The Qatar Conundrum

The Sunday Times reported yesterday that the hosting rights for the 2022 World Cup was essentially ‘bought’ by Qatari bid committee officials making payments of up to £3 million to members of FIFA’s executive committee.  The news shocked few in football, and is the latest in a damaging string of high-profile corruption allegations against the game’s governing body.  But with the scale of these claims, against the organising of football’s flagship event, it might be the one that enforces real change at the top of the football game. Hopefully at least.

No news piece about this story or comment about it has been at all surprised by what are serious allegations about the way in which the 2022 World Cup was awarded.  With existing clouds of corruption and bribery hanging over FIFA’s top dogs, the fact that the oil-rich Qatar won the right to host a World Cup always looked solely down to money.  For all of FIFA’s commendable public attempts at explaining their motive behind the decision, that they want the World Cup to move around the globe and to be hosted in the Middle East for the first time, it is hard to look past the dollar signs in their eyes while they spout such nonsense.

Qatar is almost the worst place in the world you could choose for a World Cup.  In the summer, when the World Cup has always been played, temperatures reach up to 50°C which is far too hot for players to play in and for fans to stand around in.  At the 2006 World Cup in the comparatively temperate Germany players were complaining of suffering from the heat.  Medical advice suggest that players may even die from playing in such intense atmospheres, with the tragic death of Ecuador’s Christian Benitez last year attributed to playing the day before in the Qatari summer.

Fans will also struggle to have the experience that they should get from the World Cup if they choose to go to Qatar.  Aside from the unbearable heat, they will have to contend with one of the strictest atmospheres in history.  Despite assurances that all fans’ wishes will be catered for, questions are still being raised on the safety and rights of LGBT fans travelling to the World Cup, the availability of alcohol and the potential treatment of an Israeli team and their fans should they qualify.  In a predominantly Muslim country with such authoritarian rule, it’s hard to see how the traditional party atmosphere of a World Cup can be sustained within such restrictions.

There is almost no footballing reason for choosing Qatar as the hosts of the World Cup either.  The side is only the 95th best in the world, lower than any other World Cup host has ever been, and has never qualified for the tournament of their own merit.  They would more than likely be eliminated in the group stage, which doesn’t add anything to the competition’s quality.

The Qatari bid committee convinced FIFA’s bid committee, one way or another, that these detractions were insignificant compared to the spectacle that they would be able to put on for the greatest show in football.  What’s at the heart of their ability to deliver on these promises is not just money, but a callous disregard for life.  Qatar’s population is almost entirely made up of migrant workers, up to 94% by some estimates, and they are being put to work in horrendous conditions to fulfil the rulers’ dreams of hosting the World Cup.  Over 1,200 of these workers have already died in construction of these stadia and that figure could rise to 4,000 by the time the World Cup kicks-off.  This colossal human cost is arguably higher than the insanely high budget for the construction of the stadia and infrastructure required to host the tournament: £138 billion.

So, when considering all facets of the Qatar World Cup bid it’s not hard to see why the level of shock is so low at the notion of FIFA’s Executive Committee voting with a view to their wallets rather than for the good of the game, the players, the fans or people in general.  Qatar fills almost none of the criteria for a host country to be considered as a good World Cup host, other than having the money to compensate.  The politics of football is dominated by an impenetrable oligarchy that serves its own end, fronted by the pseudo-dictator Sepp Blatter.  Those at the top of the game are undoubtedly corrupt, if not all in terms of bribery at least in terms of interest.  The problem is that there is very little recourse to change matters.

Football is not a democracy, despite being the people’s game.  The decision makers at FIFA are chosen by national associations, with many of them suffering from their own devolved corruption issues.  There is a systematic problem within football.  President Sepp Blatter is the perfect example of this.  The only real threat to his Presidency so far was from one of the Qatari bid committee officials indicted in yesterday’s story: Mohammed Bin Hammam, former President of the AFC (Asian Football Confederation).  His campaign, and presidency, was ended as FIFA charged him with taking bribes in exchange for votes along with FIFA’s Vice-President Jack Warner.  Sepp Blatter won the election unopposed, and Bin Hammam was banned for life from football by FIFA, although the verdict was overturned in 2012 by the Court of Arbitration for Sport.  In March it emerged that Bin Hammam had paid Jack Warner up to £1 million in the wake of Qatar’s successful World Cup bid and he has been dragged into further bribery allegations with yesterday’s story.  No matter which angle you look at this episode from, it paints FIFA in a negative light.  FIFA painted Bin Hammam as the corrupt one, which he may well have been, but the idea that a democratic challenge to Blatter’s rule was quashed by a judiciary under his thumb smacks of totalitarianism as well.

Two big questions have come out of these recent revelations about the Qatar World Cup.  The first is whether they should be allowed to host the tournament after winning the contest so dishonestly and with their inherent inability to organise a ‘good’ World Cup for fans without costing hundreds of people their lives.  There is no way Qatar should have been awarded the World Cup in the first place, and no way they should be able to keep it after what has transpired.  FIFA are running their own investigation into the claims, and Vice-President Jim Boyce, of Northern Ireland, said yesterday that he would “support a re-vote” if the allegations were found to be true.  With eight years left for another suitable host country to prepare (with all the losing bids for the 2022 World Cup more than capable of doing so), I believe that the World Cup should be awarded to a country with more scruples and more chance of delivering a World Cup that can celebrate football rather than sully its image.

The other question is whether the game of football can support those in charge at FIFA through yet another scandal about their management of the sport.  The idea of FIFA investigating themselves again doesn’t inspire confidence in the judicial merit of their findings given their past failures.  Whether or not they do decide to change the host of the 2022 World Cup, they have consistently been shown to disregard the game they are meant to be custodians of in favour of their own personal gain.  The world of football is embarrassed to have such poor leadership, but has been powerless so far in bringing about real change.  This crisis has to set the high watermark for FIFA’s indiscretions and the better run organisations in football have to step up and push for a fairer, more transparent and effectual governing body.  You could argue that FIFA as an institution is too tainted to continue, but even a thorough restructuring and clear-out would bring some sort of progress towards a better leadership for football.

Economist Milton Friedman once said that “only crisis, perceived or real, can produce actual change”.  With football’s leaders being obsessed with their own personal economies, hopefully the good in football can take heed of Friedman’s theory and make the game what it should be once again.

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