Mihir Bose: Can Qatar learn from South Africa?

Nelson Mandela, as we have been told endlessly in the last few days, belongs to the world. So it was no surprise to arrive at the Doha Goals Forum last week to see that pictures of Nelson Mandela were festooned all over Aspire Academy, the multi purpose sports and conference venue where the forum was being held. Even had this not been the week when the eyes of the world were glued to Mandela’s funeral a forum such as Doha Goals, whose purpose is to “create initiatives for social change through sport”, would have invoked the great man’s name.

And sure enough when Hassan Al-Thawadi, the man charged with delivering the Qatar World Cup, spoke about 2022 he gave the example of South Africa. This was in the context of being asked whether he was worried about the on-going FIFA investigation into how Qatar won the bid. Asserting that Qatar had nothing to fear, and had always been faithful to FIFA’s rules, Al-Thawadi went on to talk about Qatar’s sponsorship of the CAF General Assembly, a sponsorship that raised some eyebrows during the bidding process.

The Qatari leader explained that the sponsorship had provided Qatar an opportunity to launch its bid and the “opportunity to present to Africa who were at the time the coming hosts of the 2010 World Cup who understood what it meant for the world to stand up and say, ‘you cannot host a major event, you cannot do it’. It was right for us to deliver our message to them.”

That Al-Thawadi should invoke South Africa was understandable. Just as 2010 was a first for the World Cup, Africa being the beneficiary, 2022 will be another first, this time the Middle East and the Muslim world. But this is where the comparison ends and the problems begin for Qatar and Al-Thawadi. Qatar and South Africa may both be football pioneers but the two countries mission has been driven by entirely different reasons and to invoke South Africa is to make Qatar’s task of selling itself to the world all the more difficult.

For a start the world went not so much to Africa but to South Africa specifically and for very special reasons that can never be repeated. This is because South Africa in the last half century has provided the most heart tugging story of our times, a struggle portrayed so brilliantly in Alan Paton’s Cry, The Beloved Country. By taking the planet’s greatest game to South Africa the world was demonstrating that it was not quite as cold and cruel a place as events sometimes suggest. In many ways taking the World Cup to Mandela’s country was paying reparation, albeit it was moral not material, for the damage apartheid had caused.

The staging of the World Cup acknowledged that for years the world at large had tolerated if not encouraged apartheid. This was true not only of governments, in general western ones, but also of sports in particular sports like rugby, tennis and golf. Football to its credit was the first to recognise the evil that was sporting apartheid and how the white regime used sport to spread its message and coerce other countries to its vile “whites only” policy.

Even then it was a struggle for the World Cup to get to South Africa. Recall South Africa lost the 2006 bid and only won 2010 when the bidding was restricted to African countries. And one of the African nations was Libya which was disqualified only just before the vote after FIFA discovered it would not allow Israel to participate. Even then South Africa needed the help of Nelson Mandela to get over the line.

Now no other country can be expected to field a Mandela but the South African World Cup organisers could also surround itself with people who had stories to tell that were very compelling. I am thinking of people like Danny Jordaan, who led the bid and organised the tournament. Jordaan successfully modified Mandela’s great line about a long walk to freedom to talk about his country’s long walk to staging the World Cup. Listening to Al-Thawadi talk of how Qatar drew on the South African experience made me check back on my interview with Jordaan just before the start of the 2010 World Cup.

Then he told me how when the World Cup finally comes to a close he will think not so much of the match, the billions round the world that will have just seen it, but how it came to be held in his native land at all.

“I will think of all the dreams I had. That one day we’ll be free, one day Nelson Mandela will walk out of prison, one day we will have a democratic election, one day I will sit in Parliament and one day we will host the World Cup. Those dreams have all come true.” Then he paused and added, “I will think how this long, difficult, incredible journey is closing.”

As we spoke Jordaan was looking down at the main square in Sandton, once one of the most exclusive of white suburbs, now dominated by a huge statue of Nelson Mandela.

“Twenty years ago if I had come here I would have been arrested,” he said. Growing up classified under apartheid as coloured, because of his mixed Dutch and Khoi origins, he was always being told he was living at the wrong place, going to the wrong school. “Under the Group Areas Act certain areas were reserved for certain race groups. Our house was in the wrong place for coloureds, so it was bulldozed. Our school was in the wrong place, so it was bulldozed”.

Active with Steve Biko, like Jordaan from the Eastern Cape, in the student movement that started in 1976 after the Soweto riots, Jordaan faced personal danger when the second state of emergency was declared in 1985. “It was a very difficult time, we were all under threat. There was the real possibility of even being killed. Even as late as 1990 I had to run away from my own home town of Port Elizabeth and stay in Kimberley. The ANC said: they could kill you, just disappear. I stayed there for three weeks before it was safe to remerge.”

