How Qatar secured the 2022 Fifa World Cup

Sportswashing, migrant abuses, an LGBTQ+ community in hiding - but money can make anything malleable

Part 1: The House of Thani

Sportswashing works on the principle that the grander the illusion, the more immune it is to criticism.

By turning the summer World Cup into a winter World Cup, Fifa have done the unthinkable heretofore, all to appease the House of Thani, Qatar’s ruling family that rose to power as Ottoman and then British influence waned in the Middle East.

The emir, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, holds executive power. Commander-in-chief of the army, he appoints the judges and the prime minister. Sheikh Tamim also pays Lionel Messi’s €41 million salary at Paris Saint Germain.

Contradictions will be visible throughout the 22nd edition of football’s quadrennial tournament. In 2018, the Oxford Dictionary placed “sportswashing” among coinages where the suffix “-washing” suggests deceptive, insincere and opportunistic appropriation of some value or cause. It stems from whitewashing, which is a deliberate attempt to conceal unpleasant or incriminating facts.

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The idea is as old as time, just modernised by Arabian Peninsula states Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia redesigning professional sport through boundless investment.

The Founder of Qatar, Jassim bin Muhammed al Thani, fathered 56 children. As the second emir, ruling from 1878 until abdication in 1913, Sheikh Jassim’s victory over the Turks at the battle of Al Wajbah in 1893 set this tiny country, one sixth the size of Ireland, on the road to independence, which was finally attained in 1971. By then, the family business was fast becoming the world’s largest liquefied natural gas exporter.

The current emir, Sheikh Tamim (42), is an English-educated Old Harrovian, like Winston Churchill and Maro Itoje, who graduated from the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst in 1998 before founding Qatar Sports Investments in 2005. QSI took full control of PSG in 2011. Messi arrived in 2021.

His mother, Sheikha Moza bint Nasser Al-Missned, is said to have won over the Fifa executive committee at the bid presentation in 2010 but, in reality, the votes were already secured by Qatar’s former Fifa insider Mohammed bin Hammam.

“Based on my feelings not just as a mother of my own children but as a mother for an entire generation of youth across the Middle East, for us football is not just a game. It is a sport for our time, anytime,” Sheikha Moza told the Fifa ExCo. “In 2022, more than half the population of the region will be under 25 and the World Cup here will have a different impact here than anywhere in the world. You can help us realise this elusive dream.”

Michel Platini later claimed that Sheikha Moza’s speech turned the tide.

The result? Qatar 14 votes, the USA 8 votes. David Beckham, poster boy for the failed England 2018 bid, was “disgusted” by the entire process. He has since become an ambassador for Qatar.

“World Cup votes for sale,” declared The Sunday Times in October 2010, two months before Russia secured the 2018 tournament and Qatar won the 2022 rights. The newspaper’s insight team, led by Jonathan Calvert, pulled off a sting operation that caught two Fifa ExCo members guaranteeing their votes, with one seeking £500,000 “for a personal project” and the other wanting £1.5 million “for a sports academy.”

The journalism is encapsulated in Calvert and Heidi Blake’s book, The Ugly Game – the corruption of Fifa and the Qatari plot to buy the World Cup, which provides 472 pages on who was paid what amount and by whom.

Amos Adamu and Reynald Temarii, the ExCo members exposed by the Sunday Times, were suspended but the remaining 22 men voted by secret ballot in favour of Russia and Qatar despite a damning report from Fifa’s technical delegation chief Harold Mayne-Nicholls.

Qatar 2022: the rocky road to Doha

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After a 12 year lead-in time dogged by corruption scandal, human rights abuses and subversion of the football calendar, World Cup 2022 is finally about to get underway in Qatar. Conor Pope is joined by football writer and broadcaster Ken Early, who is covering the World Cup for The Irish Times.

“Qatar was the only country Fifa’s inspectors had deemed high risk,” wrote Blake and Calvert. “The fact that 10 of the 12 (now eight) stadia are located in a 25-30 km radius will not only create an overlapping of certain security zones but will also cause major crowd management and traffic problems before and after matches.”

“There are too many opportunities for terrorists to paralyse the tournament,” Mayne-Nicholls revealed in his report. “The proposal for a single competition related event venue, the Doha Convention Centre, also does not make sense from a security perspective. A single incident can neutralise all event operations as well as event-related services.

“Any major incident – aircraft crash or terrorist attack, may lead to the closing of the airport with severe consequences for the event.”

