For the first time in history, the FIFA World Cup will not be played in summer, but in winter, from November 18 to December 21. Temperatures in Qatar in summer, which reach between 40º and 50º Celsius, make a summer tournament impossible. The selection of the tiny but wealthy country as host nation has led to a raft of controversy and opened debate on the biggest question of all: is money the only ball that really moves the world of soccer?
Qatar’s controversial election
The selection process that saw Qatar chosen as host nation for the 2022 World Cup in December 2010, as well as the award of the 2018 tournament to Russia at the same time, were the detonator that led to the 2015 FIFA corruption case (FIFA gate), which led to 14 indictments by the FBI and ended the decade and a half reign of Sepp Blatter as president of soccer’s world governing body. It was the first time in World Cup history that two host nations were announced at the same time. The election process is based on the votes of the 24 members of FIFA’s Executive Committee. FIFA vice-president and president of the Spanish Football Federation at the time, Ángel María Villar, was convinced that a joint bid by Portugal and Spain was going to be awarded the 2018 World Cup. What Villar did not know was that votes were allegedly bought while there was a subsequent interchange between Russia and Qatar to favor their respective victories, with additional pressure being applied to ensure that the name of Qatar emerged from the envelope in Blatter’s hand.
The president of UEFA at the time, Michel Platini, later admitted that nine days before the World Cup election he held a meeting at the Elysée Palace with the then-president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, during which the latter laid out the convenience of promoting Qatar’s bid. The French National Finance Prosecutor’s Office maintains an open investigation focused on the economic benefits allegedly obtained by Sarkozy through his relationship with Qatar. FIFA, which stands to make a profit of some $4.5 billion – 85% of its income over the four-year World Cup cycle – did not dare to take the tournament away from Qatar because, without being able to prove the alleged corruption, it would have faced a multi-million-dollar lawsuit. What did arise from the process was institutional change: now FIFA’s 178 national federations vote on the World Cup hots nation, and those votes are made public. Via this process, the joint bid of the United States, Mexico and Canada was awarded the 2026 tournament.
The FIFA Congress held the day before the draw for the 2022 World Cup on 31 March was laced with the standard self-congratulatory praise for the organization, at least until the president of the Norwegian Football Federation, Lise Klaveness, took the podium and shattered the contrived harmony in the Doha Exhibition and Convention Center. What Klaveness had to say reverberated around the world: “In 2010 World Cups were awarded by FIFA in unacceptable ways with unacceptable consequences. Human rights, equality, democracy: the core interests of football were not in the starting XI until many years later.
These basic rights were pressured onto the field as substitutes by outside voices. FIFA has addressed these issues but there’s still a long way to go. There is no room for employers who do not secure the freedom and safety of World Cup workers. No room for leaders who cannot host the women’s game. No room for hosts that cannot legally guarantee the safety and respect of the LGBTQ+ people coming to this theater of dreams.”
Klaveness’ speech shed light on two of the questions that have caused the most controversy during Qatar’s highly publicized World Cup preparations: the deaths of migrant workers from Nepal, India and Bangladesh while building the stadiums for the tournament in subhuman employment conditions, and the accusations of “sports washing” on the part of the soccer industry for regimes with questionable human rights records. An August 2021 Amnesty International report accused Qatar of failing to investigate the deaths of thousands of migrant workers over the past decade, while a Guardian investigation put the number of deaths among workers on stadiums and other World Cup-related infrastructure at 6,500.
The Qatar World Cup has opened up fresh debate over whether sport should be used to contribute to the opening up of authoritarian regimes by awarding international sporting events, or whether a policy of isolation should remain in place. The response of FIFA president Gianni Infantino to Klaveness’ speech went some way to explaining the governing body’s stance: “From the outset, we have pressured the authorities in Qatar and we have found in them a willing partner in terms of implementing changes in human rights,” Infantino said, adding that Qatar had shown “exemplary” commitment to the issue.
FIFA has also pointed to positive reports from the International Labour Organization and the United Nations. Qatar has stated that the display of LGBTQI+ banners and symbols will not be banned during the World Cup, despite Qatari law expressly condemning homosexuality. Last December, the president of the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy (SC), Nasser Al-Khater, said that members of the LGBTQ+ community will be welcomed at the World Cup, but should avoid public displays of affection out of respect for Qatari culture.
A rich man’s game
One of the peculiarities of the 2022 World Cup is the distance that separates the eight host stadiums, all of which are within a 50-kilometer radius of each other. This means that fans can attend two or even three games in a single day. FIFA sold 800,000 tickets during the first sale offer and hopes to reach three million ticket sales overall. However, one of the drawbacks for the average fan is finding somewhere affordable to stay. Those fans with deep pockets will have no problem because Qatar has a huge high-range hotel offering and there are plans to anchor luxury liners on the country’s coasts. Accommodating fans with fewer means is something both FIFA and the SC are looking into.
Playing a winter World Cup
When Qatar was awarded the 2022 World Cup, there was no immediate plan to change the dates of the tournament from its traditional summer staging despite temperatures of over 40º Celsius during the Qatari summer. However, in 2015 it was decided that the tournament would be moved to the cooler winter months of November and December. This has caused a serious issue with domestic football calendars, with league and cup competitions the world over forced to halt for a month, as well as continental tournaments such as the Champions League.
The counter-argument is that the World Cup will benefit from having players at the peak of their fitness, with fatigue often proving to be an important factor at summer tournaments when international squads are coming off the back of a grueling nine- or 10-month season.