Member Insight: “The World Cup in Qatar is a unique sports environment, unfolding in a parallel universe away from football’s epicentres”
November 16, 2022
International sports consultant Michael Pirrie, explains why Qatar’s tournament has been such a controversial turning point in world sport, and outlines the new player power movement that has shaped FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022
We live in a world of sport, but inhabit a football planet.
The most popular sporting items on the globe, footballs are found almost everywhere – in every nation, on back streets, beaches, school yards, back yards, and neighbourhood parks or wherever there is enough space to kick, head, pass or poke a ball.
The worldwide phenomenon of football reaches a crescendo every four years when the FIFA World Cup reconnects the globe with its favourite sport and most talented players.
This World Cup reflects football’s changing world and how the world can change between tournaments.
Rarely however has the pinnacle of football changed so dramatically. The Qatar World Cup looms as the most radical experiment in modern world sport.
As organisers rush to complete final preparations for the planet’s most anticipated sporting event in a land long the domain of falconry and camel racing, little is certain about the outcome of this tournament.
Qatar’s tumultuous preparations have produced a football environment never encountered before, no host nation has faced Qatar’s set of challenges or controversies when trying to stage football’s showpiece.
This World Cup is football’s moon landing, in arid and ancient landscapes not previously regarded as a promised land for elite football nor capable of sustaining elite sporting activity.
The World Cup in Qatar is a unique sports experiment, unfolding in a parallel universe culturally distant from football’s epicentres in cities, clubs and leagues of Europe and South America.
From backdrops with sand dunes, soaring sky scrappers and human rights and corruption scandals, to rising geopolitical tensions and challenging culture and climate, Qatar’s world cup is unprecedented.
From super stadiums and super ambassadors like David Beckham, almost every contingency has been considered.
This cup is a stunning feat of advanced sports architecture and urban engineering, conjured from a science fiction-like football competition creative.
Preparations have transformed Doha into a sports laboratory in a highly controlled desert state and society suspicious of outside influences.
The unique football environment includes advanced stadium cooling, essential to conquer desert heat, even if the full impact of the technology on player performance and competition conditions remains unpredictable.
One national coach, heading to Qatar with his team, said the combination of moisture and heat may be like “playing on tiles” in air conditioned venues where “the ball hangs longer in the air.”
Qatar 2022 is a microcosm of the complex challenges facing modern sport.
The stadium cooling has not been able to control the climate of protest outside the venues.
Almost no expense has been spared, except on the conditions for immigrant workers who have strived amidst some of the harshest of circumstances to transform Qatar into the Cup host nation.
This has been a deadly occupation for foreign workers on whom Qatar and FIFA have depended, primarily from India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
Many have paid an excessive price, in lost wages and loss of life for the Cup to entertain the world, according to Amnesty International and labour monitoring organisations.
The still unknown death toll among workers who have suffered on construction sites has brought ominous new meaning to the Cup’s ‘Group of Death.’
The clash between history and modernity in Qatar has opened up new fronts in sport’s culture wars.
With sport one of the most influential features of global society, the World Cup has become a lightning rod for several hot button issues that have coalesced around the football showpiece.
The first World Cup in an Arab nation has shifted the gravitational pull of international sport further towards a part of the world different in climate and culture, and in customs and values of traditional host nations.
The explosive backdrop to Qatar 2022 has prompted heated debate about the future of international sport and funding sources to grow sport beyond traditional comfort zones of Europe, North America, Australia and south-east Asia.
Qatar’s vast wealth and use of sport and methods to modernise the nation and normalise customs and practices not widely shared within the broader international community, on which sport depends, has made this Cup journey neither comfortable nor normal.
This collision between history and modernity in Qatar around the world’s most popular sport is also a watershed for modern sport.
These problems occur in and around the host cities and nations, distant from the international players and teams.
The problems are left to local organisers, governments, partners and sponsors to resolve.
Qatar has been dramatically different.
Players have not stayed silent nor out of sight on the sidelines, as tradition on non-competition matters has dictated.
The treatment of vulnerable immigrant workers and minority groups, including same sex couples, has triggered unprecedented international unrest during the long build up to the tournament.
The culture clash has included many footballers and other stakeholders in the sporting world in response to conditions in Qatar.
This has established an emerging new sports protest movement, which has widened the parameters and impact of this Cup.
This is pushing sport into new directions and shifting the balance of power in world sport.
Players have run a clear line under human rights in the sands of Doha, placing basic personal protections and freedoms on to international sport agendas like never before.
For some players, the treatment of workers and other minorities was an attack on the humanity of sport and the human spirit, the cornerstone of modern sport.
Like the tournament’s greatest players, World Cups are shaped by their times and circumstances.
The Qatar World Cup was born and raised in controversy.
It was sealed during a period of escalating commercial and financial growth, greed and corruption in sport.
This was an era when risks were taken on host cities, non-traditional partnerships and alliances were formed and the sins of corruption took their toll in myriad ways.
The Qatar tournament experienced problems from the outset in the tiny Gulf nation with ambitions of sporting grandeur and glory.
Qatar’s selection over established sporting powerhouse nations defied conventional thinking regarding host nations, and controversy has since over shadowed the cup.
Organisers had hoped difficult questions about Qatar’s defeat of the US, South Korea, Japan and Australia to secure the cup would clear over time, like sand storms crossing the desert horizon.
