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World Cup: ‘Qatar was a mistake - the choice was bad’

Former Fifa president Sepp Blatter’s recent verdict merely hints at the extraordinary story of how a tiny desert state won the right to host World Cup 2022

In late November 2010, the investigative journalist Andrew Jennings presented a Panorama programme that got to the heart of why England’s bid to host the 2018 World Cup was a lost cause.

The affable Englishman, who died in January of this year, delighted in door-stepping members of Fifa’s executive committee as they made the short walk from luxury car to hotel foyer sanctuary so he could ask them about taking bribes and scalping tickets.

“I would spit on you if I could,” Jack Warner, then Fifa vice-president, told Jennings, who chuckled in amusement as he tailed the Trinidadian through Zurich airport. Fifa’s headquarters are in the Swiss city.

The programme was broadcast just two days before Fifa cast votes on the right to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. Documentary evidence of corruption and bribes worth £62 million was presented with damning clarity.


The England Football Association was dismayed and had already pleaded with the BBC not to air the documentary before the voting. Preparation for their bid had started five years earlier and although their technical application was deemed the strongest, they understood the terms of negotiation. An unflattering television depiction would displease the gods of Fifa.

“Logic has to be suspended,” David Mellor, the former British government minister, told Panorama of the grovelling any prospective World Cup host country must perform.

“Normal standards of integrity and honesty have to be suspended. We have to go in our knees to accept Fifa diktats; crawl on our bellies to beg them to give us the World Cup.”

David Beckham, ever England’s good son, was belly-crawler-in-chief in Zurich and the FA assembled an impressive cast of former terrace heroes. Then prime minister David Cameron and Prince William also got behind the dream of football “coming home”.

The FA even secured the services of Paul the Octopus, the cephalopod credited with clairvoyant gifts after correctly predicting – through the choice of two food boxes containing opposition teams – eight consecutive games during the 2006 World Cup.

Paul had secured book deals and there was talk of a film; had he been around a decade later, he might have ended up as chancellor of the exchequer. Cameron led the charm offensive for eleventh-hour lobbying in Zurich on the evening before the vote. Wills and Becks schmoozed for photographs, single malts were shared, and entreaties made.

It was noted that the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, was not in the room, later adopting a noble air as he explained that he wished to allow the Fifa members to “make their decision in peace and without any outside pressure”.

It was only afterwards the English learned that not only were they not in the game, they didn’t fully understand the sport.

“All the fish is sold,” Michael Angel Lopes, who led the Spain-Portugal bid, told the gathered media: he, too, was bullishly confident about his chances. Still, when the results were announced, Fifa president Sepp Blatter held up a placard declaring Russia as the 2018 victors and, minutes later, Qatar as the hosts of the tournament for faraway 2022.

England had received just two of the required 12 votes – and one of those was cast by their own representative on the Fifa executive committee, which is known as ExCo.

Russia’s success was a surprise, but tiny, obscure Qatar had outwitted bids from the USA, Japan, Australia and South Korea. Even as Blatter held up the sign, the decision prompted a blizzard of instant and obvious questions. Bill Clinton, the star turn in the USA seating, wore the wry grin of the political savant; he knew.

Chuck Blazer, the USA’s hirsute intermediary, looked shocked. How could such a tiny state host the biggest sports festival in the world. How hot would it be in summertime? Did they even play football there? How had an obscure desert state attracted more votes than the United States, a country with an infrastructure sufficient to host a World Cup as comfortably as a country hotel could host a local wedding.

Over the following years, a picture of how Qatar had triumphed began to form and it made the hitherto untouchable Fifa executive committee scquirm. The origins of the strangest World Cup in Fifa history, which will kick-off in Al Khor on Sunday week, have been traced to a hotel suite in Luanda, the capital of Angola, in January of 2010.

It was there that the Qatari bid team met three African members of ExCo: Issa Hayatou of Cameroon, Jacques Anouma of Côte d’Ivoire and Amos Adamu of Nigeria. According to Phaedra Al-Majid, an Arab-American who worked on the Qatar bid team as a communications officer and who was in the hotel suite, the three were offered and quickly accepted a pledge of $1.5 million for their respective federations in exchange for their vote.

Al-Majid’s brief was to manage international press and to coach committee members on how to answer questions on issues like women’s rights, homosexuality and migrant workers’ rights. But the questions never came because nobody paid the Qatar bid any attention.

“They thought it was a joke that this country, with no footballing tradition or passion, would be considered to host the World Cup,” Al-Majid told Denmark’s TV2 in a rare interview given earlier this month.

