FIFA sold its soul to put the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, where it’s 106° in July. Break out the body bags. It’s going to get ugly
It is possible to view the prospect of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar with concern, even horror. It is also possible to admire the drive and single-mindedness the emirate has shown in pursuing its dream to host the tournament. This “dream”—to use a word featured prominently in Qatar’s promotional campaign—is nothing less than the stunning, self-willed transformation of a microstate (smaller than Connecticut) that was under British rule until 1971, when its population was less than 100,000 (it’s close to 2 million now) and Qataris were mocked by their neighbors as backward desert dwellers, barely settled nomads with no culture.
Nobody’s laughing now. Nobody snickers at a country whose annual GDP per capita is the highest in the world—$100,000 or thereabouts—and that figure includes an almost exclusively foreign workforce whose wages are typically well below the legal minimum in the so-called developed world.
Qatar’s natural-gas reserves are gigantic—14% of the world’s known reserves; 70% of Qatar’s revenue derives from the sale of gas and, to a slightly lesser degree, oil. Football, however, will be—already is—the emirate’s foot in the door for establishing itself as a “key actor on the world stage” (its words) and perhaps guarantee its security in a volatile region where many wouldn’t mind seeing Qatar’s ruling Al Thani family get roughed up a bit or perhaps even deposed.
To claim that a 2022 World Cup in Qatar would also be an ‘“Arab” tournament—as the Qataris and some within FIFA (Michel Platini in particular) have done—is misleading at best, and at worst, mendacious. The emirate’s well-documented support for various opposition figures, rebels, and insurgents during the Arab Spring; its propping up of the now deposed Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; and its alleged alliances with Islamist extremists and militias in Syria, Mali, and elsewhere have led to Qatar’s increasing isolation within a fuzzily categorized Arab world.
In its quest to acquire what political analysts call soft power, the Al Thani regime has set its sights well beyond its borders. And that power seems anything but soft when you consider the methods used to acquire it. Qatar, with its minuscule indigenous population and its laughably small army (11,800 personnel at the last count; Saudi Arabia has over 200,000); can force its way to the front of the world stage only by spending hundreds of billions of dollars. Doha News estimates the cost of organizing the 2022 World Cup at $220 billion, over 70 times what South Africa spent on the 2010 tournament. Qatar’s ravenous appetite for brand-name assets, the more prestigious the better—the Harrods and Le Printemps department stores, the Shard tower, and the London Stock Exchange, the list goes on and on—cannot be explained solely by its desire to build a sustainable economy for the post–peak oil, shale-gas age. Mohammed El Oifi, a senior lecturer at the Parisian Institut d’Études Politiques, says, “The only obsession of this small state squeezed between Iran and Saudi Arabia is to act in order to exist and to exist in order to survive.” ‘To exist—that is, to be known. And is there a simpler, more effective way to gain worldwide recognition than to become a force in football, the most popular form of entertainment on the planet? Qatar’s strategists saw the potential of football to become a vector for social and political transformation quite a while ago—the Aspire project, one of the pillars of Qatar’s soccer revolution, was launched in 2004—and characteristically, they didn’t spare their efforts or their money.
They bought Paris Saint-Germain in France, pumping huge amounts of cash into it, winning a title and, they hope, some friends in the process. They bought KAS Eupen, the second-division Belgian club, to give graduates of Qatar’s Aspire academy a taste of competitive football in Europe. It might even be said that they “bought” Barcelona, since the remarkably close relationship between the emirate and the Catalan club goes far beyond the traditional sponsorship. It’s even been whispered that a leading Italian club was approached to cede a substantial share of its capital to a Qatari fund.
The 2022 World Cup, should it prove a success, would establish the microstate as an enlightened leader in its region. This, at least, is the message that Qatar’s official rhetoric, with its fondness for words such as progress, modern and vibrant, wishes to communicate to the outside world.
The decision to hold the 2022 World Cup in Qatar was made by the 22 members of FIFA’s executive committee on December 2, 2010. Fourteen of them voted in favor of the emirate, eight for the U.S. There the matter ends, it seems, regardless of whether that decision is viewed as nonsensical, scandalous, or reasonable. Well, not “surely”—perhaps. Or perhaps not. Switching a World Cup from one country to another has been done. The 1986 competition was moved from Colombia to Mexico when it became obvious that the South American country, riddled with economic and social problems, would be unable to honor its commitment.