Set against this organising a World Cup may seem fairly insignificant but for Jordaan it was the culmination of the road that began in that awful darkness. “The rainbow nation is very young, only 16 years old, this is our coming out party, the whole country welcoming the world.”

And this is where the difference lies with Qatar. 2022 cannot be presented as Qatar’s coming out party. The oil rich kingdom came out many years ago.

Indeed its power and influence is something many in the world feel all the time. So who sponsors FC Barcelona? Why Qatar Airways. Indeed travel on Qatar Airways and as the flight prepares to land you see a video which has Gary Lineker acting as a taxi driver dropping a Qatar Airways stewardess to some London destination. And then up pops Lionel Messi with a football giving us that boyish smile we have come to know so well. And who owns PSG? Why, the Qataris. And why has the London property market defied the worst recession in the western world since the 30s? Because of rich Qataris keeping estate agents busy in Belgravia, Kensington, Chelsea and Knightsbridge.

The fact is, Qatar’s 2022 World Cup is an exercise in soft power. The country is rich and has been for years, that is hardly a secret. The problem for Qatar is it has no military muscle. Traditionally, it has relied on the Saudis and, of course, the US. But Saudi power has been put in doubt ever since the Iraq war of the early 1990s. Qatar knew it needed something more and decided to advertise its soft power. And what better way to do so then host the World Cup? In most other countries the cost of staging it would be a deterrent. But given the wealth Qatar has the World Cup costs of building stadiums and developing infrastructure must feel like petty cash.

The problem for Qatar is that having won over FIFA and secured the bid to the surprise of the football world and, perhaps, to its own surprise, it has not worked out how to win the world over. And here it has many problems. Now had this been Egypt flying the flag for the Middle East and the Arab world it would have been easy. Egypt may have its problems but it is an ancient land with a rich history and culture which does not need to be sold. People may just need to be reminded of the odd thing or two.

Qatar has another problem. It is not only small but the majority of its population is from outside its borders. I have been going to Qatar since 1994 and seen it change dramatically. But at the every day tourist level, hotel staff, cab drivers, waiters, waitresses, airline personnel, I have never met a single Qatari. The only Qatari I have met have been the immigration officials. But since you do not have a conversation with them you can hardly call that a meeting.

Yes, Qatar can put on shows like the Doha Goals Forum and worthy shows they are too. While Cherie Blair, who was listed as one of the speakers did not turn up, there was an interesting list which included Peter Mandelson, Justin King, CEO of Sainsbury, Ronald Noble, secretary general of Interpol and a whole host of former sports stars. Almost wherever you went round the Aspire complex you could see a famous athlete: Boris Becker, Ilie Nastase, Nadia Comaneci, Katarina Witt, Michael Johnson, Kelly Holmes and Jonathan Edwards.

True the sports list was not quite as impressive as the one last year when Seb Coe and Travis Tygart turned up. Coe was still basking in the glory of organising London 2012 while Tygart, head of the United States Anti-Doping Agency, was fresh from his triumph in unmasking Lance Armstrong. But nevertheless when you have Mandelson the prince of darkness, with no known interest in sport, presiding over a five hour conference of sports ministers – albeit they were no big names here – you know this is something rather different.

But just as Tony Blair struggled to get the Labour party to love Mandy so Qatar is finding out how difficult it is to convince the world it is right to for Qatar to stage the 2022 World Cup. Qatar will have to work hard to change the thinking of the world. But the problem is Qatar will not admit it has an issue here it needs to tackle. So when I made this point to Al-Thawadi, in the brief media huddle the press was allowed to have with him (only three questions being permitted) he fairly bristled and reeled off a series of journalists he knew. Al-Thawadi is impressive and could prove a great ambassador for Qatar. But for reasons that are not clear he has not been so employed.

He would do well to study how Danny Jordaan did it for South Africa. Of course Al-Thawadi could not match Jordaan’s story but then no other World Cup organiser could. However Al-Thawadi is suave and worldy wise enough to know how to market Qatar. But he needs to start quickly otherwise he may find Qatar has got everything ready for the party, including the flags and bunting, but no guests. Now that would be some party.

Mihir Bose was the first sports editor of the BBC. He has worked for various media outlets and launched the Inside Sport column for the Daily Telegraph. Now a freelance journalist he has written 28 books. His latest book: Game Changer: How the English Premier League Came to Dominate the World was published by Marshall Cavendish for £14.99. Follow Mihir on twitter @mihirbose