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:
Holding the tournament in Qatar, which effectively is Doha: the unique intensity of the tournament. All stadia (and therefore fans) cocooned within a 40sqm bubble.
The tournament as a catalyst. Doha reportedly spent $220 billion on the tournament. But that is rubbish. They spent approx. $25 billion on preparing for the event (including building 7 stadia and refurbishing one) and approx. $195 billion on city infrastructure such as a new airport, new roads and the metro. This is the legacy of an ambitious country that wants to compete with the likes of Singapore and Dubai, and wants to improve their infrastructure for its people, and the workers it welcomes to its shores- and help them to thrive. ‘Thrive’, it should be remembered, is a relative term.
The positive effect on ‘football’ in the Middle East. It was about time the Middle East had the chance to host a World Cup and there will be a strong legacy for the love of the sport amongst the next generation I am sure, especially in light of Morocco’s miraculous run. So many Arabs have told me how their sons and daughters have been inspired to play football by the tournament.
The timing- the weather was not too hot; warm enough for fans to watch the matches and enjoy the restaurants al fresco. The quality of the football is, I believe, a testament to the fact that holding the tournament in the middle, rather than at the end, of the European seasons means that most of the best players in the world are not totally knackered by the time it starts!
The city activation. Doha was stunning- especially at night. The fan zones were accessible and well-organised (although more of those football-type bean bags would have been appreciated). There really was a football festival atmosphere with everyone (fans, Qataris and migrant workers) wearing football shirts, with cultural events and street artists dotted around the city (again, you can only do this at this scale if all the matches are concentrated in one city)
The city branding/furniture. Whoever won the contract for branding the temporary barriers will be able to buy a small island. But they looked great, and the city as a whole (especially at night) looked stunning with football related iconography. All part-built buildings in the centre were draped to cover up the scaffolding. The effect was to create a canvass onto which the story of the tournament was written.
The mascot. La’eeb was everywhere- on 3D screens, merchandise and on head-dresses. I think that he/she/it really captured the spirit of the tournament.
The transport. The metro was/is brilliant: Spotless and efficient. The bus shuttles were faultless: regular, courteous and helpful drivers, clean and uncrowded. Well done TMS Global.
The Stadia- without exception stunning in design and access (accept perhaps Al Bayt, which was a bit of a pain to get to).
The ‘Games-makers’ or, as they were be-decked, the ‘Event Team’. Ubiquitous, helpful and fun. The soundtrack to this tournament for anyone who attended will be, ‘Metro dis way- metrooo dissss way- met ro dis wayyyyyy’ (you had to be here!). I spoke to lots of them. They are on 3-month contracts and have been recruited from Africa and Asia. Their flights, food and accommodation are all provided- and they have the ability to save money to take back to their home countries. Without exemption, they were all delighted to have been given the opportunity to work in Doha.
Qatar’s generosity to fans: free metro, free access to all museums (except the main 2), free maps, the massive investment in human resources to help fans and to keep them safe and in those temporary barriers.
The safety and security forces- again, significantly ubiquitous and always helpful and courteous (often seen taking selfies of themselves in front of stadia- loved that!)
The drink ban in stadia (yes, you heard that right!) I think it made for a more family and fan-friendly event, rather than a boozed-up hooligan-centric event. There are many leagues around the world that do not allow booze in stadia, what’s the big deal? If you want to watch football, come to the stadium. If you want to get pissed- go to a bar (there are plenty in Qatar!).
The cooling of heated pan Arabic relations. Brilliant to see the Qataris celebrating Saudi success. The blockade of Qatar by the Saudi-led consortium was only broken in 2021. The World Cup has helped embed closer working relations across the region and a significant Saudi delegation has been hosted in Qatar transferring the knowledge of what it takes to host a mega event. That’s a great legacy.
Positive migrant workers’ rights. And yes, there have been some. The ambition of entering into the world’s limelight has amounted to the world’s spotlight being shone in the areas of human rights abuses. The World Cup has been a catalyst for change- not as fast as Guardian readers would like- but let us not focus on what has not been achieved, but on what has been achieved (such as the withdrawal of the Khafala system and – though still a long way to go- the improvement of migrant workers’ wages and conditions). A possible attempt at sports-washing has ended up with Qatar being forced to wash their dirty laundry in public. The press could have been more balanced in their reporting, and Qatar could have handled their comms better, but the corollary is that things have improved and, with the good-spirited city take-over of ‘low moral fibre’ Western types, hopefully the more extreme Qatari conservatives may have moved a little closer to the centre.
The falafel sandwiches!
Where FIFA and Qatar could have done better (in my humble opinion) and lessons for the future.
The optics; controlling the narrative; under-estimating the vehemence of the backlash. I think the criticism has stung more than the Qatari’s thought it would. They are used to getting things their own way and perhaps this is a wake-up call. If FIFA and Qatar had started a charm offensive with the press and the LGBT plus community and consistently worked at it for the past decade focussing on 1. The reality of life in Qatar, rather than some of the antiquated laws…which are embedded in Islamic law and therefore difficult and sensitive to change and 2. The improvements that have been made to workers’ rights, things could have been so different, I think.
As a direct result of losing control of the narrative. The sponsors failed to activate their investment in the World Cup, and it seemed that Qatar was reticent to actively invite fans via social media and traditional media channels. According to figures I have been given, just 765,000 visitors were in Doha for the qualification rounds Qatar. The final visitor figure is likely to be far less than the overall 1.2 million visitors expected, leading to significant financial short fall for the local hospitality industry (The average in-country spending of a WC visitor is expected to be US$7,000 - the lost revenue could thus be in the region of US$1 billion) "If you build it, they will come" is just not sufficient any more for mega sporting events. You also have to control the optics.
