And so it came to pass: the World Cup the West didn’t want became the World Cup the West didn’t want to end.
An extraordinary, rollercoaster final pitting two of the greatest players of their generation went the distance and more than lived up to the hype. In the end, not even the hat-trick heroics of France’s Kylian Mbappe could prevent the great Lionel Messi’s crowning moment, with the Argentinian talisman claiming his first world title as his country secured its third overall.
Qatar 2022 was, on reflection, a World Cup oozing with drama and narrative. Geopolitically charged, mired in controversy from start to finish: the first edition of the tournament to be held in a Muslim country will go down in history as perhaps the most culturally significant, era-defining ever staged.
As the tournament drew to a close in late December, Fifa president Gianni Infantino triumphantly proclaimed Qatar’s lavish World Cup “an incredible success”, citing its “unique, cohesive power” to bring different nationalities and cultures together in the name of soccer. With characteristic hyperbole, the Swiss hailed the tournament as “the best ever”, lauding its staging as “very important for the future of all of us”.
12 years of controversy
The biggest event ever staged in Qatar was more than 12 years in the making but, of course, the country didn’t actually deliver what it originally bid for: a summer World Cup. Fifa’s highly contentious decision to move the tournament to the northern hemisphere winter had long been expected when it finally came in 2015, and the backlash, largely owing to the unavoidable disruption to European club schedules, was inevitable. Labelled a ‘high risk’ host by independent evaluators, mainly on account of its distinct lack of adequate infrastructure, it is fair to say Qatar was an unpopular choice from the very beginning.
The fallout from that infamous vote, held in Zurich in December 2010, proved seismic, prompting widespread allegations of corruption and the ultimate downfall of former Fifa president Sepp Blatter. With the federation’s leadership overhauled and many of the 22 architects of that decision having been banned, convicted or, in some cases, passed away, Blatter’s self-described “mistake” would become Infantino’s problem.
A picture of former Fifa president Joseph Blatter opening the envelope to reveal Qatar as host of the World Cup in December 2010 appeared on a giant banner in Doha
An economic blockade, led by neighbouring Saudi Arabia and several other Gulf states, further exacerbated logistical matters for the host nation. As the years passed, Qatar’s human rights record, criminalisation of same-sex relationships and treatment of migrant workers would be repeatedly and roundly criticised, the constant public examination overshadowing a nation-building exercise that was meant to project an image of Qatar as an emerging force on the international stage.
Still, in the face of fierce and persistent criticism, the embattled hosts weathered the storm. A condensed fixture schedule spanning 28 days was subsequently agreed but the event was always going to come with significant costs attached. Qatar reportedly spent an estimated US$220 billion on stadiums, hotels and additional infrastructure in preparation to stage the most expensive World Cup in history – although that figure has been disputed by the local organisers. Meanwhile an army of international PR agencies was put to work in a bid to temper the media narrative.
Fifa president Gianni Infantino did little to overturn the media narrative during a lengthy monologue on the eve of the tournament
On the eve of the tournament, after years of scrutiny and negative press, Infantino implored the 32 competing teams to set politics aside and “focus on the football”, much to the chagrin of several European nations, human rights organisations and LGBTQ+ campaigners. His now-infamous opening monologue, in which he used a pre-tournament press conference to condemn the western media as racist hypocrites and claimed to “feel” everything but a straight, able-bodied white man in a position of power, did little to divert attention away from off-field matters.
Qatari officials themselves grew increasingly defensive as the tournament drew closer. And yet, once the matches got underway, it was difficult not to be swept up in the sporting spectacle.
A tale of two Qatars
Over the course of four weeks, the action on the pitch didn’t disappoint. A packed schedule of four games per day in the opening group stage delivered no shortage of drama, with upsets aplenty and favoured nations exiting early. Morocco’s underdogs captured the imagination on their unlikely run to the semifinals. Unheralded names revelled in the limelight as established stars looked to cement their legends. All the while the Messi vs Mbappe plotline simmered to a storybook crescendo.
By all accounts, the atmosphere on the ground was not unlike any other World Cup: colourful, convivial, carnival-esque. Stadiums were mostly full, even if match attendances officially quoted by the organisers were clearly exaggerated and occasionally greater than the capacities of the venues hosting them.
Even the western media, so critical of Qatar in the run-up, were glowing in their appraisals of what they were experiencing. Many extolled the virtues of the tournament’s compactness and the quality of the facilities. With all 64 games taking place in and around the same city, travel between stadiums was straightforward and Doha’s newly constructed, surgically clean metro system, while at times overcrowded, served its purpose.