Bin Hammam knew some ExCo members would not bother reading the document as deals had already been struck. Sure enough, after Mayne-Nicholls’ presentation, all the Fifa blazers asked about was the VIP treatment he received on trips to each bidding country.

Slush funds and alleged payments by the Qatari businessman were eventually leaked into the public domain, with Fifa banning him for life. Twice.

Bin Hammam was accused of trying to secure enough votes to oust Sepp Blatter as Fifa president in 2011 by doling out $40,000 cash in brown envelopes to 25 Caribbean officials a month before the election. The money was distributed by Jack Warner, another member of Fifa’s ExCo, who remains beyond the FBI’s reach in Trinidad and Tobago, despite an indictment on corruption charges in 2015.

Qatar “vehemently denied” wrongdoing, even claiming that Bin Hammam played no “official or unofficial role” in the bid.

Contradictions will be visible throughout this unique World Cup because sportswashing is not really a word, more a stark reality of our time.

Part 2: ‘Migrant abuses remain rife across the country’

Holding a World Cup in Doha is like building eight air-conditioned stadiums between Malahide, Bray and Tallaght.

At least the Giza pyramids and Stonehenge remain astronomical marvels that stand as monuments to their work forces. Qatar’s stadiums will be largely irrelevant by Christmas. Only one, The 974 in Ras Abu Aboud, will be dismantled.

When it comes to hosts, Fifa rarely bows to ethical concerns. Not Italy in 1934, despite Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime, nor Argentina in 1978, despite the military junta disappearing 5,618 people in 1977.

Current Fifa president Gianni Infantino gratefully accepted the Russian Order of Friendship from Vladimir Putin after the last World Cup was sandwiched between separate invasions of Ukraine.

“This is not the end,” said Infantino, speaking from the Kremlin in 2019. “It is only the beginning of our fruitful co-operation and interaction.”

This World Cup should be all about the football, but that could never be the case. Soft power is in effect, transforming Qatar into a global player by using the soccer to cast a veil over the inhumane treatment of migrant workers.

This tournament forces journalism to give voice to those who have suffered during its construction. Like Marquis, a Kenyan security guard baked by a 40-degree sun, only to be stiffed by the allegedly abolished Kafala system (another genius British invention, similar to Brexit and stiff upper lips).

“My experience was horrible,” Marquis told The Irish Times. “I was desperate for a job and a friend told me I could earn a good salary in Qatar. I paid for my own ticket but then visa charges of 1,000 Rial (€255) were deducted from my salary every month for months.

“I had one day off, maybe, every month. If I requested more time off, it would be deducted from my salary. My brothers and sisters were depending on this salary, and my son was only one year old when I left Kenya. He is five now.

“I was living in the industrial area (of Doha), it is always dusty and not a place to put accommodation. I spent a lot of time alone and due to boredom, I’d go jogging in the evening or went to the gym, which we made ourselves out of cement blocks.”

Any women in camp? “No, all men. It was dangerous. People were drinking alcohol all the time, from the stress, so there were fights. I had problems every day, and because of the dust I had to go to hospital after three weeks.

“I saw friends collapsing from the heat and taken away to hospital.”

Many of these young men never reappeared. The Bangladeshi, Indian and Nepali governments note the majority of migrant worker deaths are the result of natural causes or cardiovascular disease, according to John McManus’ rigorous book Inside Qatar.

Marquis is a lucky one, having returned home to Mombasa.

“I did meet Qataris who were humble and generous, but some were very aggressive,” he added. “Before Qatar I worked in Saudi Arabia, which was almost the same but stricter.

“I left Doha after two years because the salary forced me to do other things that were not within the rules. I hoped to come back with enough money to buy my own house or start my own business, but I came back with nothing. I wasted my time going to Qatar.”

Thousands of Africans and South Asians continue to record the same lament, according to Amnesty International’s eyewitness research from inside the camps, where journalists will be arrested for trespassing.

“The Qatari authorities are misusing the accreditation system for journalists in order to ban them from covering certain subjects,” says Reporters Without Borders secretary general Christophe Deloire. “By requiring that the media, when they apply for accreditation, agree to abide by a number of conditions, some of which are vague, ambiguous, and open to arbitrary interpretation, Qatar is clearly seeking to discourage, if not prevent, the foreign media from talking about anything other than football.”

Many migrant deaths are not investigated so the families go without compensation. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty and FairSquare even joined forces to demand a Fifa-fund but that would signal admittance to the absurdity of sending the World Cup to a tiny desert state.