Linked to this, Infantino’s now infamous ‘I’m gay today’ diatribe. At a time when FIFA was urging everyone to ‘focus on the football’, he under-scored the focus on the ‘press vs Qatar’ story and did a brilliant job at amplifying the non-football stories. I have some sympathy with some of the points he was making, but the timing of making them was ill-judged. FIFA and their PR machine should have been riding to Qatar’s defence way before the wagons had to be circled.
Be honest that workers’ rights are not perfect but focus on the journey to improvement. Be honest about sustainability; don’t claim that the tournament is carbon neutral when clearly everyone can see that it is not- focus on the good things and what you are trying to do. Be open to criticism. It helps with self-reflection. Don’t torture whistle blowers.
The Procurement / Bidding and Tender Processes. These were complicated to Q22 (FIFA), The SC and The Emir’s Office all making decisions- often contradictory. The procurement process was complex, misleading and far too reliant on ‘wasta’ (the Arabic word meaning reliant on personal connections) rather than best practice. This would have been fine (it is culturally embedded after all) had there not been so much misinformation for ‘unconnected’ suppliers. The manner in which a good number of the SC procurement processes were handled was opaque and detrimental to deliver best results for the financial volumes provided. There was very limited alignment between FIFA and the SC on selected processes and the content of numerous tenders. Several tenders were issued by the SC, while FIFA sent similar tenders to the marketplace. Several major tenders were issued for which insufficient budgets had been made available due to a lack of alignment between the SC and the financing national authorities. Several such tenders were cancelled after much delay during the assessment process, even after numerous adjustments had been submitted by international tender partners at significant financial costs. Some of these tender projects were then re-issued, sometimes even by new, untested authorities (e.g. the move of the overlay tender from the Supreme Committee to Aspire Zone) with a fully altered scope of specifications, shortened deadlines and a significant reduction to the financial funding schemes, leading a plethora of multi-national consortia to refrain from further participating in those or any future tenders in Qatar. As it turned out, it was ‘alright on the night’ but there was a great deal of time, effort and money wasted by international suppliers- and this leaves a bad taste in the mouth. FIFA, as the preeminent International Sports Federation (alongside the IOC) should be setting the governance bar high and leading by example.
International Sponsors / Partners / Activations. Too many international FIFA partners were spooked by the negative press and relied too heavily on their FIFA contract to see their interests and activation implemented in Qatar. Budweiser, FOX, Coke and many more did not (it would appear…) bother to seek or accept advice on the specifics of this unique marketplace and its very specific challenges. Likewise international suppliers and service providers who were not familiar with the rules of this highly unique marketplace paid dearly for not seeing advice and suffered as local partners that did not honour contracts and promises.
Understand the full process of the ‘Disney’ queuing system. If the crowd is light, do not make fans walk 100 switch backs in the heat! Open the barriers and let them walk straight to a metro entrance!
If you have a ‘ticket buying’ centre, make sure that there are at least some tickets to buy each day. When I went to buy a ticket, there had been non available for the previous 5 days.
Do not treat fans like idiots. Allow them to walk 20m from the entrance of a stadium to an entrance of a museum (The excellent 3-2-1 Olympic and Sports museum). Do not make them take a bus!
Do not change the rules 2 days before the tournament starts. It makes you look totalitarian and really pisses off your sponsors. Or at least the sponsors of the governing body that you are hosting, and leads to an ugly legal dispute legacy which, I have no doubt, will be on-going for some time about how much Qatar will have to pay FIFA in order to compensate Budweiser. An early decision of ‘no alcohol in stadia’ due to the culture and the fact that Qatar wanted a family-friendly tournament would, I think, have been fine and accepted by fans- especially if the number of bars in Doha had been highlighted.
Give more opportunity for fans to play the game. I did not see one fan vs fan football game. What a shame that is. There is so much green space, so many balls, so many fans, it would have been easy to organise and would have helped make the whole thing about ‘football’ not just about ‘elite football’.
Do more fan activation for the baby boomers. Arcadia, MiddlBeast and Day Dreaming were fine if you are into all that, and like blood coming out of your ears. And well-done Alchemy Project for arranging 66% of that. But what about us oldies? Maybe they tried and the artists just would not come. But Robbie came, and he was great. One less stadium and you have a great deal of money to entice more talent. And to arrange a few fan vs fan games.
Did we really need 8 stadia (7 new ones and one refurbished)? Perhaps this is FIFA’s fault, and down to the spec of the bid. But one less $billion stadia would have been a lot of money to spend on grass-roots legacy, a smaller carbon footprint, and maybe a couple of less deaths on the building site. NB these happen on building sites in every country around the world- not just Qatari building sites- however stringent the safety protocols. They still come down to individual responsibility and intelligence: I was told one story of a migrant worker who, having been accidently locked in the waste disposal room decided to shimmy, Mission Impossible style, down the waste disposal funnel….from the 6th Needless to say, it did not end well. Was that the fault of the Supreme Committee? I think not.
FIFA should not be prevaricating about paying compensation to deaths aligned directly to the tournament. There were some. Of course, there were. There were in Brazil, there were in Russia, and the likelihood is that even in the US/Mexico/Canada there may be some. Be magnanimous, deal with the issue and stop feeding the press with the ammunition to shoot at you.
It is not often that I find myself saying this, but I fully agree with Piers Morgan: (99+) Post | LinkedIn