Six miles west of central Doha, within the Education City development that houses satellite campuses for eight international universities, stands the vast Qatar National Convention Centre.
It is a remarkable building. Spectacular in design, enormous in scale, it leaves the individual feeling small, insignificant and yet somehow awe-struck, which, beyond the centre’s practical uses, is almost certainly the intention.
For the duration of the World Cup, the QNCC has been used as a media centre for journalists covering the tournament. It has huge working areas, huge press conference theatres, huge dining areas, even a huge “virtual stadium” where those journalists without match accreditation are treated to an “immersive experience” on huge cinema screens. There’s even a laundry and a hairdressing salon on site.
It is incredibly convenient, as is the ability to get on a shuttle bus outside and ride to any one of the World Cup’s eight stadiums, six of them are within a 10-mile radius and even the furthest afield, the Al-Bayt in the northern city of Al Khor, is a mere 25 miles away.
Some journalists routinely covered two or even three matches in a day during the group stage. A few, like The Athletic’s Matt Slater, went one better and managed to get to all four in a day. Not for the faint of heart, he warns, but if you can do it anywhere, it’s in Doha.
Last week in the media centre, I got chatting with a fellow journalist and we exchanged observations about the Qatari World Cup experience.
“Brilliant,” he said, citing the convenience, the weather, the food, the hotel, the lack of congestion and the friendliness he had encountered everywhere at every turn. He sounded almost evangelical about it, suggesting that, having come here with low expectations, he had seen the light.
Me? I enjoy the convenience, particularly as a journalist, never having to wait more than a few minutes for a FIFA-emblazoned, air-conditioned bus to arrive to shuttle me (and often only me, or me and one other passenger) between my hotel and the media centre. I love the food, much of it Indian, Persian or Lebanese. And the people you encounter in shops, restaurants, hotels and taxis — usually Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan or Bangladeshi — are invariably friendly.
But rather than seeing the light, I feel more than ever that Qatar 2022 is taking place under a dark shadow — just as the last one in Russia four years ago did.
The corrupt bidding processes for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, which have led to prosecutions, convictions and life bans for many of the FIFA executive committee members (the victorious Russian and Qatari bids deny any wrongdoing); the appalling conditions endured by migrant workers when the stadiums, hotels and infrastructure were being built; the restrictions on the liberties of women; the criminalisation of homosexuality — are we meant to forget about all this just because Qatar, one of the world’s richest nations, has succeeded, like every previous World Cup host, in putting on a show?
It seems we are.
E-mails arrive daily from FIFA’s communications office telling us, implicitly or directly, that this truly is The Best World Cup Ever.
Sometimes the reason given can be subjective (the quality of the football), sometimes it will be objective (the television audiences, which reflect a continuing upward trajectory going back decades) and sometimes it will be the opinion of FIFA president Gianni Infantino, who sounds even more committed to the idea of The Best World Cup Ever than he was in Russia.
After that 2018 edition, Infantino received the “Russian Order of Friendship”. He announced to President Vladimir Putin that, “You welcomed the world as friends — and those bonds of friendship will never be broken.” Hmm, that didn’t age well. Once bitten, twice shy? Not our Gianni.
The pre-tournament message from Infantino and the Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy was that all would be welcome here. That shouldn’t really need saying when you are hosting a global event, but in the case of Qatar, it did.
And sadly, it wasn’t true.
Gay fans have been allowed into the country, but they have not been made to feel welcome. How can you feel welcome when one of the tournament’s ambassadors, former Qatari footballer Khalid Salman, has described homosexuality as “damage in the mind” without Infantino or FIFA challenging that position publicly? How can you feel welcome when the LGBT+ identity has been suppressed and demonised to the extent that people have been stopped for trying to enter the stadiums wearing something so inoffensive as a rainbow-coloured watch strap?
This is part of the difficulty of a nation staging a World Cup when its culture and its laws, based on the Salafi Muslim movement of Wahhabism, appear at odds with the idea of opening its doors to a major global sporting event and saying that all are welcome.
Iranian fans — women in particular — say they have been detained in Qatar for wearing T-shirts bearing the slogan “Women, Life, Freedom”. Likewise, T-shirts or flags bearing the name of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian woman who died in police custody in Tehran in September after being arrested for not wearing her hijab in accordance with government standards.
T-shirts bearing Amini’s name were regarded as a political statement, whereas perhaps, on reflection, there could be nothing more political than to silence those who wish to promote her name. (Incidentally, as for what does and doesn’t constitute a political statement, waving Palestinian flags appears to be fine for players and fans alike.)
On Wednesday, Sky Sports News ran an interview with Nasser Al-Khelaifi, chairman of Qatar Sports Investments, president of Paris Saint-Germain, chairman of the European Club Association and one of the most powerful men in global sport. Al-Khelaifi said he couldn’t stand politicians using sport to promote themselves and that any politicians trying to use sport for other agendas “will not succeed”.
“What we’re doing here in Qatar is just sport and football,” he said, which was quite a statement because it has become abundantly clear over the past few weeks that Qatar doesn’t really “do” football at all; their national team departed with barely a whimper (no points, one goal for, seven against) and the locals seemed far less engaged with the tournament than any host nation in World Cup history.
As for Qatar’s enormous investment in the sport, it is entirely about geopolitics, about diplomacy, about soft power. Even Infantino cannot possibly believe it is about football itself.