Jamie Gardner, Chief Sports Reporter, Press Association
If Fifa was designing its own answer to Disney World this would be pretty much what it would look like.
Early in the tournament there were widespread reports of problems, however. Many travelling fans claimed that the local organisers had failed to prioritise everyday match-goers. Poor fan camp conditions, exorbitantly priced food and beverage, troubles with the official mobile ticketing app and a late U-turn on alcohol sales at match venues sparked frustrations and the customary backlash on social media. Controversy surrounding the wearing of armbands with political messages coincided with a heavy-handed security crackdown on any garment featuring rainbow colours. Clearly, the Qataris had lost patience with the persistent focus on non-sporting matters
Organisers say cumulative attendance across the tournament totalled 3.4 million, with an average match attendance of 53,000 and overall capacity in excess of 96 per cent. More than 1.4 million international visitors travelled to Qatar, with over 530,000 people attending daily entertainment events, including Fifa Fan Festivals, throughout the tournament.
Yet the organisers’ attempts to control seemingly every aspect of the experience led some visitors to describe a kind of ‘World Cup theme park’, an overly sanitised environment embellished with ‘fake fans’ and forced smiles. Among them was Jamie Gardner, who covered several matches in Qatar in his role as the Press Association’s chief sports reporter.
“I think for the first time in my experience it felt as though not only the venues, but to a large extent the whole city and country, had been built with the World Cup in mind – that if Fifa was designing its own answer to Disney World this would be pretty much what it would look like,” Gardner tells SportsPro. “For that reason it felt slightly inorganic and lacking in authenticity.”
Migrant workers, many housed in dormitories away from Doha’s glitzy shopping malls and restaurants, watch a match at the Asian Town cricket stadium on the city’s outskirts
Other attendees noted how this World Cup told a tale of two Qatars, of an unequal society split starkly between the haves and have-nots. Indeed, excess was a hallmark of a tournament that felt a world away from the harsher economic realities facing many of those who helped build and service it.
Not for nothing was this dubbed the ‘VVIP World Cup’, with separate entrances and ultra-exclusive hospitality suites reserved for royalty, heads of state and other privileged elites. Qatar’s vast oil and gas-fuelled wealth was evident at every turn – from the eight architecturally stunning stadia to the glittering ceremonies. An online merchandise store hawking official gold bullion bars embossed with World Cup branding typified the extravagance of a tournament which was itself a product of the indulgence that defined the so-called ‘old Fifa’.
Six-star hotels and high-end restaurants were reportedly frequented by Fifa’s top brass, not least Infantino, who was said to favour influencer chef Salt Bae’s Doha outlet serving up gold-leaf steak at no small expense. In one of the tournament’s more bizarre subplots, Infantino himself was left with a case to answer when Salt Bae was somehow granted, by Fifa’s own admission, ‘undue access’ on to the field following Argentina’s triumph.
Fifa is investigating after Turkish chef and friend of Infantino Salt Bae – real name Nusret Gökçe – was granted ‘undue access’ on to the field after Argentina’s victory in the showpiece final.
Greater reach, greater scrutiny
Nothing draws eyeballs and drives the conversation quite like the World Cup.
As expected, the planet’s most-watched event delivered vast broadcast audiences across the globe, with notable viewership numbers in Europe, the US, Australia, and the Middle East. In France, an average of 24.1 million viewers tuned in for the final, an all-time French viewership record, while Argentinian broadcasters TV Publica and TyC Sports set high watermarks of their own.
Digitally, too, the tournament raised the bar. During the showpiece final, Google recorded its highest search traffic in 25 years. Messi’s Instagram post depicting his trophy celebrations amassed more than 74 million likes in just a few days, becoming the most-liked Instagram post ever. On TikTok, Fifa doubled its follower count to nearly 12 million as the tournament went on, with the ‘Fifa World Cup’ hashtag amassing over 25 billion views. Twitter reported 147 billion impressions on the platform, more than doubling the total accumulated during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
Search recorded its highest ever traffic in 25 years during the final of #FIFAWorldCup , it was like the entire world was searching about one thing!— Sundar Pichai (@sundarpichai) December 19, 2022
Notably, Fifa’s streaming experiment in Brazil proved successful. Its decision in 2021 to strip Globo of exclusive digital rights enabled the federation to trial alternative broadcasts. Live action was ultimately shown on its own Fifa+ direct-to-consumer (DTC) streaming service, which launched in April 2022, and via the personal channels of Brazilian streamer Casimiro, who covered 22 matches in total and broke live viewership records on YouTube and Twitch.
All told, soccer’s governing body said it brought in three times more Brazilian fans to its digital platforms compared to Russia 2018, with streams gaining more than 40 million unique viewers throughout the tournament. Indeed, Fifa’s approach in Brazil could provide a model to follow as it continues to build out its Fifa+ platform in global markets.