“It was surreal. It was too easy and too bizarre, to be honest. It wasn’t anything like you see in the movies, with a suitcase full of money. It was very simple. And very shocking.”

Within months, Al-Majid was fired from her role and left Qatar in March of 2011. That December, a journalist from the Sunday Times contacted her and Al-Majid provided information and documentation: she was identified only as a ‘whistleblower’. But within a year she received a visit from the FBI who informed her she was under threat.

Although her anonymity was guaranteed when she participated in a 2014 Fifa investigation into the bidding, she was effectively identified in the process; it wasn’t difficult to work out who had been in the hotel suite in Luanda. Her life was quickly upended. Her evidence was dismissed. She has since said that the past decade has been a nightmare of fear, of veiled threats, of constantly moving location and worrying about her children.

“I am one single mom against the richest country in the world and the richest sporting organisation in the world,” she told TV2.

The Qatar organising committee have dismissed Al-Majid’s claims. In any case, they soon had bigger fires to fight. The problem with inviting the spotlight of the world upon your country is that the glare can be blinding.

Construction on the eight stadia, myriad hotels, new airport and infrastructure necessary to run the four-week football festival led to an instant mass influx of migrant workers. Within a couple of years, stories of their appalling treatment and living conditions began to filter around the world.

“Qatar is a slave state in the 21st century,” Sharan Burrough, head of the International Trade Union Confederation told Jeremey Schapp, the ESPN senior reporter who visited Qatar several times and presented a series of vivid reports over the last decade.

“The kafala system means you are owned by another individual. Everything you do is at the behest of another human being.”

Stories of men living 10 to a room, with no clean water and dismal cooking conditions, of dehydration in extreme heat, of scores of deaths attributed to ‘cardiac arrest’, to site accidents and even suicide, presented Qatar in a terrible light.

The organising committee bitterly contested the reports; the official line is that there were a total of three work-related deaths at World Cup sites and 37 non-work-related deaths.

In 2021 the Guardian reported that 6,500 workers from four countries – Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and India – had died there over the previous decade. John McManus, a social anthropologist and writer, spent a year in the country in 2018 to research his book, Inside Qatar.

A PR consultant told him that in the early days of the country’s preparation, Western advertising and PR firms arriving to set up offices in Doha were taken aback at the limitations of the Qatari government’s communications strategy.

“They had nothing. They had no government communications infrastructure at all,” she said. That was because prior to Blatter holding aloft that sign, there had simply been no need.

Fifa’s internal and hitherto bulletproof communications had also begun to fragment. From May 1974 until October 2015, Fifa had just two presidents; João Havalange (until 1998) and Sepp Blatter.

Harnessing the emerging markets of television and advertising rights turned the non-profit organisation into a kind of football monarchy; in 2010, Blatter was able to boast a cash reserve of one billion dollars.

But after the 2010 bids, rumours and reports of corruption and bribery refused to go away and it didn’t take too much official prodding for the members to break ranks. An audit conducted by the Internal Revenue Service revealed Chuck Blazer’s finances as mind-boggling; unexplained wire transfers, undeclared foreign bank accounts and a history of tax evasion sufficient to land him with a seven-decade prison term. Presented with this evidence, he decided to co-operate with a combined FBI/IRS investigation.

Jack Warner quickly resigned and has spent years fighting extradition; in 2019, a US court order stipulated that he must repay the $79 million fraudulently obtained through Concacaf, the governing body for the football nations of North and central America and the Caribbean.

In June of 2015, Blatter announced his intention to resign that September, and Swiss authorities revealed they were investigating payments made to Michel Platini, the French football legend and former Uefa president. Admonishments from Fifa’s major advertising partners soon followed; Blatter was gone, suspended from all football activity for eight years by the ethics committee he himself had set up. In July of this year both men were acquitted of all charges by a Swiss court.

In 2018, Gianni Infantino, in his first World Cup tournament as Fifa president, took his place in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium alongside Vladimir Putin and Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Russia trounced Saudi Arabia 5-0 in the opening game. For Putin, it was the perfect opening note for a tournament which fulfilled its role as a showcase for the host country. It had been previewed as a tournament to dread. Russia had become a sporting pariah after a series of doping scandals. There were concerns about fan safety, about the silencing of protest voices.

But Russia’s mysteriousness made it a draw for many visitors. The tournament ran smoothly, with authorities in the host cities tolerating the boisterousness and carousing of its international visitors. The extraordinary history, the architectural glories of its major cities and the adventure of following teams across the 1,800-mile canvas laid out for the tournament rendered it a unique departure from the usual football experience for fans.

