Normally the football excitement of a World Cup kicks in a lot earlier but this one is different. The challenge for Qatar is on two fronts. Firstly, can the country sustain the tournament’s value and therefore win friends and applause? Secondly, will Qatar push ahead with social reforms after the gaze of the world has moved on?
The country recognizes football’s appeal. Along with the Olympics, the World Cup is one of the two biggest mega sports events in the world. However, the real struggle is over oil, security, defence and an attempt to change perceptions of Qatar. The West needs Qatar‘s oil and gas – especially after Russia turned off the taps. Qatar needs the West because, despite having immense wealth, it lacks sufficient security and defence capabilities.
Soft power battle
Football has allowed itself to be drawn into a soft power battle. The assets Qatar has at its disposal include the World Cup, state ownership of Paris St Germain, a world class airline, an air traffic hub, the hosting of the most extensive US military base in the Middle East, sponsoring of high-profile cultural events, the acquisition of highly visible estate, the Al-Jazeera media company, investment in blue chip companies, and oil.
The smallest country to host a World Cup needs an enlarged international community of friends. It needs places where informal conversations can take place to influence them. This World Cup is an arena where football and international affairs collide. Success for Qatar would include a controversy-free November and December that convinces more of the world, particularly countries that Qatar needs, that significant social reform is taking place and will continue. Bluntly, they need to convince much of the West that this is not sportswashing.
A successful World Cup is usually determined by how much entertainment it provides, the TV spectacle, viewing numbers, the fans facilities experience and the level of global fan engagement. According to FIFA the stadiums and infrastructure are the most accessible in the history of the World up. The hotels are expensive. This World Cup is the most expensive to date.
Success for most countries seeking to host one of the world’s two biggest sporting events usually comes in two forms: nation branding and regeneration. Qatar has the wealth to regenerate and is using the event to burnish its profile. However, so much money has been spent on this World Cup that this alone is not a great return on investment or even success.
Success would also mean the stadiums being full, unlike the empty stadiums during the 2019 World Athletic Championships in Doha. A positive, safe fan experience is an important factor in the battle for hearts and minds if Qatar is looking to influence public opinion in the USA, Europe and Britain. In other words, the countries that could come to support Qatar militarily, given that it is not likely to be China or Russia. The US thanked the Gulf State for helping the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Qatar is working with Europe and the UK to reduce their dependency upon Russian oil.
For some this tournament is already a partial success because it has assisted in leveraging reform: the Kafala sponsorship system is being dismantled, which gave employers overweening power over migrant workers’ immigration status; establishing the region’s first minimum wage; the setting up of tribunals to facilitate better access to justice; establishing an unpaid wages compensation fund and legislating to regulate conditions for live-in domestic staff.
The awarding of the competition to Qatar in 2010 also hastened the downfall of the previous FIFA Board, the introduction of new governance arrangements and the introduction of human rights screening as part of the bidding process for future events. This was too late for those who lost their lives building the infrastructure for this event. Success will be saying no to future bids from countries with worse human rights records than Qatar. Success for social and political activists protesting against Qatar – including the football players, fans and countries who will continue to speak out – is to keep alive the call for reforms once the football starts.
FIFA failed when they awarded the event to Qatar in 2010. The activists protesting against Qatar – including the football players, fans and countries who will continue to speak out – will have won if they keep alive the call for reforms once the football starts. Qatar will have won if it convinces countries that its modernizing reforms will continue.
Both need to succeed. If they do both football and the world will be a better place and that would be success.
This article was first published in The Sunday Post on 20 November 2022.
Sunday Post – Grant Jarvie: What will a successful World Cup look like? It will look like reform will continue after it ends
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Picture credits: stadium – Pablo Morano/BSR Agency/Getty; team and trophy – Amin Mohammad Jamali/Getty