Fifa trialled alternative World Cup broadcasts in Brazil for the first time following the launch of its Fifa+ streaming service
But of course, with greater reach comes greater scrutiny. Try as they might, Fifa and the local organisers could do little to control a media narrative that invariably centred on human rights issues for the duration of the tournament.
“The media coverage from the UK and European media was fair and balanced,” argues Gardner. “Starting with the Budweiser story and through the row over rainbow items, Fifa’s control over its own event had self-evidently been compromised and clearly assurances given beforehand fell away once the action started.
“In the weeks prior to the tournament there seemed to be an attempt to portray criticism of Qatar as racism towards the Arabic world. I don’t believe I ever saw any coverage that strayed away from being fair, balanced criticism. There were plenty of positive things written about the on-field action and about the positive impact of reduced alcohol availability on the tournament.”
Player protests, including the wearing of armbands with anti-discrimination messages, became a flashpoint in a long-running dispute surrounding Qatar’s human rights policies
PR own goals and brand reticence
Much was made of the fact that two of the standout performers of the tournament delivered a dream climax for the hosts. Messi and Mbappe not only served up a World Cup for the ages, but their roles as frontmen for Qatari-owned Paris Saint-Germain meant the host nation could bask in the glow of two of the brightest sports stars on the planet.
Images of Messi being coronated whilst enrobed in the bisht, a traditional Middle Eastern garment of celebration draped over him by the Emir of Qatar himself, were beamed across the globe, giving the Qataris a visual finale beyond their wildest dreams. But the jury remains out on whether the World Cup succeeded in burnishing a positive image of Qatar.
Amar Singh, Head of Content and Communications, MKTG Sports + Entertainment
Qatar 2022 shone a light on how complex the world is today and how there is no one set of values we all subscribe to.
Not even the involvement of former England captain turned Qatari mouthpiece David Beckham, who was paid tens of millions to serve as a World Cup ambassador, could soften international perceptions of the host nation. Beckham himself notably fell silent as scrutiny of his personal role intensified and his apparent reluctance to speak favourably of the hosts was said to have irked his Qatari paymasters.
“For a country that likes to use its role in sport as a tool to cement foreign relations and distinguish itself from its Gulf neighbours, you would have to say that the World Cup has been a huge driver for Qatar’s geopolitical aims,” says Amar Singh, the head of content and communications at MKTG Sports + Entertainment. “But do people feel more positive about Qatar when it comes to issues such as LGBTQ rights or worker welfare because of the tournament? Almost certainly not.”
David Beckham attended several matches in his role as a World Cup ambassador.
While Qatar 2022 may have been, to use Singh’s words, “a poor tournament from a Fifa comms perspective”, the event only underlined the World Cup’s enduring status as a commercial juggernaut. Official tournament sponsors included seven global Fifa partners, seven World Cup partners and five regional supporters. Fifa’s ability to sell all available sponsorship inventory for its biggest money-spinner contributed to overall revenue of US$7.5 billion for the four-year cycle up to Qatar, eclipsing the previous high, set during the previous quadrennial, by more than US$1 billion.
In the four years up until Russia 2018, sponsorship deals earned Fifa US$1.66 billion, with US$4.6 billion coming from broadcast rights sales. Those figures will almost certainly be surpassed when Fifa releases its financial report for the 2019 to 2022 cycle in the coming weeks.
Despite such strong corporate support, including the backing of two domestic companies, QatarEnergy and Qatar Airways, international marketing activity was noticeably muted in the buildup. Every tournament partner will have been keenly aware of the ethical tightrope and reputational risks associated with backing such a contentious event. As such, most brands chose to tread carefully in their messaging and activations.
“Qatar 2022 shone a light on how complex the world is today and how there is no one set of values we all subscribe to,” notes Singh. “This makes the job for global brands particularly tricky, particularly those which want to be known for taking a stand on issues that matter to their consumers.”
Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the Emir of Qatar, took centre stage as Lionel Messi finally got his hands on the coveted World Cup trophy
From a commercial perspective, Singh believes the embarrassing Budweiser saga, which quickly prompted concerns among other sponsors over potential contractual issues, could have material implications for Fifa’s relations with its partners in future. He points out that Budweiser marketing executives “did a fantastic job of turning a negative into a positive” with their reactive ‘Bring Home The Buds’ campaign, which pledged to deliver unsold beers to the victorious nation, yet all partners will be eager to avoid a similar situation arising again.
