This is a World Cup that, by rights, should not have happened. Qatar was always a poor choice for the world’s biggest sporting event for reasons as varied as its geography, climate, lack of footballing tradition, and treatment of migrant workers, gay people, women and critics. These are not new issues; they were well known in 2010 when Fifa, world football’s governing body, handed the tiny Gulf state the 2022 World Cup. There is one reason why all these issues were overlooked: money.
Corruption allegations have tainted the highest echelons of Fifa since even before its decision 12 years ago to award Russia and Qatar consecutive World Cups. More than half of the members of Fifa’s executive committee who voted through that twin decision have either been charged, suspended or have resigned over the allegations. Qatar denies any impropriety.
But it is incontrovertible that gas-rich Qatar has thrown unprecedented amounts of money into this World Cup, and into trying to overcome all the very problems that meant it should never have been a contender. Doha has spent at least $200bn building new stadiums, a metro and other infrastructure, not only to host 1.5mn visitors this month but also to kick-start the state’s development.
Despite these efforts, thorny issues remain, from the ludicrously expensive accommodation (for those lucky enough to find any) to a last-minute ban on beer in fan zones in stadiums, even though Budweiser is a tournament sponsor. There has been an even starker cost: the lives of an unknown number of migrant workers (Qatar disputes media reports of thousands of deaths and puts the death toll at three since construction began). Their sacrifice should be remembered when Qatar plays Ecuador in the Al-Bayt stadium on Sunday. Players and fans should take full advantage of the world stage they now have to air their concerns.
The fact that the world knows of labourers’ deaths, and of Qatar’s flawed human-rights record, is precisely because of the scrutiny that follows the World Cup. This is not to laud Fifa; it is down to the efforts of campaigners, whistleblowers and investigative journalists. The glare of publicity has forced Qatar to improve its treatment of foreign workers, at least in part. Its kafala system of binding them to employers has been overhauled and workers’ rights are now better than in its neighbours in the conservative region.
Qatar is taken aback by the amount of opprobrium directed its way. In some ways, Doha is correct to point to moral relativism and even racism among its critics. It is in no way the worst of hosts. Allowing Russia to host the tournament in 2018, just four years after it annexed Crimea and its proxies shot down a passenger jet, was arguably far more controversial. And certainly, Qatar is not in the league of Argentina, whose military junta hosted the tournament in 1978.
The reality is that if the World Cup is to be truly global — and it should be — there are very few countries whose values are universally acceptable. The ostensible reason Qatar was chosen was its promise to spread further through the Arab world the joy that football already brings to billions.
Qatar has invited the world into its tiny nation and has paid for it, handsomely. Fifa, too, has had to overhaul its murky ways of doing business and ought to continue to clean up its act. The spotlight of the World Cup will pick out not only fans’ celebration of their beautiful game but also shadows cast by Qatar’s carefully constructed facade. The world is now watching. The hope must be that the legacy of the tournament remains positive even when the world has moved on.