Many in the football world, including some within FIFA, still haven’t been able to swallow the decision and would welcome a second vote. But while 2022 might seem a long way away, work has already begun in Qatar. In fact, the scale of investment—and of the profit multinational corporations stand to make from this endeavor—is dizzying. One such project, Lusail City, is nothing less than the creation ex nihilo of an entirely new town, which will be built on the sand dunes close to the northern suburbs of the capital, Doha. Nearly 200,000 people will work and live there. (They will also be able to shop in the world’s longest mall.) The contractor is the German company Hochtief, which is controlled by the Spanish consortium ACS—in other words, by the president of Real Madrid, Florentino Pérez. Where money flows, the waters run deep. To move the tournament to another nation would require the cancellation of many billion-dollar deals and expose a number of parties, FIFA among them, to an avalanche of lawsuits—unless, that is, the Gordian knot is severed early enough.
The legitimacy of the 2022 World Cup vote was questioned even before FIFA president Sepp Blatter opened the envelope on December 2, containing Qatar’s passport to the World Cup. Allegations had been circulating for weeks. One of Blatter’s private advisers was even briefing a few journalists (I was one of them), giving a spookily accurate breakdown of the vote before it was announced. Such and such a delegate was rumoured to have received millions in exchange for his support of the Qatari bid. As was another. And another … although no formal proof was brought forward.
The world media, the British press in particular, ripped into the rotten core of an organization that allowed a very small group of men of pensionable age (many of whom had, shall we say, something of a reputation for “easy virtue”) to pick the organizers of the costliest football jamboree on the planet. Immediately after the vote, the Wall Street Journal wrote, “According to a former employee of the Qatar bid team, at least one adviser recommended that the Qatar Football Association make a payment of $78.4 million to help the Argentina Football Association, or AFA, dig out of a financial crisis that threatened the country’s domestic league. This person said the payment was meant to help Qatar’s relationship with AFA President Julio Grondona, who is a member of FIFA’s executive committee.” Grondona threatened to sue, but the WSJ attorneys are still waiting for court papers to land on their desks. That former employee, the Arab-American Phaedra Al Majid, who’d been part of the Qatar bid PR team, subsequently withdrew her accusations in perplexing circumstances.
The controversy lingered on, periodically fueled by new “revelations,” such as the publication, in May 2011, of an e-mail from FIFA general secretary Jérôme Valcke to then executive-committee member Jack Warner, in which he’d written “they bought the WC.” Meaning the Qataris bought the World Cup, of course. Valcke wriggled out of this embarrassing situation by claiming he’d been referring to Qatar’s huge and legitimate spending on their bid, not to bribes paid out to eminently corruptible voters. That same month, in Britain, the Sunday Times submitted evidence to a committee of the House of Commons that two members of the FIFA executive-committee, Jacques Anouma and Issa Hayatou, had received over $2 million from Qatar in exchange for their support—an assertion vehemently denied by all the accused. But again, no incontrovertible proof was provided.
Without a doubt, Qatar identified, explored, and exploited every gray area in the book with greater imagination and purpose than any of its rivals, but had the Qataris “gone over the edge of the cliff,” as one observer put it? Seen from an ethical rather than legalistic perspective, is the distinction between shelling out millions to acquire the support of “ambassadors”—such as Pep Guardiola (the Barcelona connection again), Zinedine Zidane, or Gabriel Batistuta—and outright bribery clear? Where does lobbying stop and corruption—or bullying—begin? In 2009, Qatar made a generous proposal to CAF, the African Football Confederation: They would foot the bill for their Congress in Luanda. CAF accepted the offer and the proviso that went with it: No other nation bidding for the 2022 World Cup would be granted access to the delegates. The Americans, Australians, Koreans and Japanese would have to be satisfied with observer seats in the conference hall. (Not that they were satisfied—the Australians in particular didn’t hide their fury.) It’s also been said that the Qataris block-booked all the best hotels in the Angolan capital. The rationale was clear: Africa had no candidate to support in the 2022 vote and, with four representatives on the executive committee, would play a decisive role in FIFA’s decision.
