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World Cup 2022: Will Qatar really deliver ‘the best tournament ever’?

Qatar has had to contend with more than a decade of doubt after being named host of the Fifa World Cup in 2010. Soccer’s pinnacle event is now set to descend on the Middle East for the first time, but the tournament’s commercial journey has been a bumpy one from the start.

16 November 2022 Ed Dixon

Controversy has followed the 2022 Fifa World Cup ever since Qatar was awarded hosting duties nearly 12 years ago. From corruption allegations to abhorrent human rights violations, the Gulf state has been on the backfoot from the off.

Fifa, unsurprisingly, has continued to peddle the idea that its decision to take the World Cup to the Middle East for the first time makes good on its mission to bring the game to new markets. The organisation’s president Gianni Infantino has resolutely towed the party line. Meanwhile, his predecessor, the heavily tarnished Sepp Blatter, has admitted sending the 2022 tournament to Qatar was a “mistake”.

Qatar may well make good on Infantino’s promise of being “the best World Cup ever”. But to do that, a host of questions still need to be answered. Be it misleading carbon-neutral claims or accommodation worries for fans, there is plenty of convincing still to do.

The show, as ever, will go on. But it is difficult to remember a World Cup arriving with so much baggage, which is no mean feat after the event’s previous Russian rendezvous.

As kick-off looms, Qatar has sought to provide a clearer stance on certain issues. Nasser Al Khater, chief executive of Fifa World Cup Qatar 2022 LLC (Q22), told Sky News in mid-October that gay fans will be welcome to display affection, areas will be set up for drunk supporters to sober up, and 95 per cent of tickets had been sold.

More than one million fans are expected to head to Qatar

There is a degree of animosity between Qatar and its critics. Pressed on conditions for migrant workers – thousands are reported to have died in the country since it was appointed host – Al Khater said those raising the matter were “not experts in what they’re speaking about”. He added that enduring criticism of the tournament could “possibly” be considered racist.

Qatar’s foreign minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al Thani, was less diplomatic, labelling the country’s detractors as “arrogant” and describing negative media coverage as “misinformation”.

It is not in Qatar’s interest to be hostile. But Al Khater and Infantino’s desire to focus on the soccer, which everyone would probably prefer to do, is an unpalatable mix of ignorance and naivety, given the World Cup’s global standing. For context, Fifa said the 2018 edition was watched by more than half the world.

“I wouldn’t even call it a mega project for Qatar, it’s a giga project,” says Simon Chadwick, professor of sport and geopolitical economy at SKEMA Business School. “It’s about nation building, nation branding and taking advantage of the geographic attributes, particularly oil and gas, that Qatar has access to.

“It’s an attempt to diversify the country’s economy. It’s a way of boosting tourism. It’s becoming a sport event destination. Qatar decided that it was going to learn to drive in the fast lane of a motorway.”

The numbers associated with Qatar 2022 are biblical. It has been estimated the country, comfortably the smallest nation by land mass ever to stage the World Cup, has splurged as much as US$300 billion on infrastructure. Size and scope, though, have not yet been enough to justify Fifa’s eagerness to set its sights on the Arabian Peninsula.   

Sponsors tread carefully as broadcasters expect big numbers

As SportsPro touched on a year out from Qatar 2022, the commercial appeal of the World Cup has endured despite the baggage. The event is reportedly on course to top the roughly US$5.4 billion in revenue that the 2018 edition generated for Fifa.

Global partners including Adidas, Coca-Cola and Visa remain in place. Local companies, such as GWC and Ooredoo, are also involved. Fifa, though, has also been reliant on Qatari companies for two of the seven places in its top-tier sponsorship category. March saw QatarEnergy fill the governing body’s final global partnership slot, a segment that raked in US$93 million in revenue last year. Regional sponsors, meanwhile, include Budweiser, Hisense, McDonald’s, Mengniu and Vivo.

Brands will not be going into the tournament unaware of all the criticism. But how and if they respond to the negativity will be keenly observed.

One firm that has taken action is sportswear company Hummel, which revealed toned down branding on its Denmark kit in protest against Qatar’s human rights record. It followed the Danish Football Association’s (DBU) decision to use the national team’s platform to highlight issues in the Gulf state.

“Hummel has chosen to draw a red line in its relationship with the World Cup,” Chadwick continues. “I think that’s an admirable moral position that it’s chosen to take.

