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 used prominently in Qatar’s promotional campaign – is nothing less than the stunning, self-willed transformation of a micro-state (it’s 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). 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 by some sources the highest in the world – $153,000 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 percent of the world’s known resources; 70 percent of Qatar’s revenues derive 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 toward establishing itself as a “key actor on the world stage” (its words) and perhaps guaranteeing 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 (European Football president Michel Platini in particular) have done – is, at best, misleading 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 last count – Saudi Arabia has more than 200,000) can only force its way to the front of the world stage by spending hundreds of billions of dollars. Doha News estimates the cost of organizing the 2022 World Cup at $220 billion, more than 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 des Sciences 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.” By “to exist,” that is, it means 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 football revolution, was launched in 2004 – and characteristically, they didn’t spare their efforts, or their money.
They bought French power Paris Saint-Germain, 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 has 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 micro-state as an enlightened leader in its region. This, at least, is the message that Qatar’s official rhetoric, with its fondness for such words as progress, modern and vibrant, wishes to communicate to the outside world. The most telling illustration of this is probably “Qatar National Vision 2030,” a document published in July 2008, six months before FIFA officially opened the bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.
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 United States. There the matter ends, it seems, regardless of whether that decision is viewed as nonsensical, scandalous, or reasonable. But perhaps not: Switching a World Cup from one country to another has been done. The 1986 competition was moved to Mexico when it became obvious that Colombia, 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 that 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 Perez. Where money flows, the waters run deep. To move the tournament to another nation would result in 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 Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s president, opened the envelope containing Qatar’s passport to the World Cup in December 2010. Allegations had been circulating for weeks. One of Blatter’s private advisors 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 rumored 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 to pick the organizers of the costliest football jamboree in the world. Immediately after the vote, The Wall Street Journal wrote: “According to a former employee of the Qatar bid team, at least one advisor recommended that the Qatar Football Association make a payment of $78.4 million to help the Argentina Football Association (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 Journal attorneys are still waiting for court papers to land on their desks. That “former employee,” the Arab-American Phaedra Al Majid, who had been on the Qatar PR team, subsequently withdrew her accusations in perplexing circumstances.
The controversy lingered, periodically fuelled by revelations, such as the publication, in May 2011, of an email from FIFA General Secretary Jérôme Valcke to then executive committee member Jack Warner in which he’d written “they bought the WC.” They meaning the Qataris, 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 the U.K., 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 more than $2 million from Qatar in exchange for their support – an assertion vehemently denied by all of 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: It would foot the bill for that body’s Congress in Luanda, Angola. 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 has also been said that the Qataris block-booked all of the best hotels in Luanda. 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 has 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 Michel Platini, president of the Union of European Football Associations and vice president of FIFA, 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. It is difficult to accept his assertion that the pressure applied on him then had no bearing on his decision. The fact that his son Laurent took an executive role in January 2011 within Qatar Sports Investments, the owner of Paris Saint-Germain, is also hard to view as coincidence.
FIFA seems to know an unpleasant odor is emanating from all this. In July 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, Joao Havelange, Chuck Blazer and Jack Warner. Add to their tally Nicolas 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 had 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 and now works full-time examining the evidence, which 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 his relationship with his employer; it also ignores the idea that Blatter, for all his faults, has a genuine desire to shake up the tree at the top of which he has been since 1998. Garcia’s mission is not an easy one, and he has confessed on several occasions that he has occasionally found it frustrating; this doesn’t mean he has no intention of pursuing it to the end. In November, he launched a four-month road show that will take him or one of his aides to every single country that bid for the 2018 and 2022 tournaments.