Closer to the December 2 vote, the Crown Prince of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim, who’s since succeeded his father as the absolute ruler of the emirate, made a discreet visit to Paris, where he met French president Nicolas Sarkozy at the Elysée Palace. Also present was UEFA president and FIFA vice president Michel Platini, who was made to understand that a vote for Qatar would also be a vote for the greater interests of France, which was actively seeking Qatari investment. Platini has been one of the most vocal advocates of Qatar 2022 since the 2010 vote. He is, in fact, the only FIFA executive-committee member to go on the record defending his choice. His assertion that the pressure applied on him then had no bearing on his decision is difficult to accept. The fact that his son Laurent took up an executive role in January 2011 within Qatar Sports Investments, the owner of PSG, is also hard to view as coincidence.
FIFA seems to know there is an unpleasant odor emanating from all this. On July 17, 2012, it appointed former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York and Vice President for the Americas of Interpol Michael J. Garcia and German judge Hans-Joachim Eckert as chairmen of its new ethics committee. Many shrugged. Who could trust a corrupt organization to reform itself? But Garcia and Eckert have already led a number of once unimpeachable FIFA fixtures to the exit: Mohammed Bin Hammam, Manilal Fernando, Ricardo Teixeira, João Havelange, Chuck Blazer, and Jack Warner. Add to their tally Nicolás Leoz, who chose to jump before he could be pushed. All of them were found guilty of serious breaches of FIFA’s ethics code—they’d fiddled accounts, offered or taken bribes, enriched themselves at the expense of their federations, confederations, and FIFA. Their downfall, it’s true, wasn’t caused by their role in awarding the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, even though three of them are said to have voted for it.
This, however, was only Stage One in Garcia’s investigation, as he made clear to me when we met in Zurich in March of this year. Next would come questions about the successful bids of Russia 2018 and Qatar 2022. Garcia, whose mandate was renewed by FIFA at its Mauritius Congress in May, has opened a whistle-blower hot line, which he said had already provided him with several promising leads. He now works full time on examining the evidence that has been and is still being submitted by third parties as well as by his own team of investigators, none of whom has any direct link with FIFA. To see his ongoing inquest into the organization’s darker corners as mere window dressing is to misunderstand the relationship he has with his employer and to ignore that—outlandish and distasteful as this view may be to some—Sepp Blatter, for all his faults, has a genuine desire to shake the tree a top which he has stood since 1998. Garcia’s mission is not an easy one, and he’s confessed on several occasions that he’s sometimes found it frustrating. This doesn’t mean he has no intention of pursuing it to the end.
Should more FIFA grandees be discredited in the weeks to come, following Teixeira, Leoz, and Bin Hammam, wouldn’t the case for restaging the December 2010 vote become overwhelming from an ethical standpoint? And what if Garcia was able to demonstrate that there was collusion between 2018 and 2022 bidding countries, namely Spain/Portugal and Qatar, despite the denials of these parties? What if he were to establish that executive-committee members were subjected to such pressure by their governments (something that Blatter, in an interview published by the German paper Die Zeit in mid-September, did more than suggest took place) that they had no choice but to vote for the Qatari bid? These would constitute flagrant violations of FIFA’s code of ethics and bid regulations.
Many others are still feverishly looking for a smoking gun in the Qatar vote. A trail is found in South Africa. It leads nowhere. There’s talk of shady guys, some of them ex-CIA, collecting incriminating e-mails from leaky servers, cell phone intercepts, and bank-transfer documents, waiting for the right time to strike. That time never comes. Occasionally, we come across some genuinely interesting information: France Football magazine revealed that a private meeting took place on January 19, 2010, in Rio de Janeiro, attended by the three godfathers of South American football, Argentine Julio Grondona, Paraguayan Nicolás Leoz and Brazilian Ricardo Teixeira, plus the then-emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani. They met at what was Teixeira’s main residence, Barra de Tijuca. Note the “was”—the former CBF president and executive-committee member (another Qatar vote, like his two South American compadres), and a good friend of Jérôme Valcke’s and of Barça chairman Sandro Rosell’s (the best man at his second wedding) has since moved to Miami. Should he come back to Brazil, where he’s been charged with embezzlement, his welcome committee would consist of a few policemen, an armored van, and handcuffs. But that’s the full extent of that exposé, and harboring suspicions, however disturbing the circumstantial evidence may be, is not enough to strip a country of the right it’s earned to host a World Cup.