More than a decade on, controversy clings like the majestic falcons to the skyline of the world cup capital, Doha.
The doubts have not passed, only deepened, with the United States Department of Justice concluding in 2020 that representatives of Russia and Qatar had bribed FIFA officials to win hosting rights for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.
The allegations of vote buying rocked the sports establishment.
This prompted changes to host selection processes amid fears global events could become the sole preserve of highest bidding and wealthiest nations, creating an international sports underclass.
Money, unlike protests, has not been an obstacle.
The Qatar cup is the most expensive ever staged, with all infrastructure, services and facilities associated with the event surpassing $200 billion according to reliable estimates.
This includes extensive infrastructure costs for new stadiums, high tech metro, hotels, and airports brought forward from Qatar’s broader 2030 national development plan.
This dwarfs the $4.3 billion estimated for the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
Costs for new venues in Qatar are estimated at between $6.5-10 billion, exceeding the $4 billion initially proposed.
This has highlighted the urgent need to contain soaring costs of mega events, forcing the finances for the next World Cup to be split between three co host nations, US, Mexico and Canada.
Preparations have also struggled to keep pace with the tumultuous social and geopolitical change in sport and society since Qatar was awarded the mega event.
In a time of growing push back against use of sport to wash the image of host nations, resistance to the World Cup has strengthened, even as the showpiece comes into sharper view.
The Qatar cup could be the most controversial sporting event of modern times.
While innovative stadium cooling has modified the microclimate inside the stadiums, outside temperatures remain high.
The protests have spread from the international community into the final stages of cup preparations and even to the final teams themselves.
The Australian team, known as the Socceroos, scored first with an unprecedented team protest video, decrying treatment of workers and same sex couples and calling for lasting reforms.
While Australia is a World Cup minnow that faces a first up David and Goliath battle against France, the video protest was important, reflective of a new player power era.
Past major sporting protests traditionally have been impromptu, involving single or small groups of athletes like the iconic famous 1968 Mexico Olympic Games Black Power Salute.
The protests over Qatar have been profoundly different.
The Socceroos protest video featured 16 players from the squad united in expressing concerns about Qatar’s human rights record and calling for decriminalisation of same sex relationships and further work safety reforms.
The protest video was also well informed.
Players spoke to respected advocacy groups such as Amnesty International, accredited labour organisations and even some workers who helped to construct Cup venues before recording the video.
While the Chinese government warned athletes and national Olympic committees that human rights objections would not be tolerated at the Winter Olympics in Beijing earlier this year, the Socceroos protest was on line, not on the field of play, and released before arriving in Qatar, before any potential Cup-time bans.
Football will continue to reflect global change and tensions in the tournament, with Russia absent after its invasion of Ukraine.
There will be further protests in the days ahead with Polish captain and superstar Robert Lewandowski vowing to wear Ukraine’s colours in solidarity in the Cup.
The protests will continue throughout the tournament with the captains of nine European teams vowing to wear rainbow armbands on their sleeves.
The Portugal midfielder Bruno Fernandes is among the players who have expressed human rights concerns.
“We’ve seen the surroundings over the past few weeks and months and about the people who have died on the construction of the stadiums,” he said recently.
“We are not happy for that. We want football to be for everyone …a World Cup that is more than football,” the Portuguese star said after a recent Manchester United fixture.
The concessions gained from local organisers by the international campaign, including footballers, has brought human rights in from the margins of sporting events.
“Let me repeat this clearly,” FIFA boss Gianni Infantino said. “Everyone will be welcome regardless of their origin, background, religion, gender, sexual orientation or nationality.”
The growing force of player power will impact future World Cups.
Governing bodies and government organising committees must increasingly respond to the views, voices and concerns of athletes beyond fields of play.
The human rights focus will make it more difficult for FIFA and China to bring the world’s biggest tournament for its most popular sport to the world’s biggest nation.
Unable to control the narrative, Infantino and local organisers have focussed on player services and supports to enable teams to perform at their best.
The focus has been on design and extensive testing of operations for venues, transport links, medical and training facilities, and security arrangements.
“We always said Qatar will deliver the best-ever edition of the FIFA World Cup,” said Infantino.
“As you look around the country at the state of the art stadiums, the training pitches, the metro, the wider infrastructure, everything is ready and everyone is welcome.”
Great World Cups are the product of great players and great performances, and Qatar is now relying on the world’s fascination with football to save the tournament from controversy.
Organisers above all are relying on uplifting performances from the world’s most gifted footballers to change the Qatar storyline as players begin to emerge, engage and charm worldwide audiences on and off the fields of play.
The farewell performances of three of the best footballers of the generation will be at the centre of attention, as Messi, Ronaldo and Neymar take their final Cup bows.
The goal scoring exploits of football’s Big Three will determine much of the tone as the fates of the world’s most fabled footballers and their expectant nations are decided in stadiums filled with hope, destiny, super human movement and extreme air conditioning.
The pitch battles for tournament supremacy look set to override corruption controversy as the world tunes in to the human opera of football with score lines that can define the difference between national glory or failure, and tragedy or triumph for teams.
The player power that has helped to keep the spotlight on Qatar’s preparations, will ultimately save the tournament.
Every major world championship has problems – this is inherent in the vast scale and complexity of such events.