FIFA Club World Cup 2019 exposes 'soulless' Qatar as Gulf nation gears up for mega tournament in 2022
The 2022 World Cup hosts, Qatar, live in a different and very bleak universe, one that few would care to inhabit, not even when the global game supersedes everything — during the World Cup.
The Club World Cup was the first dress rehearsal for the global finals in 2022, and another elaborate attempt at Qatar-ification — convincing foreign, sport-oriented guests to overcome Western skepticism about the emirate staging the 2022 World Cup.
That normalisation process amid the super-acceleration ahead of the World Cup has been a difficult sale.
The grim tales of corruption ever since world federation FIFA awarded Qatar the World Cup on a frosty December afternoon in 2010 apart, Qatar also has a huge human rights problem.
Doha: And so, Liverpool won the world crown with a 99th-minute strike from attacker Roberto Firmino after South American champions Flamengo had vexed their European counterparts with their own superb interpretation of the modern game. At times, Flamengo had run circles around Liverpool. At other times, Liverpool had run circles around Flamengo in a splendid end-to-end match that fulfilled its promise of an absorbing intercontinental contest. In recent memory, it was arguably the best Club World Cup final.
The occasion had all the trappings of a normal football match at elite level: gilded champions, star power, charismatic coaches, tactical sophistication, technical finesse, box-to-box action, controversial refereeing decisions, buoyant fans and a state-of-the-art venue — except, of course, it wasn't normal. The stadium environment suggested as much: the giant, pitch-side air-conditioning vents; the alcohol ban, and the sensation that
some of the fan noise had been amplified through the sound system.
The Club World Cup was the first dress rehearsal for the global finals in 2022, and another elaborate attempt at Qatar-ification — convincing foreign, sport-oriented guests to overcome Western skepticism about the emirate staging the 2022 World Cup. The 2015 World Handball Championships, when Qatar flew in journalists and paid Spanish fans to cheer court-side, and the recent athletics World Championships, when athletes ran in the cooled Khalifa International Stadium, were previous attempts at positively positioning Qatar as the emirate of the future, a global geopolitical force.
That normalisation process amid the super-acceleration ahead of the World Cup has been a difficult sale. The grim tales of corruption ever since world federation FIFA awarded Qatar the World Cup on a frosty December afternoon in 2010 apart, Qatar also has a huge human rights problem. The society is a hierarchical pyramid with 300,000 Qataris at the top dictating the future of the country, mercenary Western expats in the middle tier and workers from the subcontinent, and elsewhere, at the bottom of the ladder. They work long hours for little pay, with often little or no legal protection. Cab drivers often laugh in derision when asked how they feel about Qatar. They know their working lives are, in a way, a sinister trade-off.
Near the construction site of Lusail Stadium, the venue for the World Cup final in three years time, project manager Tamin El Abed claims that the 4,000 labourers earn about $350 per month, get a day off per week, and are entitled to a flight ticket home once a year. They have sporting facilities and relaxation areas. In the vicinity of the Al Bayt Stadium, 55km north of Doha, the living conditions of the workers, seen from a bus, look dingy, yet the 'Supreme Committee,' in tandem with English PR personnel, has never failed to repeat that working conditions have improved for workers.
In January 2020, the ‘kafala' system — tying workers to sponsorship by their employers — is about to be abolished and a ‘non-discriminatory minimum wage’ will be introduced, according to the International Labour Organisation, a UN employment rights agency that has been working with Qatar to reform labor laws. If applied and enforced, the move would mark significant progress for workers’ rights in the Gulf.
A stone's throw away from the centrepiece stadium, apartment buildings have risen in huge numbers. Lusail, 14km north of Doha, is to become a conurbation of the Qatari capital with affordable rent and the benefits of a residential life. It's part of the World Cup legacy, but for now, it very much remains a building site, squeezed in between Doha and the desert.
Lusail points to a larger problem that money, super-acceleration, PR companies, the Supreme Committee and even all the myth and might of Qatar's Emir can't solve. Qatar has been burning morning money like there is no tomorrow: $220bn on macro scale and about $7bn in World Cup-related development. 'Cooled' stadiums, moored cruise ships and tent camps in the desert are all part of the plan to deliver a 27-day extravaganza. No expenses have been spared.
But the Club World Cup reaffirmed an old adage: money — not even Qatar's extravagant outlay — can't buy everything. Doha, the heartbeat of the World Cup, is not organic. There is no public space, except the minute Souq, where the world can converge. It lacks the spontaneity and energy of Russia 2018, the 'Neymarzinhos' and 'Neymarzetes' of Brazil 2014 and the nationwide euphoria of South Africa 2010 — and it is difficult to project Qatar reproducing the fervor of previous tournaments in 2022. The Supreme Committee, however, argues that “the size of the country allows us to deliver a unique tournament experience."
Doha is a beige excess, a world of morbid inequality. Absurdity looms around the corner everywhere. In the Qatari capital, you can take the new metro's 'gold class' to get 'global drinks' at the fan zone, hidden out of sight of the local population. The Supreme Committee defended the location of the fan zone, writing in an e-mail that the assessment "included logistical factors such as transportation links, general capacity and easy implementation of mag and bags, food and beverage concessions and live entertainment." At customs, officers tossed up passports at those from the subcontinent who would be denied entry without shame. In the queue, even white upper middle class Flamengo fans were unanimous in their verdict — how racist.
And precisely, those Brazilian fans — about 15,000 of them with the dream of witnessing a reenactment of the 1981 Intercontinental Cup when, in Flamengo's finest hour, the Rio club and Zico breezed past Liverpool 3-0 — exposed what this Club World Cup couldn't conceal: Qatar and Doha are intensely soulless. The 2022 World Cup hosts live in a different and very bleak universe, one that few would care to inhabit, not even when the global game supersedes everything — during the World Cup.
Editor's Note: The piece was updated on 25 February after responses from FIFA and the local organising committee.
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