“There was a sense that Fifa had lost control of their own event, and in this instance they had to cede to the Qatari royal family who made their decision just 48 hours before the first game,” says Singh. “If a World Cup goes to another country where alcohol is normally banned, then I am sure lessons will have been learned and the lawyers will get to work in ensuring further contractual assurances are in place going forward.
New Day, New Tweet. Winning Country gets the Buds. Who will get them? pic.twitter.com/Vv2YFxIZa1— Budweiser (@Budweiser) November 19, 2022
What next for Qatar?
Of course, only time will tell what the long-term legacy of Qatar 2022 will be – both for the host nation and for Fifa.
Concerns over excessive heat notwithstanding, Qatar’s World Cup-related investments in infrastructure have undoubtedly rendered the country, which projected that the tournament would add up to US$17 billion to its economy, a more capable host for major sporting spectacles. Hotels, airports, transportation networks and entire urban areas have been built from scratch or dramatically expanded thanks to the World Cup, giving the country of 2.7 million an overabundance of physical infrastructure to support any future bids.
“They’ve taken a non-existent desert village and, in the course of three decades, transformed it into a very impressive modern city, which will serve the community for the next century,” says Michael Payne, the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) first-ever marketing director who now acts as an advisor to major international federations. “Are they rich on hotels? Probably. But again, that’s an investment they will make for building a tourism hub.”
Organisers have been keen to stress that no white elephants will be left in the wake of the World Cup, as has been the case with recent editions. All eight match stadia will be repurposed, transformed into community hubs, sports facilities, shopping centres, wedding venues or, in the case of Stadium 974, which played host to seven fixtures, dismantled altogether.
Jamie Gardner, Chief Sports Reporter, Press Association
Qatar has underlined to Fifa that a winter World Cup can be successful and – in terms of quality of event and player freshness – may even be preferable.
Aside from the infrastructural legacy of the tournament, the social and cultural legacy is perhaps less clear. While some progress has been made on worker pay and employment conditions, it remains to be seen whether the Qatari government will reform legislation to improve the rights of the LGBTQ+ community and alter the country’s widely criticised kafala sponsorship system. Less tangible benefits, such as the event’s impact on national pride and international perception, are always difficult to quantify, but Payne believes the World Cup has succeeded in putting Qatar on the map, enabling the country “to punch way above its weight in political diplomatic circles”.
For the international soccer community, too, Qatar 2022’s legacy could be significant. In particular, says Gardner, the shift to winter could yet influence Fifa’s decision making when it comes to the hosting and scheduling of future World Cups.
“Qatar has underlined to Fifa that a winter World Cup can be successful and – in terms of quality of event and player freshness – may even be preferable,” he says. “There would undoubtedly be huge friction with the leagues and clubs should it be proposed again but Qatar 2022 has boosted the sporting argument in favour of mid-season tournaments.”
Disassembly of Stadium 974, constructed from 974 recycled shipping containers, has already begun
Away from soccer, word has it that the Qataris have been so emboldened by their World Cup hosting experience that they are now intent on bringing the biggest event of them all – the Olympic and Paralympic Games – to the country’s shores. Reuters recently reported that the 2036 Games is the top target for officials in Doha. Yet the Olympics – equivalent to 30 world championships happening at the same time – are a different beast to the World Cup.
For Payne, the prospect of Qatar hosting the Games may be a bridge too far, certainly if it attempts to do so alone. Instead, he believes a regional bid incorporating two or more Gulf states is a more realistic proposition. “It would need some form of regional approach because, as successful as the Fifa World Cup was – no disrespect to Fifa – the event is much, much simpler,” he adds. “I think the World Cup in Qatar was 200 to 250 hours of sport, broadcast over one month. The Summer Olympics is 8,000 hours over 16 days.”
A possible run for the Olympics aside, Qatar’s upcoming major event schedule is taking shape. This summer’s AFC Asian Cup will be swiftly followed by the beginning of a ten-year run of Formula One Grands Prix, held at the Losail International Circuit just outside Doha. The 2025 ITTF World Championship finals and 2030 Asian Games are also on the horizon.
For Qatar, then, the World Cup was not the culmination but the continuation of an extended period in the sporting spotlight. How it uses the tournament, and sport more generally, to further both its economic development and geopolitical ambitions will be closely monitored over the coming decade.
“If you look at the region, Qatar clearly has been the first mover, really understanding how to use sport as a driving force, whether it’s for national branding, whether it’s as a catalyst to develop,” says Payne. “They’re going from a tourist destination of marginal interest to a very credible tourist destination with ongoing business.
“[In the interest of] continuing to keep their image and brand at the forefront, I think the hosting of major sports events, particularly Formula One, will be an important part of the strategy.”