“But it’s immediately compromised itself. When it’s involved in deals in other parts of the world where there are also potentially issues of human rights infringements, I think it makes a mockery of what Hummel is trying to do.”

Global brands affiliated with Qatar 2022, which also include Wanda and Hyundai, will have to acknowledge the cultural nuances of the host nation. But the goal is to do that as inoffensively as possible or risk alienating international consumers already sceptical about the country. The focus will be on business, rather than becoming a moral arbiter. Being a winter World Cup also means the typical flow of how brands activate around the event has been disrupted.

Is there an expectation for companies to take a stand? In September, a global opinion poll commissioned by Amnesty International revealed that 66 per cent of those surveyed felt Fifa’s corporate partners and sponsors should publicly call on soccer’s global governing body to compensate migrant workers who suffered while preparing the World Cup. The poll was carried out by YouGov and surveyed 17,477 adults in 15 countries. 

However, only four of Fifa’s 14 corporate partners and World Cup sponsors – Adidas, Anheuser-Busch InBev, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s – have expressed their support for such financial compensation.

“Companies need to ensure that their own house is in order and their operation is not linked to human rights abuses,” says May Romanos, Amnesty International’s Gulf researcher.

“As sponsors, they have huge leverage on Fifa to pressure it to do better. What we are asking sponsors to do is to pressure Fifa to commit to this compensation fund to support or remedy workers who suffered abuse in the past.”

Already the world’s most-watched sporting event, Infantino is once again expecting record viewership this time around, with “five billion people” forecast to tune in. There is also hope that the audience for the final will top the viewership for the champion-crowning fixture in 2018, which was seen live by a combined 1.12 billion viewers.

From China’s CCTV and Fox in the US to Qatar’s own BeIN Sports and the BBC, the usual heavy hitters of major event sports broadcasting are involved. They are set to propel Fifa to a new broadcasts rights revenue record by the end of the 2019 to 2022 cycle. The organisation also expects to exceed its US$6.44 billion total revenue target for the three-year period.

Broadcasters already involved in the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics will be conscious that their programming for the year is being bookended by two of sport’s biggest and most divisive events. Generally, the Games’ media partners opted to keep their focus on the action, rather than China’s human rights record. The broad expectation is that the same will happen in Qatar.

A different World Cup experience

Travelling fans accustomed to the western feel of a World Cup are being asked to be mindful of Qatar’s culture. As a Muslim nation, alcohol availability is limited. Hassan Al Thawadi, secretary general of Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy (SC), has confirmed supporters will not be able to drink in stadiums, but alcohol will be available in fan zones, some hotels and other specific areas.

Given its limited history as a major event host, it is unclear how Qatar will respond to large groups of fans who have been drinking on matchdays. Al Khater says there are “plans in place for people to sober up if they’ve been drinking excessively”. British police officers have also been deployed to act as “cultural interpreters” between fans and local law enforcement.

As for public displays of affection, be it by gay or straight people, Al Thawadi has stated it “is not part of our culture”. He appeared to deny couples should be nervously looking over their shoulder.

“Very plain and simple, everybody’s welcome in Qatar,” continued Al Thawadi. “The simple fact is, everybody’s welcome.

“But in the nature of being a good guest is always to understand the country that you’re visiting or the home that you’re visiting or the people that you’re visiting, and understanding and appreciating the nuances, appreciating the differences and opinions or differences in values that we may have. Understanding that we do have differences in opinions and try to find the commonality.

“We don’t necessarily see eye to eye in things. But provided that we treat each other with respect, that is the most important element.

“That is what we want people to come out here [for]. Creating a bond on a human to human level, developing mutual respect amongst each other.”

Compromise is being asked for on all sides. Still, homosexuality remains illegal in Qatar and the country, where Sharia law is the main source of legislation, is unwilling to adapt its anti-LGBTQ+ laws.

Fifa president Gianni Infantino wants the focus to be on soccer, not political battles

With approximately 1.2 million visitors expected, fans have also struggled to book accommodation. The BBC reported that Qatar has only 30,000 hotel rooms, 80 per cent of which had already been booked by Fifa for teams, officials and sponsors. Shared rooms, empty apartments, villas, fan villages and traditional-style tents in the desert have been offered as alternatives.

Cruise ships have even been converted into floating hotels, with the SC promising to deliver up to 130,000 rooms in time for the tournament. Supporters, though, have baulked at the cost, with refabricated cabins said to be priced at US$207 per night.

