There cannot be anyone living in Qatar who is unaware of its bid to host the 2022 World Cup. The tiny Arab state is one of five countries competing for football’s greatest tournament. It shows. For months there have been billboards all over town, exhorting people to support the bid (though it is never clear how they are supposed to do this). On my drive home I circle a roundabout with a giant purple football in the middle, exhorting people to support the bid. And the entire side of the 34-floor tower block where I live has been turned into a giant mural exhorting people… well, you get the idea by now. There is no shortage of official enthusiasm for Qatar’s bid. So being the sourpuss contrarian that I am, here are ten reasons why Qatar’s bid should not succeed.
1. Qatar’s national side is poor
As hosts, Qatar will automatically qualify for the World Cup. At date of writing, the current FIFA rankings put them at 104th in the world, below Thailand and Azerbaijan and above Armenia and North Korea. Yes, that is the same North Korea that got walloped 7-0 by Portugal in this year’s World Cup. At least North Korea have qualified for the World Cup a few times; Qatar never has. 104th in the world is actually pretty good when you appreciate there are only 200,000 Qataris in total. But it still means they would be destined to be embarrassing cannon fodder for any teams good enough to genuinely qualify. After all, they are a team that rarely gets the chance to play against the big guns of world football. When they do, the results are not good: a 6-1 loss to Ivory Coast, a respectable 3-2 defeat by Croatia and a 3-0 loss to Argentina. The bid emphasizes that the Qataris are football mad (more about that later) but they would have to be seriously mad to want to see their national side humiliated. Which brings me to my next point…
2. Qatar pays sports stars to change nationality
With the world made so cynical about the influence of money on sport, I doubt anyone wants to see a Qatar side full of bought-in players who should really be representing other nations. However, Qatar unfortunately deserves to be considered as pioneers when it comes to inducing sports stars to change nationality. Finding a mysterious and convenient great uncle in a different country is nothing new. Many a mercenary player has been willing to shop around to secure the prestige of playing at the national level. However, the Qataris have gone one step further, by abandoning the pretense of any familial connection to Qatar. This is not completely unsurprising – history being what it is, people are more likely to have some family roots in Ireland than in a desert country that used to be barely inhabited.
Consider the story of Angel Popov, or Said Saif Asaad as he is now known. He was one of eight Bulgarian weightlifters paid by Qatar to become Qataris. The investment delivered when Angel/Said won a bronze medal in the 2000 Olympics. However, money does not always mean Qatar gets its way. In 2003, Kenyan steeplechaser Stephen Cherono decided it was time to become Qatari steeplechaser Saif Saaeed Shaheen. Only the year before he had won a Commonwealth gold for Kenya, but when he switched allegiance, the Kenya refused to waive the 3-year ban that prevents athletes from competing in the Olympics for their new nation. He was hence unable to take part in the 2004 Olympics, although he would have been strong favourite, setting a new world record that year.
Perhaps the Qataris would resist the temptation to bolster their national football side by simply buying in foreign players, but the precedents are not good. If they did field a team of mercenaries, it would permanently tarnish the World Cup’s reputation.
3. The average Qatari’s love of football is exaggerated
On the official bid’s website, we hear that:
Football is by far Qatar’s most popular sport, and legions of fans follow both the local and international leagues.
Well, I am from Britain, and there is little evidence to suggest that Qataris have anything like the passionate love of football that so many Brits have. I have seen Caribbeans going crazy over their home side scoring, South Koreans literally standing and chanting for the entire length of a game, Poles singing of their love for their team at weddings, Indonesians who crowd the beaches to play day in and day out, and had Chinese dragging me to see their local club play. Qatari reserve might lead the casual observer to underestimate their strength of feeling, but even so, the Qataris simply are not that keen on football.
On the Wikipedia page about the Qatar bid, it says at one point that
Qatar gave a feel of what the World Cup would be like by holding a friendly match between Brazil and England. Furthermore, people coming from different nations visited Qatar for this match, and thus, strengthening the image Qatar will depict of their interest in the World Cup 2022.
Well, if people coming from other nations strengthened Qatar’s image, then something else ruined it. Huge swathes of the stadium were empty. Of those that did attend, most were expats; only a tiny minority were Qataris. Admittedly this was a friendly game between two foreign sides, but one of those sides was Brazil. The mystique of Brazil is enough to sell out stadiums around the world, yet in Qatar it barely registered a blip of interest with the local people.