One of the host cities, Nizhny Novgorod – formerly Gorky – had been a closed city throughout the Soviet decades to protect its importance as a military centre. Now, in one summer, visitors from Uruguay, Panama, Croatia and Argentina were among the nationalities who kept its bars open late as they sang their songs without inhibition.

They did touristy things, posing for selfies in front of the statue of the writer Maxim Gorky or visiting the perfectly preserved apartment of Andrey Sakharov, the nuclear physicist turned human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner who was exiled in the city for 12 years.

Visitors to Russia that summer got a sense of what the country was beyond the increasing totalitarianism of the Putin administration. All you had to do was look. It was there to be read in the expressions of the older Russian residents of Nizhny and other host cities; children of Stalinism who now watched in baffled wonderment as fans poured out of the train station the day before big matches, blithely and obliviously laid claim to the thoroughfares and then just as quickly disappeared. It must have seemed like a mirage.

But then, all big sports tournaments are just that: a willful exercise in make-believe and fantasy.

Four days after Russian troops entered Ukraine, Fifa and Uefa suspended all Russian national and club teams from its competitions. Russia’s scheduled play-off game against Poland was cancelled. Just four years after hosting the World Cup, Russia as both football team and nation was further removed from the sport than ever before.

In September, the Welsh actor Michael Sheen was asked to give a speech to the national football team ahead of their departure for Qatar – the first team from Wales to play in a World Cup since 1958. What followed was an extraordinary demonstration of the Welsh oratorical tradition.

“Yma o hyd, I hear the voices sing, bois bach,” Sheen began in his velvety lilt. Within minutes, the clip began popping up on social media channels, garnering ecstatic reactions. Through Sheen’s vocal gifts, the speech tapped into the stuff that have oxygenised World Cups for decades: pride in nationhood and the opportunity to follow in haloed footsteps, to chase glory.

The moment was significant because it was as though it suddenly dawned on people that, after the surreal years of the pandemic and the distress and anxiety of the humanitarian crisis caused by Putin’s war, the World Cup would soon be upon them.

The moment Qatar has spent a decade striving for will start when Qatar play Ecuador a week from tomorrow. The stadia are ready: the result of all that human misery and a legacy of disposable lives are a series of architectural splendours. The imperious football nations have begun to arrive. Fan numbers are expected to be significantly down, with the scarcity of accommodation and the high price of ticketing, set against the inflation crisis, a deterrent.

But six of the Qatar stadiums are moderately scaled and will be full. The broadcast companies will select studios with majestic backdrops. Football fans around the world will soon get used to the idea of a World Cup to while away the dark hours of November and December: the 7pm and 10pm GMT kick-off times are prime-time slots.

In short, Qatar will hope to benefit from the magic trick which Fifa has relied upon for decades. World Cups are never about football until the moment that first match begins. But the seductive power of the game, of its stars and the unfolding dramas form a grand distraction and a kind of euphoria takes hold of the host nation.

At least, that is what the Qatari hosts believed when they beat the odds and the bigger countries in Zurich for the right to stage a show that has cost the 300,000 Qatari citizens an estimated $229 billion.

“Thank you for believing in change, for believing in expanding the game, thank you for giving Qatar a chance and we will not let you down,” Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad Al-Thani, the chairperson of the bid committee told Blatter when he stood behind the podium in Zurich. His voice quivered with emotion; his colleagues stood dazed while Blatter stood nearby with his unreadable half-smile.

“You will be proud of us; you will be proud of the Middle East, and I promise you this.”

Despite pledges of reform and tolerance, Qatari laws and social mores are continually exposed as discriminatory and sharply at odds with mainstream Western values.

A Human Rights Watch report, published last year, examined the male guardianship system which requires Qatari women to obtain ‘permissions’ for basic rights such as marriage, study and travel, while women are denied the right to be primary guardians over their children. Fifty in-depth interviews were carried out.

“Girls are in quarantine,” one woman said. “What the whole world experiences now, this is normal for girls in Qatar.”

Homosexuality remains a crime in Qatar. Just this week, a former Qatari footballer said in his role as an official ambassador that visitors “have to accept the rules here. It is haram [forbidden]. Because it is damage of the mind”. Eight European national teams have signalled their intention to have their captains wear rainbow-heart armbands as a stance against discrimination and to promote diversity.

On Tuesday last, Blatter finally gave his verdict on that ill-fated announcement in a Swiss newspaper interview.

“Qatar was a mistake,” he said. “The choice was bad.”

Still, he will probably watch it on TV.

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is Washington Correspondent of The Irish Times