There are, however, several other compelling reasons to rethink that vote. Let’s talk facts, not hypotheses, starting with this one: A football competition cannot be held in the summer in Qatar, where the averagetemperature in June and July is 106 degrees Fahrenheit, with peaks of 122 degrees common. This is why the FIFA technical committee made Qatar the only bidding country to be given a “high risk” rating in the report submitted to (and ignored by) the organization’s executive committee prior to the vote. That heat would represent a clear danger to the health of all those attending the event; players, officials, and fans alike—to say nothing of the thousands of laborers coping with them now.
The Qataris have put their faith in new, yet-to-be-invented “green” air-cooling technologies that would create a virtual spring in the emirate for the duration of the tournament and insist that they intend to stick to their plan. Why would they do so, when even their most prominent supporter, Platini, has argued that a switch to winter is unavoidable, a point that was also recently made by Blatter? The reason is to be found in the FIFA tender every candidate had to abide by when it submitted its bid. This supposedly confidential document (it was circulated widely at the time of the vote) clearly states (article 1.2.1) that the tournament must take place “in June and July.” There is a provision, true, for an alteration of the schedule, should FIFA and the local organizing committee deem it desirable, but what those who drafted this legally binding document had in mind was “Instead of starting on June 12, June 15 might be a more appropriate date,” not “Let’s move it from one season to another.”
The Qataris know as well as anyone that staging the World Cup in the desert in the summer is a ridiculous and dangerous notion, but they find themselves entangled in a classic catch-22. Only they (as Blatter has reminded everyone, and often) can approach FIFA and ask for a switch to winter, after which FIFA’s executive committee would decide whether the proposal is acceptable. But Blatter himself—widely believed to have favored Australia in the first round of the December 2010 vote and then supported the American bid—had long opposed that switch in public and private before changing his tack late in July. What is his strategy here? Has he had a genuine change of heart or is he trying to “smoke the Qataris out,” as one of his aides suggested to me, looking to precipitate a crisis?
And what can Doha do? If the matter were brought to the table now, there’s every likelihood that at least two of the countries that lost out in December 2010 would kick an almighty fuss. Japan and Korea have turned the page. Not so the Americans and the Australians, who’ve kept very, very quiet about this issue until, come September 2013, the men who led their bids, Sunil Gulati (since then elected to FIFA’s executive committee) and Frank Lowy, respectively, made it clear that all this talk of moving the 2022 World Cup to winter was premature, as the investigations of FIFA’s ethics committee had not run their course. The Australians went further, making it clear that they would envisage asking for full compensation should FIFA unilaterally decide to move the tournament out of the Northern Hemisphere summer.
FIFA quietly commissioned at least two reports from leading European sports-law firms to establish whether it would run the risk of legal action should it tear up the original tender document and sanction a switch to winter. I spoke to one of the lawyers involved; according to him—and contrary to what FIFA general secretary Jérôme Valcke publicly inferred on one occasion—the conclusions of these reports were ambiguous. “The Australians and Americans would have a case,” he said. Is that why, then, they’ve been so discreet when the question of the winter switch is put to them? Gulati, the president of USSF, has been asked the question repeatedly but has declined to answer. Interestingly, though, the man who replaced the disgraced Jack Warner at the head of CONCACAF in May 2012, the chairman of the Cayman Islands SA and executive-committee member Jeffrey Webb, has unequivocally stated his opposition to moving the 2022 World Cup from summer to winter. I find it difficult to believe he’d have done so without the support of its confederation’s most powerful association—that is, the USSF and, therefore, Gulati.
Opposition to a winter Cup is not just the refuge of bitter losers. Moving the 2022 World Cup to winter would force a dramatic shake-up of the international football calendar. The English Premier League adamantly opposes such a radical shift and the chief executive of Bundesliga, Christian Seifert, has said of the possible switch, “It affects maybe three years of running of professional football leagues in Europe.” The Italian, Spanish, and French Leagues are known to hold similar views, even if they have been reluctant to express them publicly. Holding the Cup in the winter requires logistical changes of such infernal complexity that most professional leagues—not just those in Europe—shudder when asked to contemplate it.