The SC may have only further strained fan relations by confirming it is paying for groups of supporters to travel to the World Cup in return for positive comments on social media. All that has left many fans, whether they be making the trip or staying at home, disillusioned and uncertain before proceedings get underway on 20th November.

“Fans all have a role to play in this,” says Romanos.

“They have a certain platform and power to use by becoming aware about the human rights issues and raising their concerns. It can help bring this pressure we need on both Qatar and Fifa to implement progress but also carry on after this World Cup and compensate historic abuses, which is key for us.”

“[Qatar’s] money no object, lavish approach, the best of everything, isn’t necessarily consistent with most football fans’ experience of the sport,” adds Chadwick.

“The Qataris have organised a tournament based on their perceptions and attitudes towards the world without always fully understanding what the expectations are of football fans around the world when it comes to attending an event.

“Qatar is incredibly impressive. The facilities that they have, the infrastructure that they’ve created, the seriousness with which they’ve taken the event, the strategic intent that underpins everything that they’ve done is just staggering. But that doesn’t necessarily make it authentic.

“I’m sure many people will probably find it very contrived.”

A glimpse into the future

Fans will be attending matches in eight new stadiums built around Doha, with Al Thawadi insisting there will be no ‘white elephants’ once the tournament is over.

Be that as it may, a good chunk of people have already made up their minds about this World Cup. According to Romanos, there is “lots of work” Qatar still has to do to prove the doubters wrong. Perhaps most pertinently, changes to the kafala sponsorship system, which tied migrant workers to their employers and prevented them from leaving the country or changing jobs without permission, are not being implemented.

“There is unfinished business,” Romanos notes. “There has been some legal progress, but we’re definitely not where we should be. On the deaths and the dangerous working conditions, not much has changed.

“There are some mitigating measures in the new law introduced last year which is a good start, but not good enough for what is needed to protect the lives of migrant workers. 

“Unknown causes such as ‘natural cause’ or ‘cardiac arrest’ are still mentioned on the death certificate of deceased migrant workers, which do not really tell us anything about why they died.

“No investigation is carried out, meaning that no link is made between the death and  the working conditions and, as such, no compensation is paid to the families.”

Romanos admits that in her line of work, progress on human rights tends to be “very slow”. Even so, her frustrations are obvious as Amnesty continues to push Fifa and Qatar to establish a programme to compensate migrant workers who have suffered abuses.

“We’re not asking anyone,” she says. “We’re asking the richest country in the world and the biggest sporting body in the world to come together and look back at the suffering that happened as a result of their decisions and eventual failure to protect and respect human rights.”

Pressure is mounting. Ten European soccer associations have demanded Fifa takes stronger action to ensure improved rights for migrant workers. South America’s Conmebol and the Confederation of African Football (CAF) want matters on the pitch to do the talking.

Regardless, Al Khater, perhaps growing impatient with the protracted scrutiny, believes those that have spoken out “need to really read and educate themselves a little bit more about what’s happening on the ground in Qatar”.

“The reason why Qatar maybe seems to be a bit more criticised is because the abuses are very much connected to this tournament,” explains Romanos.

“We are not referring only to the state of human rights in the country, but more about abuses that are directly linked and connected to the building and servicing of this World Cup. You’re preparing a whole country, staging a whole tournament using a system that allows the abuse and exploitation of the very people who, without them, you wouldn’t be able to deliver this World Cup.

“Qatar’s Supreme Court pioneered good initiatives that offered workers under its purview better working conditions and protections, albeit with some limitations.

“So the question for us is, since you have done a better job for no more than two per cent of migrant workers, why don’t you roll it out for the vast majority?”

SC secretary general Hassan Al Thawadi insists that “everybody’s welcome” in Qatar

If there is to be a legacy of Qatar 2022, Amnesty hopes it will force Fifa and other soccer confederations to tighten up their due diligence processes when awarding major tournaments.

“We want to ensure that things like Fifa’s human rights policy and bidding criteria are actually implemented on every single tournament, not only on the World Cup,” says Romanos.

“For instance, despite having these measures in place, Fifa went on and awarded the Club World Cup to China without any transparency on the process it followed or the human rights assessment it undertook prior to reaching such a decision.

“Qatar should be the starting point to make this human rights framework introduced truly and fully implementable. It is about time for sports to be the driving force for real change and for Fifa and other sporting bodies to walk the walk and respect their own human rights responsibilities.”

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