By Andrew Warshaw
November 18 – Two days to go and counting to the first and most probably last winter World Cup, staged slap bang in the middle of the domestic season. Like it or not, it’s happening but rarely, if ever, has so much attention been focussed on matters off as well as on the field.
Even before ball is kicked ahead of Sunday’s big kickoff between the host nation and Ecuador, scrutiny of Qatar’s justification for hosting shows little sign of abating with endless condemnation of its treatment of migrant workers, human rights record, labour laws and discrimination against the LGBT community.
Should we really be surprised? Ever since Qatar was awarded the World Cup in 2010, defeating the United States in the final voting round 14-8, the tiny Gulf state half the size of Wales has suffered a slew of negative headlines and corruption allegations, all of which have been vehemently denied from day one.
In the build-up to the tournament, organisers have constantly been forced on the defensive to react to a barrage of negative publicity, insisting Europe has no monopoly on staging football’s showpiece event and even suggesting some of the criticism has been racially motivated.
Qatari officials have increasingly rolled out the argument that there is a targeted media campaign against the country as the Middle East prepares to organise the World Cup for the first time.
Yet so alarmed did FIFA become that in an unprecedented move, its two top officials implored the 32 finalists to focus on football and avoid political statements.
Organisers have been telling anyone who will listen that the tournament will be remembered for all the right reasons and that everyone will be welcome, regardless of colour, creed or sexual orientation – provided of course there is sufficiently affordable accommodation for them to sleep.
Qatar isn’t the kind of place where authorities turn a blind eye to people crashing out on the beach or on a park bench. Concerns about the influx of fans have reached the point where even foreign residents have been asked to vacate their rented apartments during the World Cup to open up more availability.
But there is undoubtedly a plus side in terms of the compact nature of the tournament. However seriously disruptive the tournament might be to the traditional league season, Qatar’s stadiums are within a few minutes of each other, meaning no exhausting and expensive travel between venues. Qatar also knows how to organise sports events, having successfully hosted a plethora of them in recent years.
The sheer scope of the World Cup presents, of course, an entirely different challenge and it will be intriguing to discover how Qatar, which has spent an eye-watering $300 billion on infrastructure for a tournament lasting just five weeks, copes with the magnitude of the occasion. Former FIFA president Sepp Blatter, who voted for the United States to host, added his voice this week to critics who say Qatar is simply too small, notwithstanding any perceived lack of footballing pedigree.
Off the field, Qatar’s authorities have been at pains to point out that being granted the finals has led directly to improvements in the treatment of migrant workers. Following a wave of international condemnation over Qatar’s antiquated kafala labour system that put employees at the mercy of their employers, the practise has thankfully been abolished.
It’s undoubtedly a groundbreaking development even if human rights organisations claim it isn’t nearly enough. As widely reported, Amnesty International, Football Supporters Europe and eight other human rights and fan groups collectively urged FIFA to put up a minimum $440 million – roughly the equivalent of World Cup prize money – as a compensation fund for the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers who suffered abuses and unexplained deaths in preparation for the tournament.
FIFA, by all accounts, has yet to commit to this, preferring to focus on the legacy the tournament will provide. A World Cup for the entire region is the mantra that has been shouted from the rooftops over more than a decade.
Whether or not you believe this, there is certainly an enormous appetite to attend the tournament, with an estimated 1.2 million fans attracted by Qatar’s compact size, hardly any travel required once there and the possibility to see more than one game in a single day.
If there is enough space to prevent thousands of fans falling over each other, metaphorically if not literally speaking; if rules banning alcohol (already exhorbitantly priced) in all but a few places do not lead to too much of a kill-joy environment; in other words, if the whole caboozle is not too sanitised, those who have worked flat out to leave no stone unturned to make it success might well pull it off.
After all, World Cup host nations, however strongly criticised beforehand, have a habit of showcasing their attributes rather than their failings once the action get under way. Twas ever thus.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino reminded everyone recently that the tournament “is not only about infrastructure and stadiums, it’s also about experience and legacy. It’s about creating memories that will last a lifetime.”
True but memories are one thing, what happens on the ground after the tournament is another. Not all host countries – one might even suggest not many – end up leaving the legacy they promise.
Qatar will have to show long after the event that it will not fall into this category.
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