The human cost of this World Cup has been enormous. Quite how enormous, we shall never know.
When asked earlier this year about that human cost, Infantino told the European Parliament that, according to data given to him by Qatar, a total of three migrant workers had died while building these stadiums. Human Rights Watch responded by saying the true number will never be known because “Qatari authorities have failed to investigate the causes of deaths of thousands of migrant workers, many of which are attributed to ‘natural causes’.” Nepal’s labour ministry says 2,100 of its citizens have died in Qatar of all causes since the World Cup-related construction projects began in 2010.
Hassan Al-Thawadi, secretary general of the Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee, suggested in an interview last week that the number of migrant workers who have died on World Cup-related projects is “between 400 and 500” but the precise number is “being discussed”. The Supreme Committee later said Al-Thawadi had been referring to “national statistics covering the period of 2014-2020 for all-work related fatalities (414) nationwide in Qatar, covering all sectors and nationalities”, rather than simply the World Cup.
It has become hard to know which numbers to believe — and on a far less serious note, the same goes for some of those attendances figures declaring full houses (in some cases, even beyond the capacities stated for the stadiums concerned before the tournament) when, looking around from inside those stadiums, you see swathes of empty seats.
For example, The Athletic revealed today that since the World Cup began another migrant worker, a man from the Philippines, died in a forklift truck accident while fixing lights in a car park at the Saudi Arabia team base-camp at the Sealine Beach resort around 50km south of Doha.
Will that be classed as a World Cup-related death? The Supreme Committee’s statement, when contacted by The Athletic, was eager to point that the accident took place “on property not under the jurisdiction of the Supreme Committee” and that the worker was “a contractor not under the remit of the Supreme Committee”.
FIFA at least managed to express condolences, saying it is “deeply saddened by this tragedy” and is sending “our thoughts and sympathies (to) the worker’s family”. On worker welfare, it has also previously stated that, “in line with its responsibility under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, (…) together with its counterparts in Qatar, (FIFA) continues to implement and further expand the well-recognised systems to protect workers involved in FIFA World Cup preparations and delivery, including a thorough audit and compliance regime with companies involved in (tournament-)related activities.”
But how many of the other deaths related to this World Cup — and the numerous illnesses and incapacitations detailed by The Athletic’s Simon Hughes in his pre-tournament report from Nepal — will elicit condolences, let alone compensation, from FIFA or from the Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee?
FIFA share so many numbers from this World Cup — TV audiences, (questionable) attendances figures, the number of people in the fan zones — but the number of fatalities working on tournament-related projects remains a mystery, as well as a tragedy, as well as a travesty.
There have been well-documented labour reforms in Qatar over the past five years, bringing improvements in the conditions and arrangements faced by the country’s estimated two million migrant workers. Amnesty International says these reforms “have led to some noticeable improvements”, but it also says “thousands of workers across all projects are still facing issues such as delayed or unpaid wages, denial of rest days, unsafe working conditions, barriers to changing jobs and limited access to justice, while the deaths of thousands of workers remain uninvestigated”.
Amnesty has also expressed concerns about whether Qatar, having committed to an overhaul of its labour laws in 2017, will continue to implement those reforms once the World Cup carnival has left town in a couple of weeks and the gaze of the world moves elsewhere.
These are sobering thoughts when you take a break from enjoying some thrilling football and, for those of us fortunate to be here, from being shuttled on air-conditioned buses between some of the most spectacular stadiums in the world or taking an evening stroll along the Corniche as fireworks and drone displays light up the sky.
Despite the upheaval caused to the football calendar by the move from the sweltering heat of the summer months to the more manageable temperatures in winter, it is entirely right that a World Cup should take place in the Arab region, providing host nations were willing to welcome — truly welcome — all fans. It is a region rich in football heritage and a passion for the game. Along with the visitors from South America, it is the Moroccan, Tunisian, Iranian and Saudi Arabian fans who have really brought this tournament to life on the streets and in the metro stations of Doha.
The Qataris? Not so much. Contrary to Al-Khelaifi’s statement, it feels as if the state only “does” football — club ownership, staging international events — as a soft-power exercise, which is one of several reasons why it seemed such an unsuitable World Cup host long before the scale of the human rights issues dawned on the Western media.
They do know how to put on a show. Of course they do. From the perspective of a football-loving, heterosexual, male journalist, being ferried from one high-class stadium to another, occasionally finding the time to enjoy a meal out with colleagues, it has been greatly enjoyable. More than imagined? Certainly.
“So tell the world! Write the story! Tell the world Qatar delivered the best World Cup ever,” implored one among the legions of FIFA/Qatar PR operatives a few nights ago. But it really isn’t as simple as that. Or at least it shouldn’t be.
Qatar 2022 has been a success on the pitch and enjoyable off it, as World Cups almost invariably tend to be.
But beyond the brilliance of Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe, beyond the viewing figures, beyond the shiny, glossy, Instagrammable allure of the place, there is a darkness that cannot be ignored.
FIFA and Qatar want us to report that this is a perfect World Cup, but it is not.
It is an event that has come with severe blemishes and indelible stains.
They cannot simply be sportswashed away.
- Further reading on The Athletic…
(Photo: Clive Mason/Getty Images)