Qatar offered fans free World Cup trips, but only on its terms

Fans availing of trips sign contracts that state they must not to criticise Qatar and report people who do

It is an offer good enough to make any soccer fan stop and listen. Free flights to the World Cup. Free tickets to matches. Free housing during the tournament and even a bit of spending money.

But the offer comes with a catch.

The handpicked fans who accept this trip of a lifetime – financed by Qatar, the host nation of this year’s World Cup – will be required to abide by contracts that will require them to sing what they’re told to sing, to watch what they say and, most controversially, to report social media posts made by other fans critical of Qatar.

Yet despite those rules, hundreds of supporters have signed up.

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The invitations went out in late September, and targeted some of the most well-connected and well-known fan leaders backing the 32 teams headed to the World Cup. A Dutch fan told the broadcaster NOS that he had agreed to vet other supporters from the Netherlands. A board member from the American Outlaws, the biggest US supporters group, agreed to take part, and then helped sign up fellow members and others.

On Thursday, the Outlaws member, who accepted an earlier trip to Qatar that was part of the programme, said he had decided weeks ago not to accept free travel or housing from Qatar at the World Cup.

Fans from all of Fifa’s confederations, meanwhile, have accepted the offer; dozens have already travelled to Qatar at least once for luxurious pre-World Cup visits. Those, too, were paid for by tournament organisers.

Other fans, though, have declined. The conditions attached to the offer, one French fan told Le Parisien, felt like a step too far. “Despite the appetising side of the dish, I preferred to stay true to my values,” said Joseph Delage, a member of a prominent French supporters group.

Qatar’s offer, which came out of a fan engagement programme started in 2020, is the first time a host nation has paid for groups of fans from all the competing nations to attend the World Cup. But it is not the first time Qatar has worked to fill stadiums with friendly voices; in 2019, migrant workers and schoolchildren were enlisted to fill empty seats at the world track and field championships in Doha.

In exchange for their World Cup perks, this year’s fans – as many as 50 from each country – will be required to perform in a ceremony before Qatar opens the tournament against Ecuador on November 20th. Organisers have dedicated five minutes of that celebration to a fan-themed segment that will require the beneficiaries of Qatar’s generosity to perform a chant or song specific to their country, selected not by them but by tournament organisers.

Representatives of Qatar’s World Cup organising committee, the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, tried this week to play down the requirements explicit, and implicit, in the offer. “There is no obligation to promote or do anything,” Ahsan Mansoor, the fan engagement director for the 2022 World Cup, said in an interview.

But a closer look at the terms of the relationship revealed that chosen supporters are encouraged to do just that, and also to amplify messaging from the organisers to support the World Cup “by ‘liking’ and re-sharing third-party posts.”

At the same time, according to documents and contracts reviewed by The New York Times and authenticated by multiple fans, participants are warned that although they are not being asked to be a “mouthpiece” for Qatar, “it would obviously not be appropriate for you to disparage” the country or the tournament.

The fan leaders have also signed up to be on the lookout for such negativity in comments on their posts; a clause in the code of conduct asks that they “report any offensive, degrading or abusive comments” to the organisers. Where possible, the code says, they should supply screenshots of any offending posts.

Those who breach regulations are warned that they could be dismissed from the programme.

“At best they’re volunteers for the World Cup and at worst they’re a mouthpiece for the Supreme Committee,” said Ronan Evain, the executive director of Football Supporters Europe, an umbrella organisation of fan groups that is recognised by European soccer’s governing body, Uefa. In the dozen years since Qatar was awarded the World Cup, the country has taken pains to shape and defend its national image amid corruption claims, environmental concerns and human rights issues.

The programme to sign up fans as de facto ambassadors appears to have begun in 2020, when the Supreme Committee reached out to national federations around the world and asked to be put in contact with leading fan groups to better understand the needs of visitors.

Qatar, which has almost no tradition of hosting major sporting events and little in the way of a domestic fan culture, was grappling with a complex task: how to create a tournament experience that would feel authentic to visiting supporters, but also one that fit within the cultural norms of Qatar, a conservative Muslim nation.

Most federations complied on that understanding. A US Soccer spokesperson said that it had received a request from World Cup officials looking to connect with fans, and had used it to open a dialogue with its own supporters groups, but that the federation had played no role in selecting individual fans for the World Cup trips.

Other federations either supplied contacts to high-profile fan groups or, in the case of England, engaged by placing a sign-up form on behalf of Qatar’s World Cup committee on the website of its official fan club.

England’s federation said it found out about the programme offering fans expenses-paid trips to the tournament from news media reports.

“We were told this was an opportunity to engage with fans from all competing nations to ensure that the voice of supporters was clearly heard in the planning for the World Cup, and that many international football associations were being approached,” the England Football Association said in a statement. The FA said that since posting a link to connect fans with Qatari organisers, “we have had no more involvement with the scheme, and no sight of the ‘code of conduct’ or any of the terms and conditions of involvement.”

Over the past two years, though, the programme quietly expanded. Fan leaders were flown to Qatar for meetings with World Cup organisers keen to hear what supporters in their nations expected from the tournament, and then were sent home armed with information about what to expect in Qatar. They were treated to first-class hospitality, according to members who took part in the trips, and many posted social media content and posed for photos promoting the programme.

The pre-World Cup trips, each about a week long, were centred on three key milestones: the Arab Cup, a type of test event for the World Cup; the tournament’s official draw in April; and most recently the opening of Lusail Stadium, the biggest in Qatar and the site of the World Cup final in December. During their visits, fan leaders were treated to experiences like kayaking in the warm waters of the Arabian Sea and dune bashing, a popular pastime in the Gulf in which sport utility vehicles power up and down sand dunes.

On one trip, the fan leaders were invited to the palatial home of a Qatari fan representative. Inside, they were given a tour of the Qatari’s impressive fleet of high-performance vehicles and his collection of signed jerseys, including those of Diego Maradona, Pelé and Lionel Messi.

Some fans even got to meet with David Beckham, one of the many personalities Qatar has signed to promote this year’s World Cup. (A public relations firm, Portland Communications, was initially involved in identifying and approaching fan groups in Europe.) Many fan leaders – and some journalists who have accepted similar trips – later gushed about their experiences in Qatar on social media.

“If you are an influencer receiving support or paid by brand you should have to disclose it,” said Evain, the European supporters group representative. “What we saw around the Arab Cup last year was European fan leaders who were not disclosing these ties with the Supreme Committee.”

World Cup organisers defended the offer to fans as nothing more than recognition for the time they have provided to help Qatar understand and prepare for a foreign influx unprecedented in its history.

“They don’t have any formal or contractual association with the World Cup, and they are not ambassadors for it,” said Mansoor, the head of the fan programme. All they are required to do, he said, is take their place at the opening ceremony.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.