When Sepp Blatter, with that frozen and pained smile, carefully removed Qatar’s name from the fateful envelope to anoint the host of the 2022 World Cup, widespread global bemusement accompanied the shockwaves caused by the decision. . The outcry that ultimately led to a Fifa earthquake, followed by the downfall of the presidency of Blatter and many other longtime bosses, was prompted by astonishment and suspicion during the vote to send the biggest football tournament in such a seemingly obscure little country.
Today, with one year Sunday before the tournament kicks off, football and the world are much more familiar with the name Qatar, which in itself can be seen as the accomplishment of a key goal of the bid. . The 11 years since the November 2010 vote have been filled with continuous investigations into Fifa, leading to a governance overhaul and the 2016 election of Gianni Infantino as President, and a piercing focus on the conditions of migrant workers building Qatar’s stadiums in the heat of the moment. Gulf.
Through all of this and a blockade of their neighboring countries, the Qataris prevailed by hosting the tournament, insisting that they had not “bought” the World Cup through corruption and engaging in reforms of the world. workers’ rights, in partnership with the International Labor Organization. .
The determined preparations, through the three-year blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia and its allies the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, which was called off in January, produced eight iconic stadiums, built to broadcast magnificent images worldwide. televisions of the Qatari feat. The declarations of aspiration for the first World Cup in the Middle East, for a unifying experience and a positive image for the Arab world at large, are not lacking in ambition.
“Through infrastructure, education, football for development, support for regional innovation and a commitment to improve the well-being of workers, our efforts are forging a better future for Qatar, the Middle East, Asia and the world ”, declared the“ supreme committee ”of Qatar. preparations.
Nicholas McGeehan, co-director of human rights organization Fair Square, said of labor reforms, especially ending the kafala system that binds workers to an employer: “We recognize that this could transform labor relations in the Gulf, which would be phenomenal, but we are a long way from effective implementation, and too many companies seem capable of reversing reforms.
From standard overheated ambitions for a mega-event to more lasting legacies, Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup is already a spectacular illustration of the modern evolution of the global profile, the influence, wealth and power of the oil sector and gas-rich Gulf States. In football and more broadly, this influence has grown since 2010 – particularly felt by Britain, the former imperial power which, after Brexit, is now seeking a trade deal.
Regardless of the veracity of the allegations made in a 2020 U.S. court indictment that three South American FIFA bosses were paid, which the Supreme Committee denies, Blatter himself has always maintained that crucial votes were the result of strong political influence, not behind-the-scenes machinations. Michel Platini, then UEFA president, and other key Europeans voted for Qatar over the United States after the French football legend was invited to lunch with his country’s president Nicolas Sarkozy, and Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, now Emir of Qatar. , at the Élysée nine days before the Fifa vote.
Platini said he made his decision before lunch, but admitted that Sarkozy made it clear he was in favor of a vote for Qatar. Sarkozy said he had no such influence, but the agreements that followed were much appreciated by the French president: Qatar Airways bought 50 planes from Airbus and Qatar started mega-funding French football. Sovereign wealth fund Qatar Sports Investments (QSI) bought Paris Saint-Germain in 2011, with billions of investments fueling PSG ever since in a super-club, filled with prestigious acquisitions. BeIN Sports, the Qatari broadcaster that was originally part of Al Jazeera, the country’s globally influential news channel, has paid unprecedented amounts for coverage of the French Ligue 1.
BeIN’s wealth and influence extends through football; he is a major buyer of Premier League television rights, paying $ 500m last year for 2022-25, and currently has a three-year $ 600m deal with UEFA for the Champions League coverage. Qatar Airways became Barcelona’s first commercial sponsor in 2013 and sponsors Bayern Munich, as well as the governing bodies of UEFA and Fifa, whose four-year contract is reportedly worth up to $ 200 million.
This footballing journey for Qatar, from obscure contender foreign to votes for the World Cup to wielding enormous power and insider influence, is personified by Nasser al-Khelaifi, president of PSG, QSI and de BeIN, who in April was elected president of the European Club Association and re-elected to the UEFA executive committee, two decision-making summits in European football.
The Gulf State’s strategy of projecting national image through sport alongside enormous financial clout is replicated by regional rivals from Qatar: Abu Dhabi through its ownership of Manchester City and the world group City Football, Dubai through its Emirates Airline sponsorships of Arsenal, Real Madrid, Milan, the FA Cup, several other clubs and other sports, including the Emirates team of the United Arab Emirates, winner of the Tour de France.
Saudi Arabia took longer to align with the sport, and when its sovereign wealth fund bought Newcastle United, it was blatant that Boris Johnson and his government appeared to have encouraged him, rather than acknowledging concerns of Amnesty and other human rights groups about “sportswashing” by a notorious regime.
On the day the Premier League approved the takeover of Newcastle, the UK announced a consultation for a trade deal with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE and other Gulf Cooperation Council countries. . He cited the “lamb, cookies and chocolate” exported by the UK to the Gulf, while expressing hope for massive investment by the Gulf States in key UK industries, including renewables, infrastructure, technology and life sciences. A month earlier, Abu Dhabi investment fund Mubadala had agreed to a £ 10 billion investment from the United Arab Emirates in Britain, and the signing of the deal at Downing Street in front of Johnson and Sheikh Mohammed. bin Zayed al-Nahyan, de facto ruler of Abu Dhabi, was Khaldoon al -Moubarak who, in another of his roles, is the president of Manchester City.
Sanam Vakil, deputy director of the Middle East North Africa program at the Chatham House Institute of Policy, said Qatar’s World Cup bid was part of its broader strategy of emerging from the shadows of Saudi Arabia to project its own more outward-looking vision. “I see it as a quest for relevance, to be bigger in the world, which protects the security of the State of Qatar in its country,” she said. “The World Cup signifies their ambition, to project power and meaning to their own citizens to be relevant on the world stage.”
Hassan al-Thawadi, secretary general of the Supreme Committee, said Qatar’s spending on infrastructure since 2010, including the new metro system, is expected to amount to $ 200 billion and the direct costs of the World Cup. to $ 6.5 billion.
Such is the commitment to the project that seemed so far-fetched when Blatter took Qatar’s name out of the envelope, but is slated to grab the world’s attention a year from now, for the super-rich little Gulf state.