It’s the Petrodollars, Stupid!

Bleat we might about the human rights abuse in Qatar, but it took some big investments to make the World Cup travel to this ‘small country’.

Hertha’s fans demonstrate in Berlin with banners for a boycott of the World Cup in Qatar, 12 November 2022.
Hertha’s fans demonstrate in Berlin with banners for a boycott of the World Cup in Qatar, 12 November 2022.

Gautam Bhattacharyya

The football World Cup will get under way hours from now. The schedule for this edition is highly unusual for a World Cup—which is normally held in June-July—and was necessitated by Qatar’s extreme hot weather in those months.

The disruption this rescheduling has caused in the big-money big European leagues is not the least reason why the marquee FIFA event in Qatar has drawn so much unfavourable attention. But the desert nation, not known for its football credentials, has offered plenty other reasons to object—its dubious record of human/ labour rights, the reported deaths on duty of migrant workers from India, among other countries, and its intolerance of same-sex relationships.

London-based NGO Equidem released a 75-page report on said labour and human rights violations. The Dutch team announced it would invite migrant workers to watch them practise and former FIFA president Sepp Blatter declared that it was a mistake to award the hosting rights to a ‘small country’ like Qatar. Blatter also insinuated that former French president Nicholas Sarkozy and football legend Michel Platini had forced the decision in 2010.

Qatar, a ‘small country’ of just three million people, is bracing for a human avalanche of sorts—one million fans, team members and media. Over the past decade or so, it has built eight new ultra-modern, air-conditioned stadiums, besides airports, hotels and all the infrastructure it needs to host this grand spectacle. It even imported grass.

Thousands of workers from Africa and South and Southeast Asia were put to work—in conditions that have been described as inhuman. A Guardian report said 6,500 workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh died in Qatar during this period. Qatar denied the allegations, and neither India nor any of the South Asian countries named above made an official complaint.

But Europe’s football fraternity is enraged—and vocal. Philippe Lahm, captain of the World Cup-winning German team in 2014, and tournament director of Euro 2024, said: “Holding the World Cup in Qatar has damaged football”. Jürgen Klopp, the celebrity German coach of Liverpool football club said it was highly irregular to award two World Cups at one go (including the 2018 edition in Russia) but added that “We (by which he meant not just the football establishment but also the media) let it happen.”

Klopp feels the current outrage is belated and it’s unfair to burden the players and their managers with the ongoing politics of protest, especially now that the event is under way and years after it was still time to intervene and do something about it. Nevertheless hostile protest messaging has intensified. In Germany, supporters of the Borussia Mönchengladbach football club unfurled an enormous banner that read, ‘FIFA Mafia’; in Dortmund: ‘Boycott Qatar 2022’.

Qatar is obviously hoping the focus will shift to the football soon—a tentative optimism that seems to echo even in the theme for the event—‘Now Is All’. It bears the hope of a new beginning. Qatar 2022 does, after all, break some new ground: it’s the first World Cup in winter and the first to be hosted in the Arab world.

N.D. Prashant, a journalist once based in Doha and author of the recently published Qatar 2022: The Tiny Nation That Dreamed Big, has little patience with the protests. “The West needs to understand that football must go beyond their shores. Qatar has achieved what no other country in the Middle East has done, and that after starting late,’’ he says.

As I see it, the FIFA World Cup 2022 is the culmination of the murkiest decade in global football. The governing body may have cleared Qatar of corruption charges years ago, but their clean chit counts for little. Of the 22 FIFA committee members who voted on that fateful day 12 years ago (with two other officials already suspended at the time, after a newspaper exposé found the pair had asked for cash in return for World Cup votes), most have since been charged, banned or indicted over allegations of corruption.

Qatar can’t wish away the past, but if the tournament goes smoothly, it’ll certainly prop it up as a soft power. The stakes are high, but so are the investments. The oil-rich Arab nations of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have by now made the elite European leagues their stomping ground and it’s practically impossible for European football to do without them.

Two of the biggest acquisitions in club football over the past 15 years were courtesy the deep pockets of the Abu Dhabi United Group (which snapped up Manchester City in 2008) and Qatar Sports Investments (Paris St. Germain in 2011). Both the clubs are extremely well funded and boast some of the biggest names in world football.

Saudi Arabia may have its own dubious track on human rights— nobody forgets the assassination of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, for example—but nobody is complaining about Saudi money bankrolling the LIV Golf Series. The annual Saudi Cup is the richest horseracing pay day on earth while Formula One has added Riyadh to the circuit.

Earlier this year, the Saudifunded Public Investment Fund (PIF) acquired a big stake in Newcastle United—another former EPL (English Premier League) biggie that has fallen upon bad times—in a deal worth 300 million pounds (approximately Rs 29,000 crore). Add to this the aviation industry’s inroads in world football with Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways showing the way by associating with Arsenal, Real Madrid, Manchester City and Barcelona.

The new world order in big-league club football, which keeps the football economy in high spirits, is heavily dependent on Arab money. Qatar, which took the first tentative steps at the turn of the millennium as hosts of major international tennis, golf and athletics, is now poised for the next big leap.

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