“Migrant abuses remain rife across the country,” said Steve Cockburn, Amnesty’s head of economic and social justice. “Although Qatar has made important strides on labour rights over the past five years, it’s abundantly clear that there is a great distance still to go. Thousands of workers remain stuck in the familiar cycle of exploitation and abuse thanks to legal loopholes and inadequate enforcement.”

Wage theft is still rampant with 12-14 hour work days the norm and there are no trade unions to protect workers, nor does a free press exist to report on atrocities.

Part 3: ‘Diversity is managed not through integration but segregation’

“Qatar needed a lot more than eight new stadiums. It needed new roads, new hotels, new trains, new tracks, and a new deep-sea port to import the raw materials. It needed a new city, Lusail, and it needed new sewerage, drainage, water, and seven electrical substations to power it. And to make this possible they needed many hundreds of thousands of migrant workers, and they all needed accommodation ... the 2022 World Cup was the catalyst and the driver of the reconstruction and expansion of Doha.”

Abdullah and the spin machine, Josimarfootball.com

The Abdullah Ibhais story will not go away. The former deputy communications director on Qatar’s World Cup Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, claims to have been coerced into signing a confession on fraud charges that led to a three-year prison sentence.

Ibhais retracted the confession before going on hunger strike in prison, doubling down on claims the Supreme Committee covered up their involvement in migrant worker abuses. The Jordanian whistle-blower’s WhatsApp messages are published in Josimar Football’s detailed investigation. His family have real fears for his life.

Fifa carries on regardless. Nothing to see here.

The football itself tends to prevail at a World Cup but scratch the surface and black gold seeps from the earth. Enough for Shell and Exxon Mobil to remain on site.

By 1940 Doha’s pearl diving industry was decimated, as the population of Qatar dropped to 16,000, but everything changed when oil was discovered, and production was ramped up after the second World War.

“So profitable is the income from hydrocarbons that the Qatari government has no need to (income) tax individual citizens,” wrote McManus in Inside Qatar, about a country of 2.7 million inhabitants, where native Arabs make up just 11 per cent of the population.

“Diversity is managed not through integration but segregation,” McManus observed.

Those native Arabs make up the elite in Qatar society. The middle class barely exist. McManus, during his 12 months of research, discovered a largely “transactional” relationship between native Qataris and others with “Asian Town” built in recent years, containing malls and a cricket stadium, to keep the south Asian majority “amused and away from the rest of the population.”

At the very bottom of the totem pole are the immigrants that built these new stadiums, and live in dusty migrant camps in Doha’s industrial area. Journalists can be arrested for trespassing if they attempt to enter these low-income camps during the World Cup.

Holidaying in Doha is beyond most peoples’ means this winter – although the Wags of France and England have rented the offshore Banana Island – with the price of a pint (€15) enough to couch most World Cup fanatics.

For supporters who do travel, the only migrant workers they will encounter are Uber drivers, security guards, servers and cleaners, with the rest shipped out until further notice. Unpaid, obviously. The city is a building site until the first match on November 20th.

The opening game was originally slated for November 21st, but the hosts suddenly realised th

ey would like to play in it, and in a staggeringly late scheduling twist, moved the opening game back a day and made it Qatar versus Ecuador. Fifa approved the change unanimously. It seems nothing is set in stone any more – money can make anything malleable.

Nasser Al Khater, the World Cup chief executive, said recently: “Listen, public display of affection is frowned upon, and that goes across the board – across the board. Qatar is a modest country. That’s all that needs to be respected. Other than that, everyone is free to live their life.”

But that is not the case.

If the rule of law mattered, people from the LGBTQ+ community would not be allowed enter the region, just like the gay, bisexual and trans Qataris who have been forced to flee.

“I am a refugee right now,” Dr Nass Mohamed, an openly gay Qatari, told Human Rights Watch. “I took asylum in the United States because I am an LGBT person. I am not safe in Qatar.”

Under Qatar’s penal code of 2004, article 296 states that “leading, instigating or seducing a male by in any way to commit sodomy” is punishable by up to three years in prison. The same sentence applies to a woman who has an abortion “without medical necessity.”

“When people visit Qatar and are given a platform and are given protection I believe as an LGBT person that they owe us to speak up and raise awareness,” added Dr Mohamed, from exile in San Francisco.

The mask continually slips, with former Qatar international and World Cup ambassador Khalid Salman offering the unforgettable pre-tournament welcome about homosexuality being a “damage in the mind.”

Spin that.