And what about 2026? Should we then switch back to summer? Contrary to what Blatter has said—that the international schedule would only be affected for the year in which the tournament took place—all experts agree with Seifert that any switch would have an impact on at least two seasons before and after each World Cup and play havoc with domestic fixture lists, and not just within the professional game, as German FIFA executive-committee member Theo Zwanziger (who also called the award of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar “a blatant mistake”) reminded everyone in an explosive interview with Sportbild magazine in late July. The side issues, if that’s the right way to phrase this, would include the rewriting of long-term players’ contracts, sponsorship, and broadcasting agreements, as no one could be quite sure of what constituted a season anymore. In the U.S., the Fox Network, which spent a fortune acquiring the rights to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, has let it be known that it would initiate a legal challenge if the latter of these competitions were moved to, say, November and December—the height of the NFL and college-football seasons.
And if it is impossible to play football in the heat of the Qatari summer, what about countries like Algeria, Egypt, Greece, Turkey, Spain, or Portugal, whose domestic competitions would have to take place in June and July to accommodate the winter switch, countries where the temperature often raises over 95 degrees fahrenheit in the daytime? Staging games in the evening, as has been suggested, wouldn’t solve the obvious problem of when to hold training sessions.
Everywhere one looks, a new problem can be found. A winter World Cup is the mess of all messes. But it is a mess that will have to be cleaned up, and quickly. Football cannot be held hostage to the interests of a single nation and of those who, for reasons few others can understand, have embraced its cause. Or rather, should not.
There is also the disturbing question of the human cost of Qatar 2022, which FIFA continues to ignore despite numerous warnings from bodies such as Human Rights Watch and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), the largest body of its kind in the world, with 311 affiliated organizations in 155 countries and 175 million members. ITUC has issued the sternest of warnings: “More people could die building Qatar’s World Cup stadiums than will play in the World Cup,” has requested FIFA end what it says is an ongoing catastrophe. Figures are hard to come by, but it is not difficult to grasp why ITUC is so alarmed. Migrant workers who, according to the organization, “toil 15 hours a day, 6 days a week, for only $8 per day,” are massed in appalling conditions in temporary camps, deprived of the most basic requirements and facilities in terms of health, safety, and sanitation. It is estimated that over 100 Nepalese workers succumb each year to what they call sleeping death—young, fit men go to sleep and do not wake up, their bodies sapped by dehydration and exposure to the scorching sun.
Those who wish to escape these “slave-like” conditions (to quote ITUC general secretary Sharan Burrow) often can’t do it, as their passports have been confiscated by their employers. Despite these appalling conditions, the influx of migrant workers is expected to intensify. According to Human Rights Watch’s Nick McGeehan, who has regularly visited Qatar over the past few years, four Qatar Airways jets leave Kathmandu every day, carrying hundreds of workers to Doha. The World Cup project is so colossal and requires such a huge labor force that the country’s population may grow by a million or so in the run-up to 2022. The shocking treatment of workers will likely only get worse.
Qatar defends itself by saying that the World Cup provides an opportunity to right wrongs, and it has drafted a Qatar 2022 Worker’s Charter to that effect. A few tentative steps have been made to put an end to some of the most glaring malpractices, such as the issue of double contracts to workers, who find out—too late—that what they’d believed to have agreed to at home was very different from what they found when they reached their destination. But while that charter is filled to the brim with fine words and noble aspirations, specifics are hard to come by; it is “meaningless without labour law reform,” according to ITUC, not the only party to hold a skeptical view of that document. This might not be the fault of the World Cup Supreme Committee and its charismatic leader, Hassan Al Thawadi. There are people in Qatar who sincerely wish to improve the lot of their workers, but they meet with stubborn resistance, notably, according to one insider, within the very influential Qatar Chamber of Trade and Commerce. And should they manage to have new, more enlightened regulations adopted, there is no guarantee that these would be respected.
From whichever angle one looks at Qatar 2022, the view is ugly. The argument for revisiting the decision to award the World Cup to the emirate is one that FIFA can ignore only if it is willing to destroy its own legitimacy.
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