liberal cards will come tumbling down. Look at what happened in Iran! Mammon was a stronger force than Allah in Dubai, but the Qataris have more integrity than that.

So to finally despatch this particular elephant from the room: The LGBT plus community would have felt very welcome at this World Cup- providing they were not shouting loud demanding rights for their brothers and sisters here in Qatar (again, you do not come into someone’s house as a guest and immediately start criticising the rules that make that house tick and the beliefs of the owners). They should not have been scared off by the press (indeed, this culture is incredibly tolerant of same sex handholding, and I have seen far more of it here than in London). However, the indigenous LGBT plus community continues a long and painful journey for acceptance in a culture where The Qur’an will, for many, many years to come, trump a ‘love me for what I am’ philosophy. Even the more liberal Qatari’s I spoke to insisted that being gay was a ‘choice’ or an ‘illness’. They reminded me of my father and his generation. I would respectfully remind the LGBT plus community of the parable of the wind and the sun having a wager about who could remove the coat of a man. There is a lesson there.

 

And so, to the other elephant in the room- that of migrant workers’ rights. Here I become apoplectic at the sensationalism of the Guardian’s ‘6,000 migrant workers die because of the World Cup’ story. This much-quoted figure may well be accurate. But it applies to a 12 year period (2010 to 2012), its focus group (which comprises about 75% of the whole population) do not generally live healthy life-styles; the working conditions and safety protocols are far inferior in their home nations to those of Qatar (meaning that they are not culturally pre-disposed to considering their own safety however much it is stressed in safety briefings) and, most importantly, it covers all types of deaths from heart attacks, to car accidents, to de-hydration, not just those workers working on a stadium build project. When all these factors are taken into consideration, this number seems slightly less sensational. Plus, it was explained to me (by a non-Qatari who has lived here for many years, and knows what he is talking about), that many workers prefer to live in impoverished conditions so that they can maximise the amount of money being sent home to their families. Qatar is giving them the opportunity to better their lives, and those of their families which, with our prevailing ‘anti-migrant’ attitude is more than I can say we are doing at home.

But we return to the Qatari reaction to the accusations, which was limp at best and totally ill-judged at worst. When you own the press, I guess press relations is just not something you consider. That is where FIFA should have come in.

In a microcosm of the issue. When asked about the death of a worker on a site aligned with a training camp (as an aside, would the organising committee of any European major event ever have been quizzed so vociferously about a similar incident had it happened here?), the Qatari spokesman replied flippantly about (I am paraphrasing here) the fact that ‘death happens’ and ‘it is just one of those things’ and (aggressively defensive) ‘why are you asking me about this in the midst of a wonderful tournament’…a PR disaster! It does not take a communications genius to work out how this response should have been managed. I just wish the Supreme Committee had paid for better communications advice, or listened to the advice they were given. A shot in the foot- just like the being gay is ‘damage in the mind’ comment made by a SC representative on ZDF. Oh dear Qatar. If only you had been taught how to play the game.

And so enough with the spleen venting and back to the tournament itself: what went well and what could be improved. I’ve droned on for long enough, so I will revert to bullet points.

What went well:

Where FIFA and Qatar could have done better (in my humble opinion) and lessons for the future.

It is not often that I find myself saying this, but I fully agree with Piers Morgan: (99+) Post | LinkedIn