I spent half of this year’s World Cup in London, and half in Doha. Much was made of Mayor Boris’ decision not to provide public screens, but at least all Brits could watch the action on television. Not in Qatar, where the World Cup, like all other football, is but another excuse to extort money from fans. Doha did have a public ‘fanzone’ with a screen, but its small scale rather reinforced the lack of interest in the game. Most importantly, because Doha has no culture of setting up big screens in places like bars for people to watch games together, it was desperately hard to find somewhere to watch the game without paying an extortionate price – and that before the high cost of a drink or two.
If that was insufficient evidence that Qatari football fandom is overstated, let me recount one story of attending a local cup final. Walking across the car park to the stadium, I was bemused to observe a mile-long queue of Indians, all standing very close together, in very disciplined and orderly fashioned, all wearing identical yellow polo shirts. Why? Well, it is not because they are football fans. They were there to fill seats so the stadium looked full.
4. Qatar lacks the organizational talent needed to run the World Cup
Hmm… this might seem like a harsh statement, especially as Qatar hosted the 2006 Asian Games. However, let me expand on the stories given above. For the England-Brazil game, the selling of tickets was a fiasco. Poor information was given to the public, the dates for when tickets went on sale kept being put back… but the worst part came when they eventually did go on sale. Several booths were opened up in malls to sell tickets. In addition, sales were made online. It is no exaggeration that some people were forced to queue six hours for a ticket, and that online purchases were near impossible (bear in mind what I said about empty seats at the stadium itself). All ticket purchases slowed to a crawl because there was too much load on the servers that were supporting both the mall booths and the public website. A purchase that should have taken a few minutes would take crushingly long in practice, only for the transaction to fail and force the customer to start again at the beginning. Yet selling tickets is a commercial challenge that has been solved by many international firms. The task could have been outsourced to literally hundreds of companies around the world who have shown themselves capable of processing far higher volumes of ticket sales than that generated by the friendly between England and Brazil.
You want another story to demonstrate Qatari managerial failings? Well, let me go back to the story of that cup final with the Indians queuing up to fill the seats. I had tickets. I did not get in. The reason? Because my tickets were for a section of the stadium that was full. You tell me how that was possible. It is important to let the right people into grounds, whilst keeping the wrong people out. This is not just important for the enjoyment of the game. It is vital for public safety. In the event of a genuine sell-out, there is good reason to doubt whether the Qataris could maintain everyone’s safety if they end up turning away fans with genuine tickets. Nobody wants to see a World Cup marred by the kind of tragedy that Liverpool fans underwent at Hillsborough stadium. If the British police could make such severe mistakes, with all their relative experience of handling big crowds, then one has to question why the inexperienced Qataris feel so confident that they will be able to do so for big international games. This is made much worse by the current habit of treating match tickets like an entry to a lottery.
5. Qatar’s travel infrastructure is currently inadequate
Some pundits think that Qatar is too small to host a World Cup. I do not believe that, because being compact has some logistical advantages. However, any driver around Doha would marvel at how the road planning in what is essentially a flat desert expanse could so badly fail to keep up with the growth in traffic. The Aspire Stadium is currently Doha’s biggest. It is right next to the Villagio Mall. Though the Aspire car park is plentiful, based on the jams that occur on a typical shopping night, there are just too few ways for drivers to leave the area.
It does not help that there is no meaningful public transport. The Qataris promise to address this, but as with other aspects of their bid, having the money to build something big does not mean they have demonstrated the nous to run something big. Their old airport is overloaded but the new airport is behind schedule. There is the stated aspiration to introduce rail, but an aspiration is not the same as proof of the ability to deliver.
6. Absolute rulers can mean sudden changes in laws
This may seem like an outlandish concern. After all, why would the Qataris want to embarrass themselves? Then again, the Indians did not want to embarrass themselves with the recent Commonwealth Games in Delhi, but they still did. Earlier this year, the Qatari government executed a bizarre flip-flop on tourist visas, first announcing that tourist visas would no longer be issued on arrival, and then almost as quickly reversing the decision. In a nation with more checks and balances, such rapid upheavals – and the stress caused to ordinary people – would be avoided. At the very least, the public tend to get plenty of notice when laws change. Imagine a sudden change in visa rules on the eve of the World Cup. The Qataris can give assurances they would not do anything dramatic that would ruin the event, but there are no guarantees in an autocracy like Qatar. Like other Arab nations, Qatar is fixated about security. Doha has suffered terrorist atrocities. Qataris are undoubtedly tetchy about the incident where Mossad agents forged passports so they could assassinate Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai. If Israel were to qualify for the 2022 World Cup, there would be intense and competing pressures on Qatar’s security forces. Whilst I do not want to judge Qatar’s ruling class based on what it might do, the only way for Qatar to demonstrate that there will be no arbitrary and sudden changes in law or policing that might hurt the World Cup is to… well, to not make any arbitrary and sudden changes between now and then. Better still, they should have stopped making sudden and arbitrary changes before now, but it is too late for that.
