Wrong place, wrong time, wrong message – Qatar 2022

The mascot of Qatar 2022

A friend (yes I do still have one or two) left me a message yesterday – “I went looking for your thoughts on the World Cup on “rascott.com” and didn’t see any.”

There are so many other commentaries on this world cup that it feels churlish to try and write about it – I am not going to add anything new. So here does!

My eleven years in Dubai should give me some insight. It does. There is a great deal about the gulf states that should make people very uncomfortable – in particular the treatment of migrant workers – without whom, and without their vast numbers, city states and emirates like Qatar and Dubai would not exist.

Here is John Oliver for HBO’s Last Word Tonight on FIFA/Qatar and the World Cup from two weeks ago at the beginning of the tournament.

It is a tournament being held in the wrong place; at the wrong time and is sending out some appalling messages, mainly that if your throw enough money at something people will forget or ignore all that is wrong.

Remember Qatar was awarded the world cup back in 2010. They bid (as everyone had to) for a summer world cup. Qatar was very much the Gulf’s ignored state. Even Bahrain still carried greater weight. But propelled by its natural gas wealth Qatar could look at Dubai and say that it could be bigger, bolder and brasher.

FIFA eventually realised that a summer world cup in Qatar was impossible; at which point they should have torn up and dismissed the Qatar bid. Instead FIFA bent over in every direction to accommodate Qatar and to play a winter world cup which the other bidding nations of course had never been allowed to bid for.

I should preface this by saying that I have defended the idea of a Middle East World Cup – every nation in the Middle East embraces football – they just tend to watch foreign teams in preference to their own.

Indeed the Qatar World Cup may have gone a long way to mending divides in the Middle East – Qatar was involved in a pretty serious, if non-violent, conflict with a range of their neighbours very recently. From 2017 to the start of 2021 a coalition of Arab countries, led by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt severed diplomatic relations with Qatar and blockaded the country, effectively trying to isolate them from the world.

This led to consequences as varied as the Saudi-Qatar land border being closed, to Qatar Airways being banned from the airspaces of several nations, to a variety of countries instructing their citizens to leave Qatar, to the feed of beIN Sports being pirated in Saudi Arabia. The dispute was ultimately settled in January 2021. Neither side won.

Did the World Cup enable an end of the dispute? Thousands of fans are staying in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Bahrain and commuting into Doha on special World Cup charters. Mohammed bin Salman was feted as a guest of honour at the opening ceremony. A region that has always had its share of tribal, territorial and family disputes looks more united than ever.

Will this new found unity continue long after the last kick?

The idea of a single city world cup was admirable. There are 11 time zones in Russia where the 2018 tournament was played. Brazil in 2014 took teams from the tropics in the north to the southern hemisphere winter chills. Canada, USA, Mexico (CUM – oh dear!) will be a travel/logistical/expense nightmare for players and fans.

In Doha supporters, players and officials stay in one hotel or camp for as long as they remain in Dubai. The new metro system takes supporters to the eight stadia. The longest distance between any two venues is 35 miles 46kms) and some are within sight of one another. It is prohibitively expensive – but this is a World Cup for the well-heeled and well-finance fans.

The human toll of this world cup is execrable. It was not just stadiums that were being built – a new airport; a metro system; some 100 hotels, roads, all of the supporting infrastructure. And being built in daytime temperatures that exceed 50 C in the summer months.

This week the Qatari official responsible for delivery of the 2022 World Cup has said the number of migrant workers who have died on World Cup-related projects is “between 400 and 500”.

Previously the authorities had claimed the number was just three.

Hassan al-Thawadi, the secretary general of the Supreme Committee for delivery and legacy, made the admission in an interview but said a precise figure for the number of fatalities was still “being discussed”.

“The estimate is around 400,” Thawadi told the TV show Piers Morgan Uncensored. “Between 400 and 500. I don’t have the precise number, that is something that is being discussed.

After the interview there was anger at Thawadi’s comments with Nicholas McGeehan of the advocacy group Fair Square saying: “This is just the latest example of Qatar’s inexcusable lack of transparency on the issues of workers’ deaths. We need proper data and thorough investigations, not vague figures announced through media interviews. Fifa and Qatar still have a lot of questions to answer, not least where, when, and how did these men die and did their families receive compensation.”

The Supreme Committee has always maintained there have been only three work-related fatalities and 37 non-work-related deaths among migrant workers at World Cup stadiums since construction for the tournament began in 2014.

In 2021 the Guardian published research that showed that more than 6,500 migrant workers fhad died in Qatar between the start of 2011, the year after country won the right to host the World Cup, and 2020.

The Qatari government did not dispute the Guardian’s figures, but said that “the mortality rate among these communities is within the expected range for the size and demographics of the population”. The official figure of three stadium work-related World Cup deaths was repeated by Fifa and used in a speech by its president, Gianni Infantino, in an address to the European Council this year.

Infantino sees FIFA as his feifdom and appears happiest with autocrats and dictators. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is rumoured to be bidding for the 2030 World Cup.

What about Russia? – cry the Qatari loyalists. What about human rights abuses in your own countries? What about colonalism? What about slavery?

There is so much diversion and delusion. It is possible to be more than angry at one thing. It is also possible to hope that past lessons have been learned. It is also possible to accept that two wrongs do not make a right – that something was done before does not justify repeating it.

The Qatari bid and message said everyone was welcome. But it is clear than many are not. The migrant workers as in Duabi are kept out of sight; there is no interaction with the rest of the population or visitors. The LGBTQ community are told to conform; many will have chosen simply not to attend.

And many who have attended will have enjoyed a wonderful spectacle in a very special atmosphere. There have been shock results; shock exits and some heart-pounding football.

Qatar is a global crossroads; the local population are vastly outnumbered by imported workers and now by football fans. The African, Asian and Middle East fans have lit up this world cup with colour and noise.

The European nations are not bossing the tournament. Germany, Belgium and Denmark are already on their way home. Honestly none of them will be missed. Japan beat both Germany and Spain – brilliant.

Saudi Arabia beat Argentina. Australia and Morocco are both in the last 16.

The late decision not to see alcohol in the stadiums seems like common sense.

Here is ITV’s main presenter Mark Pougatch on twitter with his assessment of the tournament that is now almost down to the final 16 teams. FIFA and the Qatar authorities will be happy.

“An honest assessment of #Qatar2022 from a broadcaster’s perspective…

The atmosphere 👏
No alcohol 👍
One-city World Cup 🤝

How have you seen this #FIFAWorldCup so far? pic.twitter.com/H9oeuCIpVM— Mark Pougatch (@markpougatch) December 1, 2022


But this is not about a conflict where the two sides offset eachother. It is very reasonable to praise the football, the organisation and the atmosphere – while at expressing concern and anger at human rights issues, migrant worker deaths and the huge environmental impact of building eight air conditioned stadiums for just a few weeks use.

This link takes you to The Guardians’ excellent page on “Qatar: beyond the football” collecting together years of reporting on the issues around the Qatar World Cup

The football could linger long in the memory. That is the players’ legacy. But no one should forget all the rights & lives sacrificed for this World Cup. That is FIFA’s legacy.