Should more FIFA grandees, following Teixeira, Leoz, and Bin Hammam, be discredited in the weeks to come, wouldn’t the case for restaging the December 2010 vote become overwhelming from an ethical standpoint? And what if Garcia was able to demonstrate 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 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 own 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 emails from leaky servers, cellphone 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 extensive business links between Qatar and current executive committee member Marios Lefkaritis, since confirmed by the FIFA grandee. The magazine also uncovered a private meeting that took place on January 19, 2010 in Rio de Janeiro, attended by the three godfathers of South American football – Grondona, Leoz, and 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 word was: The former CBF president and executive committee member (another Qatar voter, like his two South American compadres), and a good friend of Valcke’s and FC Barcelona president Sandro Rosell (the best man at Teixeira’s second wedding), has since moved to Miami. Should he come back to Brazil – where he has been charged with embezzlement of $4.7 million of public money; Rosell is also implicated in this affair – his welcoming 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 has earned to host a World Cup.
There are, however, several other compelling reasons to rethink that vote, ones that are not hypothetical: A football competition cannot be held in the summer in Qatar, where the average temperature in June and July is 106 degrees 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 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.” True, there is a provision 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 often reminded everyone) 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, then supported the American bid – has, in public and private, had long opposed that switch 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, it’s very likely that at least two of the countries that lost in December 2010 would kick up an almighty fuss. Japan and Korea have turned the page. Not so the Americans and the Australians, who’ve kept very quiet about this issue until September 2013, when the men who’d led their bids, Sunil Gulati (since then elected to FIFA’s executive committee) and Frank Lowy, respectively, made it clear that the 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 decided to move the tournament out of the Northern Hemisphere summer.
FIFA discreetly commissioned at least two reports from leading European sports law firms to establish whether they’d run the risk of legal action should they 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 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 the United States Soccer Federation (USSF), leader of the United States’s 2022 bid and recently elected member of FIFA’s executive committee, has been asked the question repeatedly, but has declined to answer. Interestingly though, Jeffrey Webb – the man who replaced the disgraced Jack Warner at the head of Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football in May 2012, the chairman of the Cayman Islands SA, and executive committee member – 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 the confederation’s most powerful association – the USSF – and, therefore, Gulati.
Opposition to a winter tournament is not just the refuge of bitter losers. Moving the 2022 World Cup to winter would force a dramatic shakeup 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 tournament in the winter requires logistical changes of such infernal complexity that most professional leagues – not just 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 United States, 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 was moved to, say, November and December – at 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 temperature often rises above 95 degrees 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. Blatter has announced that a task force – headed by Asian Football Federation president Sheikh Salman, not known to be one the Qataris’ best friends - would examine the issue with the game’s major stakeholders in order to make recommendations to the executive committee. No one should prejudge what the conclusions of this task force will be, even if some find it advantageous to assert that a switch to winter (or late spring) is unavoidable. Football cannot – or rather should not –be held hostage to the interests of a single nation and of those who, for reasons few others can understand, have embraced its cause.
There is also the increasingly disturbing question of Qatar 2022’s human cost, which FIFA has recognized at long last, following the publication of a harrowing report by The Guardian last September. What is shocking is that it took FIFA so long to wake up. There had been 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. The confederation has issued the sternest of warnings: “More people could die building Qatar’s World Cup stadiums than will play in the World Cup,” and it has requested FIFA to 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, six 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 more than 100 Nepalese workers succumb each year to what they call “sleeping death” – young, fit men, in their 20s, go to sleep and do not wake up, their bodies sapped by dehydration and exposure to the scorching sun. When asked what could prompt the men to develop heart problems at such an early age, Nepal’s Second Secretary Harihar Kant Poudel cited working conditions as the main issue: “Many workers are going without meals, and without enough water, then they are working in high temperatures all day. The weather here is different from our country. Our nationals are not used to it.”
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 Workers 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 labor 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 Qatar 2022 Bid 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.
The Villaggio Mall fire, which claimed the lives of 19 people, 13 of them children, on May 28, 2012, provided cruel proof of the disdain many Qatari entrepreneurs show for the letter of the law. The inquest into the blaze, highlighted multiple infractions to regulations, including the use of illegal flammable materials in the fabric of the building – itself part of the Aspire Zone sports complex.
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 only ignore if it is willing to destroy its own legitimacy.