7. Qatar is an expensive place to visit
Food is expensive, because they import it. Alcohol is expensive, because they do not like it. Hotels are expensive because they are all upmarket. The Emir’s son Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, president of Qatar 2022, said of the bid:
The first global sports event in the Middle East provides an opportunity for greater understanding and unity between the Arab and western worlds…
But that will only be true if ordinary Westerners actually attend. The emphasis on Qatar’s geographical location should not blind anyone as to what the actual cost will be for Western fans to visit Qatar.
8. Everybody will assume that FIFA was bribed
Recent newspaper revelations seem to show that World Cup votes can be bought for a price. If the World Cup goes to an extraordinarily rich country with no significant footballing history, then everybody will think the decision was corrupt, whether it was or not. One has to hope that FIFA does not want that.
9. It is too hot
The Qatari bidders have repeatedly emphasized how their stadiums will be air-conditioned to make it possible to play during a summer where daytime temperatures will typically be over 40 celsius. But this misses the point. The fans cannot spend the entire tournament sat in the stadiums. They will have to venture outside sometimes. That is, unless you seriously expect them to spend all their time in a hotel room, hotel bar, or pacing the length of a shopping mall – ingredients for a pretty boring holiday. Qatar’s dry and pleasant winters would be ideal for hosting an event where large numbers could enjoy its open spaces. In contrast, the summers are insufferable and even the Arabs like to escape it with holidays abroad. Big, bored crowds, with little to do, fed up with long queues and poor transport infrastructure, under a hot beating sun… the potential for trouble gets worse the more you think about it.
10. Qatar will struggle to be tolerant of the ‘guests’ in their country
Qataris are extraordinarily tolerant by Arab standards, which means they are relatively intolerant by Western standards. Let us be honest. It is hard to imagine a large group of England fans following their team without at least somebody trying to have sex on a beach, somebody urinating in public, somebody drunk to the point of vomiting, somebody flashing their boobs, somebody shouting obscenities and somebody being racist. In many countries they will know how to handle people like this. The response may not be nice, but it will not be disproportionate either. In contrast, the Qataris are not geared up to deal with behaviour like this. They would find it an affront, but their instinctive reaction will be perceived to be an enormous overreaction. Whilst the average Westerner who currently visits Qatar will be mindful of their actions, it would be unreasonable to expect thousands of football fans to alter their behaviour to the same extent. Just as importantly, these fans will see themselves as tourists and customers. They are unlikely to see themselves the way the Qataris would like to see them – as guests. Tourists and customers have expectations, and the Qataris will struggle to find the compromises that accommodate them.
My final observation about Qatar struggling to be tolerant relates to this post. I feel unease about writing it. I anticipate that if a Qatari reads it, they will get overly upset, because they are uncomfortable dealing with negative views about their country. Qatar is rife with stories about censorship and disproportionate reactions to perceived criticism. But the freedom to express an opinion is perfectly normal in much of the world. I doubt anyone would feel great trepidation at criticizing the World Cup bids of Japan, the US or Australia. The freedom to criticize serves a useful function – it helps to prevent terrible mistakes being made, and ensures they get reversed when they are. Qatar likes to think of itself as a bastion of free speech in the Arab world. It is home to Al Jazeera and the Doha Debates. The last Doha Debate lead to condemnation of laws passed in France. The Qataris need to accept that the freedom to criticize should be symmetrical – if Qataris can criticize the French, and the French can also criticize the French, then Qataris should be prepared to receive criticism from the French, from Qataris, and from anyone else. The World Cup is more than an opportunity for cultural exchange and financial gain. It could also be a conduit for criticism that Qatar is not used to receiving. The Beijing Olympics were also a spur for people to review China’s human rights record. Whilst the Qataris might generally welcome their foreign guests, they may not be so keen to hear all of their opinions.